Deborah Yaffe

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On this day in 1817. . .

By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 13 2017 01:00PM

Twenty-first in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


Jane Austen: realist or romantic? Cynic or softie? You’ll find Janeites on both sides of that argument.


And maybe you’d even find Austen herself on both sides – or so we might conclude from the letter she wrote to her eldest niece, twenty-four-year-old Fanny Knight, exactly two hundred years ago today (#153 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


In all five surviving letters to Fanny, Aunt Jane offers some kind of commentary on Fanny’s affairs of the heart. More than two years earlier, as I wrote here, Fanny had sought advice about her fluctuating feelings for a young clergyman named John Plumptre, and in this letter, Austen is responding to Fanny’s account of the hot-and-cold attentions of a wealthy landowner named James Wildman.


Austen dispatches Mr. Wildman quickly – “By your description he cannot be in love with you, however he may try at it, & I could not wish the match unless there were a great deal of Love on his side,” she writes. Briefly, she digresses to discuss other acquaintances Fanny had apparently mentioned in her previous letter, including one whose recent death might have left her unmarried daughter in financial straits.


And then, as if by an irresistible association, Austen is back to the marriage question. “Single Women have a dreadful propensity for being poor—which is one very strong argument in favour of Matrimony,” she writes. For a Janeite, the line immediately evokes the many struggling single women of Austen’s fiction: the Dashwood family, in Sense and Sensibility, left unprovided for upon the patriarch’s death; Mrs. and Miss Bates of Emma, making ends meet on the charity of their neighbors; Anne Elliot’s widowed friend Mrs. Smith, in Persuasion, ill and alone in downmarket lodgings in Bath.


The prudential message seems clear: For women, marriage is less a romantic culmination than an insurance policy – or, as Pride and Prejudice’s Charlotte Lucas might put it, “the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness. . . their pleasantest preservative from want.”


But perhaps Austen hesitated to convey quite so harsh a message to her beloved niece, who was, after all, a well-educated young woman with a substantial fortune, thanks to her father’s adoption by the wealthy Knight family. For Austen immediately follows her ultra-pragmatic recommendation of marriage with a kinder, gentler bit of reassurance: “Do not be in a hurry; depend upon it, the right Man will come at last; you will in the course of the next two or three years, meet with somebody more generally unexceptionable than anyone you have yet known, who will love you as warmly as ever He [Plumptre] did, & who will so completely attach you that you will feel you never really loved before.”


Perhaps Austen could tell that Fanny – by our standards still young, but by the standards of her own time aging rapidly through her marriageable years – was getting anxious about her prospects. And surely it couldn’t have escaped Fanny’s notice that the reassurances her aunt was offering were hardly supported by the evidence of that aunt’s own perpetual spinsterhood.


Austen knew from experience that not every woman has the luck to find both love and financial security in a single package. But though she was too much of a realist to overlook the necessary economic rationale for marriage, she was too much of a romantic to consider that rationale sufficient.


Still, as it happens, Aunt Jane’s reassuring advice was right: Three and a half years after this letter, Fanny married a baronet.


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