Just finishing up listening to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (If you haven’t read this and you love Romance, please do yourself a favor and read or listen to it unabridged) and sat in on a group of Regency writers who discussed the choices women had in the days of balls and social strictures. Women in the Regency era had few avenues to take to independence. Pride and Prejudice certainly touches a lot of points where things have gone terribly wrong or where things worked out.
Mr. and Mrs. Bennet are an ill-matched couple, which leads to the worst of consequences for their daughters. We get a hint that at the time of their marriage, Mrs. was beautiful and silly and sought after by many suitors. Mr. Bennet was a gentleman with nothing to lose by marrying a pretty girl, and only after several years of their marriage did he realize he could not respect the woman to whom he was tied forever. In all the Jane Austen P&P sequels had no one imagined her death and his finding a woman he could respect and love? Oh, and if they had a son!
Which brings me to Charlotte Lucas, a spinster with little or no hope of marriage in the usual way. Mr. Collins, a man puffed up in his own importance and righteousness, is the best opportunity she is likely to have. A home of her own, children, a safe income, and a possibility of inheriting Longbourn when Mr. Bennet passes on. Weighed against a life with a silly man or a life as a spinster aunt, Charlotte obviously makes a choice that will most benefit her. There’s always a chance the man will not live too very long, and a widow’s life is better than a spinster’s.
The indescribably lovely Jane Bennet is the picture of decorum, so much so that Mr. Darcy is able to convince the modest Mr. Bingley that she shows only a passing friendliness toward him. Bingley, on the other hand, is showing a marked interest and infatuation with the girl, and the fear that a marriage proposal will be expected of his friend moves Darcy to intervene. When women were not supposed to show their affections for their suitors, all things could go wrong, and possibly that’s why the Regency era is fun to write about. But it could not have been that much fun to live in.
Elizabeth Bennet is, of course, the main character of the story. Her appeal to the aloof Darcy grows slowly, without any hint that she can see overriding his original assessment of her. Being not pretty enough to tempt him gives her a slanted view of all else that happens after that. In a way, Darcy behaves in just the way he thinks Jane does. Oh, the irony.
Jane is obviously in love with Bingley, and the match would be an excellent one for her. She would have wealth, happiness, “a house in town”, and so much more. Likewise, as she learns on her stealth visit to Pemberley, Elizabeth would benefit in a match with Darcy in the amount of income he has, the estates he owns, and all the necessities of life that he could provide to her and their children. And as their love grows, their happiness will be guaranteed.
I’ve always regretted that Mr. Collins didn’t fix on Mary Bennet for a life mate. She would have been very happy in his home, but her purpose in the story seems to be a footnote about women who are too studious. She could have become a governess. She could have become a companion to a rich relative. I like to think she found out that smiling and happiness were worthy ways for a lady to pass her time.
Kitty, we know, spent the years following her elder sisters’ marriages living with them. In that way, she improved her character and mind. She no doubt found an eligible man to marry and lived happily ever after. Had she nurtured an interest in chemistry or botany, however, no paths were available to her at the time. Her brother Darcy might have smoothed a way for her to pursue her interests, but few women had that option.
So Lydia Bennet Wickham eloped with a dashing and romantic ne’er-do-well and eventually fell out of love with him. They had enough income to keep her in nice clothes, she no doubt made friends of the other wives and possibly sisters of others in the Militia, and she had a decent place to live. She was deprived of the company of her family which may have eventually encouraged her to write letters. Her mother surely would have loved her for the rest of their lives.
Yet in a world where she had no expectations of enough income to be independent, her options were to become a governess, a companion to a wealthy relative, or a spinster aunt living on the benefices of her family. I do not believe that someone as lively and unconcerned about rules as Lydia would have been long a virgin or even a spinster aunt. Her options were limited, her interests were those that could best be met by a large income, and Wickham appeared to be the key to her heart and her future. No wonder she took the outrageous path to become a fallen woman and eventually to be rescued by Mr. Darcy.
Thanks for reading! I’ll be back next Sunday.