Jane Austen and Terrible, Horrible Marriages

June 1, 2015

“There will be very little merit in making a good wife to such a man as Mr. Weston,” says Emma’s former governess about her easy-going, affable new husband.  While Austen does acknowledge the role of temperament and character in making a marriage successful (and by “Austen” of course I mean the novels), what she truly seems to value  is intelligence. The very few good marriages that the novels depict,  the Gardiners in Pride and Prejudice and the navy officers and their wives in Persuasion,  for example, seem to involve people of equal cognitive ability.

Marrying your intellectual inferior makes you smaller.  Charlotte Lucas of Pride and Prejudice  has to pretend not to hear the inane ramblings of her husband Mr. Collins.  Such marriages can also make a person prickly, impatient, and even occasionally cruel as are Mr. Bennet and Emma’s brother-in-law John Knightley.   Mr. Bennet himself outlines an even  worse (at least in the 19th century) fate.  He says to Elizabeth. “I know that you could be neither happy nor respectable, unless you truly esteemed your husband … You could scarcely escape discredit and misery.”   Those are harsh words from one’s daddy; he is concerned that she would do a Maria-Rushworth  (Mansfield Park)  and run off with some fellow who is not her husband.

But let’s think about this. What I think Austen neglects is the notion that there are many different kinds of intelligence.  I know several happy couples in which one partner is bookishly intellectual while the other has energy, civic-mindedness, entrepreneurial zeal, or excellent parenting skills.  On paper, one partner has more traditional intelligence than the other . . . but they are real people, and as hard as it is to admit this, Austen’s characters do live on paper.

The Westons in Emma  are a bit of exception.  Mr. Weston has a sterling character and a most amiable disposition, but Mrs. Weston clearly has a more keen intellect.  Nonetheless we rejoice at their marriage.   Of course the disparity is not as great between the Westons as it is between the other mismatched couples, and the Westons do truly love each other.

I am concerned about the fate of Charlotte Lucas.  I’m not worried that she will bolt into a life of sex and shame, but look at some of the other women in Austen’s novels who are married to men less intelligent than they – Emma’s mother and Anne Eliot’s mother.  What happened to them?  They died. I don’t think Mrs. Bennet needs to worry about Charlotte Lucas coming back to Longbourn to take command of the house. She’s likely to be dead.  Apparently marrying a stupid man is injurious to one’s health.

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