Love and Marriage in the Age of Jane Austen

Rory Muir

What was the reality of marriage once the sound of the church bells had died away?
Gillray's L'Assemblée Nationale (1804)
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Regency England – roughly speaking from the 1780s to the 1820s – has become identified as an age of elegance, romance and glamour. The immense success of the TV and film adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels and imitations such as Bridgerton, building on ideas already long established by novelists such as the wonderful Georgette Heyer and her successors, have entrenched the period in popular culture as the ideal setting for a historical love story; while Austen’s work itself finds innumerable new and enthusiastic readers in every generation, in a way that is probably unmatched by any other classic of English literature. Paradoxically it is also often believed that marriages in this era were generally coldly calculated affairs in which wealth and social status counted for far more than love or personal attraction, and in which young women were forced to sacrifice their personal preferences to their parents’ social and political ambition. In fact, this was the time when young men and women of the upper classes – the sort of people Jane Austen wrote about – exercised unprecedented personal autonomy in the choice of a spouse. Arranged marriages were, with very few exceptions, a thing of the past, and most parents looked to no more than the power to veto an obviously unsuitable match; and even then they were well aware that their refusal might be circumvented by a dash to Gretna Green – and elopements were surprisingly common in real life as well as in fiction. This does not mean that wealth and social standing did not play their part in the making of marriages: most young people were conscious that poverty was a poor foundation for happiness and that ‘love in a cottage’ was better in the ideal than the reality, but parents and children alike also recognised that love was necessary to happiness and that without it, as Mr Bennet warned Elizabeth when he thought she was marrying Darcy for the wrong reasons, the marriage was likely to go badly wrong.

Even the best suited, most loving couples, were likely to find the adjustment to married life sometimes challenging. This is the part of the story that the romances, the films and even Austen’s novels leave out: what happened after the wedding? The difficulties married couples faced were many and varied, and sometimes quite familiar to people today. Most gentlemen did not have an independent income, and their careers often led to prolonged separations from their wife and children when they were on active service, if they were officers in the navy or army. Barristers, too, commonly left their families behind for weeks at a time when they went on circuit twice a year, while most clergymen and their wives were forced to live throughout the year in the depths of the country dependent on the limited society of the immediate neighbourhood. Children brought their own joys and difficulties, while there were perennial potential problems over money, politics, religion, where to live, and relations with in-laws and friends who might be liked by one half of a couple more than the other. All of these are illustrated by fascinating material from the letters and diaries of real people from this period, as well as from examples from Austen’s own family, her novels, and novels by other writers of the period.

Not all marriages were happy, and there is plenty of evidence of instances of domestic violence and adultery, which sometimes but not always led to separations (which might be formal or informal) and occasionally to divorce. Less dramatic but perhaps more common were marriages, like that of Mr and Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, that were unhappy but led to no open rupture.  Still, it is reassuring to find that there were couples who remained intensely in love for the rest of their lives, writing each other love letters deep into old age, while many others settled into a pattern of fondness and affection, relying on each other for emotional support and often being bereft when left alone.

However this does not mean that marriage was the only route to happiness, for Jane Austen’s own life, and that of her sister Cassandra, prove that women of her class could remain unmarried and yet live a fulfilled, contented and prosperous life.   Nor, as Anne Lister and the Ladies of Llangollen show, were all happy relationships heterosexual.  Looking beyond the chandeliers and carriages, the fabulous costumes, the balls and the glamour was a vast range of human experience, different but very relatable to our own.

Rory Muir is the author of Love and Marriage in the Age of Jane Austen, published by Yale University Press.