In preparation for an upcoming discussion with my local chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America, I just reread Pride and Prejudice. (This was not a hardship assignment.)
Janeites often say that every reread reveals something new in Austen’s books – familiar lines that take on a special flavor, or characters whose motivations appear in a different light. This time through P&P, I was especially struck by the passages about intelligent, practical Charlotte Lucas’ prudential marriage to the lumpen, sycophantic Mr. Collins.
Mr. Collins presses Charlotte to name a date for their wedding, and she is inclined to set an early one: “The stupidity with which he was favored by nature must guard his courtship from any charm that could make a woman wish for its continuance; and Miss Lucas, who accepted him solely from the pure and disinterested desire of an establishment, cared not how soon that establishment were gained. . . . Mr. Collins, to be sure, was neither sensible nor agreeable; his society was irksome, and his attachment to her must be imaginary. But still he would be her husband. Without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only honorable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want.” (ch. 21)
Think deeply about a passage like that and it becomes almost impossible to understand how anyone could see Jane Austen as a warm, fuzzy, escapist writer. In a few lines, Austen paints a remarkably disturbing picture of a bright young woman’s submission to the radical limits her society places on her prospects.
What makes these lines so devastating, I think, is not just that we realize Charlotte is engaging in a form of legalized prostitution, selling a lifetime of sexual and housekeeping services in exchange for a comfortable home. It’s that she realizes it, too.
Charlotte does not delude herself with dreams of romantic bliss. She knows she is marrying a stupid, annoying man whom she cannot care for, and who doesn’t really care for her. She knows she will probably live with him – not to mention sleep with him – until her death. She knows she will never be truly happy in the most intimate relationship of her life. But the alternatives are even worse, and so “he would be her husband.”
Yes, when we see her later, ensconced in Hunsford parsonage, she seems content with her lot. But it’s a hard lot nonetheless, and nothing in the ecstatically happy endings granted to Jane and Elizabeth Bennet mitigates that brutal fact of life.
I’d like to think that feminism’s many victories over the past two centuries have made Charlotte-like bargains less necessary, at least for “well-educated young women of small fortune.” But check out this recent story (Austen misquote and all) from the UK’s Independent, positing that soaring housing prices in England may force more singletons of all genders to marry for real estate rather than romance. Apparently, we all should count ourselves lucky if our parsonages come without a Mr. Collins.