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Radhika Gupta

6B.A(H)English- 2nd year

Roll no. 885

Professor:- Ms. Kritika Sharma

Discussing the influence of material conditions on the matrimonial choices made in Jane

Austen's Emma and Pride and Prejudice.

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune,

must be in want of a wife"(3) begins Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, directly linking

socio-economic position of an individual with his matrimonial circumstances. Traditionally,

marriage could be seen as a sort of monetary transaction, where a person's economic

condition gets influenced by or influences the matrimonial choices made by him/her.

Women, for ages, were solely dependent on marriage prospects for economic stability as

socio-cultural and legal forces denied them any sort of financial independence which was not

reliant upon the males in their lives. 19th century England did not pose a much different

scenario for women and their financial stability was limited and contingent upon matrimonial

alliances they entered into, and upon the financial support they received from their fathers or

the money they inherited from them, though usually this inherited money was in the form of

dowry which belonged to their husbands after they married. Using professional means to

provide financial stability wasn't much available to women as socio-cultural barriers denied

respect to the women who earned their livelihood, and possibly the only job available to a

woman of a poor but respectable family was that of a governess, which had little chance of

providing them with economic independence and stability they desired. Though, in a

woman's case material considerations played a larger role in influencing the matrimonial
choices made by them, yet men weren't totally free from their influences while choosing their

life partners. Maintaining their social standing, gaining monetary advantage through dowry,

and desire for social mobility greatly coloured their decisions of matrimony. Thus, men and

women, both couldn't isolate their marriage decisions from their socio-economic reality.

19th century England witnessed a new inclination emerging in matrimonial discourse and

literature, where the concept of companionate marriage was favoured and promoted. With

emerging capitalism, industrialisation ,and individualism in the process, in 19th century

England, principles of productivity were emphasized and were incorporated in the private

sphere of an individual's life too, where the woman ensured productivity in domestic sphere

by good housekeeping and supervising education of children, while the man supervised

economic productivity and participated in the public sphere, thus both becoming companions

to each other. This companionship extended in their marital relationship where emotional

relatability and intellectual compatibility became desirable. This notion of companionate

marriage seeped in the literature as well, and marriages modelled on individual subjectivity

of the two individuals involved, rather than just on their external circumstances, began

featuring in the Regency and Victorian literature. Yet, despite this new approach towards

marriage, literature of Regency and Victorian period could not dismiss the significance of

material reality in governing the matrimonial alliances formed as the socio-economic factors

still impelled the individuals to enter into prudent marriages.

Jane Austen captures this influence of material forces while taking matrimonial decisions in

her novels, even if her protagonists seem to incline towards the idea of companionate

marriage. Elizabeth, in Pride and Prejudice, might realise that Darcy "was exactly the

man,who,in disposition and talents, would most suit her"(208) and Darcy might love
Elizabeth for "liveliness"(256) of her mind, and Emma, in Emma, might esteem Mr.

Knightley for his being "infinitely the superior"(364) to all men she knew and for his

"excellence of mind"(366) and Mr. Knightley might love Emma as he sees her the "sweetest

and best of all creatures, faultless in spite of all her faults"(382), yet Austen constantly

reminds readers of the socio-economic factors that play pertinent role in bringing the

matrimonial alliances in her novels and how these material conditions also determine to a

considerable extent whether these characters can afford to enter into a companionate

marriage or not.

Emma and Elizabeth, both believe in the ideal of companionate marriage, and both exercise

their will to enter into one, yet both of them cannot deny the interference of socio-economic

aspects of a person in his matrimonial choice. Emma realises that she has "none of the usual

inducements of women to marry", which are "fortune", "employment", "consequence", or be

"mistress of their husband's house"(74). Mr. Elton's socio-economic position does become a

point of consideration in Emma's rejection of him, she claims that Mr.Elton "must know that

in fortune and consequence she was greatly his superior"(119), and even her attraction to

Frank Churchill is also based on the fact that "he was the very person to suit her

in….condition"(104) (emphasis added). Even Elizabeth, with her individualistic notions

towards marriage, understands the importance of economic considerations while marrying, as

she defends Wickham's mercenary pursuit of Miss King as "young men must have something

to live on"(103) and also sees the "imprudence"(99) of her match with Wickham. Austen's

"heroines and other women characters are clearly attracted by the prospect of being mistress

of a mansion and an estate" which "are no doubt partly symbols of economic security"

(Moore). Emma understands the social and material consequence of Donwell Abbey estate

and Elizabeth's falling in love with Mr. Darcy can be traced back to her first visiting
Pemberley, where she exclaims that "to be mistress of Pemberley might be something"(163).

Even the different material circumstances of Emma and Elizabeth colour their decisions of

matrimony. Emma, being mistress of Hartfield mansion and heiress of thirty thousand

pounds, has significant socio-economic standing and stability, while Elizabeth, with her

father's estate being entailed, would reduce to penury if she does not marry prudently. Emma

claims that " without love, I am sure I should be a fool to change a situation as mine"(74)

while Mrs. Bennet reminds Elizabeth that if she does not marry, there will be no one to

maintain her after her father's death. Emma could outrightly refuse Mr. Elton with "her

manner too decided to invite supplication"(116), but Elizabeth requires her father's help to

convince Mr. Collins of her refusal as he knows that her "portion is unhappily so small"(76)

for her to receive any other marriage proposal so he has to conclude that she's not serious in

her rejection of him. For, Elizabeth it is "a taste of the fantastic nightmare in which economic

and social institutions have such power over the values of personal relationships that the

comic monster [Mr. Collins] is nearly able to get her" (Harding).

A woman, belonging to a respectable family, with appropriate economic means could afford

to marry for inherent qualities of a man but if that woman has restricted economic situation

she cannot enjoy such freedom, knows Miss Churchill and Charlotte Lucas. Miss Churchill

"with the full command of her fortune"(11) could marry Captain Weston, even if her socio-

economic standing is much superior to Weston's, and she is "not to be dissuaded from the

marriage"(12). While Charlotte Lucas has to hold a more pragmatic model of marriage as she

does not enjoy financial independence, she knows marriage is "the only honourable provision

for well-educated women of small fortune" and it "must be their pleasantest preservative

from want"(85). Charlotte marries Mr. Collins despite knowing his "oddities"(62) and his
society to be "irksome"(85), for the material advantage the marital prospect carried for her,

else she might have suffered the fate not much different from Miss Bates', whose situation is

described by Emma as "a single woman, with a very narrow income" who "must be

ridiculous, disagreeable,old maid!"(75). So, "a genteel woman must either have money or

marry money"(Hume).

Jane Fairfax and Bennet sisters, Jane and Elizabeth, are saved from economic obscurity by

their advantageous marriages to give a fairytale ending to their otherwise tragic economic

situations. Jane Fairfax, being an orphan with no financial security for her future but

belonging to a respectable family, is forced to opt for the job of governess, like Miss Taylor,

if she cannot marry into economic security and stability. Her marriage to Frank Churchill not

only elevates her social position but saves her from a life full of financial troubles and

insecurity. Jane and Elizabeth are also rescued from suffering economic annihilation, by their

superior marriages to Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy respectively, who could now provide them

with comfortable homes, economic support, and elevated social consequence for the rest of

their lives. Even if the foundation of these marriages is based on "better feeling"(87) (which

Elizabeth advocates), yet they do provide "worldly advantage"(87)(which Charlotte

advocates) to these damsels in distress.

Not always can the internal qualities and charms of these ladies win them appropriate

marriage prospects. Jane Bennet, despite her beauty, would not have married Mr. Bingley, if

he hadn't been permitted by Mr. Darcy to do so, who had earlier broken their budding

relationship due her inferior socio-economic position. Mr. Darcy's proposal to Elizabeth

comes after much reluctance on his part due to her "want of connections"(134). In spite of all

Mr.Collins' follies, there is some wisdom in his words that despite Elizabeth's "manifold
attractions"(76) she might not get any other offer of marriage. Lydia Bennet too cannot tempt

Wickham to marry her unless some money is settled on him, despite her "youth, health, and

good humour"(189). Even in Emma, Mr.Dixon, despite Jane Fairfax's "decided superiority [to

Miss Campbell] both in beauty and acquirements"(144), gets attracted to Miss Campbell who

can bring fortune with her unlike Jane Fairfax. Mr. Knightley reminds Emma that "Miss

Harriet Smith may not find offers of marriage flow in so fast, though she is a very pretty girl"

as "men of families would not be very fond of connecting themselves with a girl of such

obscurity"(56), knowing that all Harriet Smith's claims to beauty and good temper are not

enough to get her a good marriage proposal due to her obscure connections and lack of

fortune. "Harriet's marriage embodies…the theory of cruel optimism because she becomes

attached to the idea that she can marry someone like Mr.Elton…, while reality of her

situation dictates that Mr.Martin, a farmer, is her only prospect"(Campbell).

Thus, men too in Austen's novels aren't totally free from the influences of socio-economic

factors while taking marital decisions. But a significant difference lies in the fact that women

are solely dependent on marriage prospects for financial security, if they don not inherit that

security, but men can use professional means to raise their economic position and social

standing in the society. Mr.Bingley and Mr.Weston earn their fortune through trade and rise

to the status of wealthy gentry and thus are able to achieve economic independence and rise

in social stature. With financial independence, Mr.Bingley can choose to marry Jane, in spite

of her low connections and resistance of his sisters, as nothing "could influence a young man

so totally independent of everyone"(83). Mr. Weston, after earning considerable fortune

through trade and purchasing Randalls, decides to marry Miss Taylor, despite her lack of

fortune, for he considers her "a well-judging and truly amiable woman"(13), as he has "only

himself to please" as "his fortune" is "his own"(13). Thus, men who are not born in socio-
economically advantaged situation, can still afford to opt for companionate marriage, by

improving their material conditions through earning their fortune.

But, Austen's men, who do not enjoy such substantial financial independence, are compelled

to consider the material aspects of their marriage choices. Mr.Elton, "a very respectable vicar

of Highbury, but not at all likely to make an imprudent match"(57), chooses Miss Hawkins

with her ten thousand pounds over fortuneless Harriet. "He knows the value of good

income…is as well acquainted with his own claims" and "he does not mean to throw himself

away"(57). Mr.Elton's proposal to Emma is seen as an endeavour on his part "to aggrandize

and enrich himself"(118), which clearly indicates that the socio-economic influences do sway

his matrimonial aspirations. Wickham, with negligible financial security, pursues Georgiana

Darcy and Miss King for their fortune, as he "cherished the hope of…making his fortune by

marriage"(216), and he can't be tempted to marry Lydia unless a considerable amount of

money is settled on him. Wichkam reminds the readers that material forces not only guide

women's matrimonial choices but even men are influenced by these forces to a considerable


While on the other hand, Mr.Knightley and Mr.Darcy, wealthy affluent owners of Donwell

Abbey estate and Pemberley estate respectively, enjoy extensive socio-economic

consequence, making them completely independent of economic considerations while

choosing their life partners. Mr. Darcy proposes marriage to Elizabeth Bennet, in spite of

"inferiority of her connections"(131), as he can afford to act on his will and choose to marry

for subjective individuality of a person rather than her material situation in life. Similarly,

Mr.Knightley also enjoys the freedom to choose his companion on the basis of subjective

qualities of the woman rather than her objective social reality. Even though Mr.Knightley
marries Emma, who matches his socio-economic status, but his reason for choosing her relies

upon his love for her individual self. In fact, Emma suspects Mr. Knightley to be partial to

Harriet Smith despite her inferiorities due to "his own independence"(378) and his "improved

opinion of Harriet" for "her being without art or affectation, having simple, honest, generous,

feelings"(361). Frank Churchill, apparent heir of a rich aristocrat family, wants to marry Jane

Fairfax, who lacks connection and fortune, but can only do so when he's secured of not losing

his fortune through this unequal marriage, as he is dependent on his uncle and aunt's will to

make him their heir and cannot afford to displease them. This conditional economic freedom

lets Frank to choose a woman for her individual qualities but forces him to hide this choice

until he can be secured of his fortune, a security which comes through his aunt's untimely


Austen's characters, both men and women, are considerably influenced by the socio-

economic aspects while taking matrimonial decisions, but there lies a significant difference in

the way these influences work. Men "do not need to want them [wives] as women must want

husbands"(Newton), i.e. men can enjoy socio-economic standing in the society without

marrying into one and can afford to marry beneath their material positions if they have means

to do so, while women are deeply dependent on "prudent" marriages for substantial socio-

economic stature, a truth known not only to women like the Bennet sisters, Charlotte Lucas,

Jane Fairfax, who are solely dependent on marital prospects for financial stability, but even

the women who inherit their fortune can't completely dismiss this. None of the female

characters in Emma and Pride and Prejudice marry beneath their station, except Miss

Churchill, who will have "regrets" for doing so as she wants "at once to be the wife of

Captain Weston, and Miss Churchill of Enscombe"(12) . The arrangement of social and

economic structures allows Austen's men the possibility to enjoy higher social and financial
freedom, and thus they are less restricted than women by the material factors while making

choices of marriage.

Works Cited

1. Austen,Jane. Emma. Delhi:Peacock Books,2010,2012.

2. Austen,Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Delhi:Worldview Publications, 2016.

3. Campbell,E.E. "Finding Austen: The Covert Gender Politics in Emma's Marriage Plots".

Dickinson College, 2012.

4. Harding,D.W. " "Regulated Hatred": An Aspect in the Work of Jane Austen". Norton

Critical Edition(3rd), 2000.

5. Hume,Robert D. "Money in Jane Austen". Oxford University Press. JSTOR

6. Moore,Margaret. "Emma and Miss Bates: Early Experience of Separation and the Theme

of Dependency in Jane Austen's Novels". Rice University. JSTOR

7. Newton, Judith Lowder. " "Pride and Prejudice": Power, Fantasy, and Subversion in Jane

Austen". Feminist Studies,Inc. JSTOR