Jane Austen: radical conservative?

William Blake 29 October 2021
Image credit: Creative Commons

Fewer things abound more in Austen than the problem of status. Does Austen believe in love over pragmatism, or vice versa? Does Austen accept or reject the Sisyphian dilemma of Regency England, that the boulder of social status cannot – or should not – be rebuked and that yearning for love should accordingly be dismissed? Status influences how Austen’s plots will unravel, but not in the same way from novel to novel, or even within one. Herein lies the question of Austen: is she a radical, or a conservative, or both?

Pride and Prejudice is not simply the story of Elizabeth Bennet’s and Fitzwilliam Darcy’s spectacular marriage; it is mirrored by that of Mr. Collins and Charlotte Lucas. Elizabeth is one of the five Bennet daughters, a family who not only have a modest income but also whose estate is entailed to the male line, meaning a daughter cannot inherit it unless she marries the pitiful cousin of Mr. Bennet, a clergyman named Mr. Collins. Charlotte Lucas is eventually proposed to by Mr. Collins and accepts on expediential grounds: her future is guaranteed due to Mr Collins’ inheritance. Elizabeth is far from pleased at this resort to such a contemptible consideration.

This display is contrasted by the actions of Elizabeth and Darcy, the latter possessing nigh on unrivalled wealth. Lady de Bourgh, an affluent member of the upper class, has a mission to marry her daughter to Darcy ‘to unite…two great estates’. Darcy forgoes the opportunity; Elizabeth forgoes her aggressive entreaty to not marry Darcy, and De Bough wonders ‘will the shades of Pemberley be thus polluted?’.

In the end, despite Darcy’s relentless anxieties about the consequences for his social standing if he marries Elizabeth, they end up wedding – but only after Elizabeth is assured that their marital foundations are those of reciprocal love, rather than wealth. The Collins’ marriage, though, is by no means a failure in contemporary understanding; here, it seems, a marriage can work even if it is not blessed with love. And, whether Austen is in fact Elizabeth, scoffing at Lucas’ decision, and whether Lady de Bourgh’s obstinate refusal to condone Darcy’s marriage to the end is metaphorical of the views of high society, is an open question.

Does Austen treat the matter any differently in Emma? The protagonist, Emma Woodhouse, an only child to her wealthy father, takes it upon herself to match-make for her female friends. Harriet Smith, a subject in Emma’s hobby, is advised by her mentor to reject a proposal from a love interest, Robert Martin, for Emma believes Harriet to be socially above the farmer. Later, Harriet and Robert become engaged after a second proposal, with Emma now understanding the error of her ways. Once again, it appears, love transcends status in Austen’s England.

Emma herself will marry George Knightley, a marriage that can reasonably be said to transgress neither the rules of high society nor those of love. Across the two novels, these four marriages are each unique. That of Charlotte Lucas and Mr. Collins is clearly one of pragmatism and is firmly frowned upon, even if it is successful; the other three include an element of love, but their social statuses are all either different or different in relation to their partner’s.

So, what is Austen? She unquestionably sees love as something which ought to triumph over wealth and status, a surprisingly radical thought for some. But this should not mask the conservatism that is present; whilst Elizabeth and Darcy are not of the same social standing, they did after all meet each other at the same ball, in the same company. They both acted within the same framework, conducting themselves within the decorum of high society. Emma and George Knightley married in the same social stratum, and while the Collins’ marriage may be disapproved of, it is still shown to be successful. Austen is challenging the pervasive supremacy of status in relation to marriage. It appears, at least in this regard, that she challenges little else.