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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Complications

Is Jane Austen:


a) the patron saint of romantic love?

or

b) the avatar of hard-headed, pragmatic--even borderline-mercenary--marital decision-making?


Most weeks, the internet prefers to don rose-colored glasses while loading you up with Austenian Love Lessons and invocations of Austen as the ur-romance novelist. But recently . . . not so much.


“Why does Elizabeth Bennet love Mr. Darcy?” NYU philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah asked in a recent edition of the newsletter he sends out in his role as The Ethicist, the New York Times’ highbrow advice columnist. “His wealth doesn’t clinch the deal; she turns down his first proposal. Yet it’s far from irrelevant. There is a scene in which she visits his house and grounds . . . and is bowled over by its grandeur and graciousness.”


Appiah turned to Pride and Prejudice in the midst of answering a reader’s plaintive query about whether to stick with a fiancé who might--or might not--be interested in marriage because of the favorable immigration status it would bring. Austen, Appiah suggested, was a useful guide because of her nuanced understanding of the mixed motives that govern us all.


“Austen makes it plain that Eliza wouldn’t marry [Darcy] just for his wealth and that she wouldn’t marry him without it. In Austen’s world, it’s part of what makes him lovable,” Appiah argued. “Austen thought that relationships could be amalgams of all sorts of things; they could be transactional and transporting.”


Personally, I think Appiah, like Sir Walter Scott before him, slightly misunderstands Austen here: Elizabeth’s visit to Pemberley changes her view of Darcy not because it proves that he’s rich—she knew that already--but because it shows her that he is deeply and responsibly rooted in family, community, and tradition. (Of course, all that is possible only because he’s rich—it’s complicated.)


Interestingly, however, Appiah’s vision of an Austen who represents a mixture of the romantic and the pragmatic resurfaced just a day later, in a Guardian story about the UK housing market: Apparently, with rents, house prices, and mortgage rates all heading skyward, more and more young(ish) Brits can’t help measuring potential partners’ eligibility in terms of bricks and mortar, or the lack thereof.


Single women griping about their economic woes hear “unsympathetic, Mrs. Bennet-style responses from family members, such as: ‘All these problems would be solved if you could just get a boyfriend and get married,’ ” one of reporter Barbara Speed’s sources told her. “Economist Peter Kenway has predicted that, as more than three-quarters of the UK’s privately held housing wealth now sits with the over-50s, we could soon see a ‘Jane Austen-style marriage market, as millennials without an inheritance try to partner up with millennials who stand to inherit a house.’ ”


I’m no fan of the cotton-candy, all-romance-all-the-time view of Jane Austen, but—yikes! I hope we’re not in the midst of an overcorrection, in which Austen is taken as standing for the proposition that it’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich boy as a poor boy. Even though, for all her heroines, it kind of is. I did say it was complicated, didn’t I?

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