Austen’s female characters are fixated on marriage, a preoccupation that some modern readers find off-putting. It is true that Austen, like her characters, believes that marriage is the surest route to happiness for women. However, recognizing this state of affairs does not mean she approves of it.
Austen suggests that in her society, love is a desirable component of a marriage, but by no means the most important one. Jane Bennet is ideally suited for Bingley, the man she eventually marries. Yet according to Austen, this compatibility, while wonderful, is almost irrelevant. Far more relevant, from an objective point of view, is the fact that marrying Bingley ensures the fiscal wellbeing of Jane and her family. Jane is the oldest Bennet child, and if she were a man, her father’s estate would pass to her upon his death. But the law mandates that the estate pass to Mr. Collins, Mr. Bennet’s oldest male relative. As a woman, Jane has only one way to support herself comfortably: by landing a well-off husband. By no means does Austen condone this legal situation. In fact, by making Mr. Collins a buffoon of the first order, she points out how ludicrous it is that Jane must scrabble to find a husband, while a near stranger stands to inherit her beloved father’s estate. We can take comfort in Jane’s and Bingley’s true affection for each other. Austen’s key point, however, is that society’s backward laws force Jane to choose between marriage and the poorhouse.
Other characters are not as lucky as Jane. Charlotte’s marriage to Mr. Collins, one of the more discomfiting unions in Austen’s oeuvre, is an implicit criticism of the impossible position in which society puts women. Charlotte does not love Mr. Collins, or even like him very much. Indeed, anyone with a grain of sense would find it hard to tolerate the status-obsessed, self-important clergyman. However, Charlotte cannot justify turning down his proposal. She is six years older than Elizabeth, she has no fortune, and she has no prospective suitors beyond Mr. Collins. Society offers her two choices: She can become an aging spinster with no significant position in society, or she can marry a fool who will provide her with companionship, money, and some status. Neither of these choices is pleasant, but Charlotte decides that the latter is preferable to the former. As she says, “I am not a romantic you know . . . I ask only a comfortable home.” With this line of dialogue, Austen makes it clear that for many women, marriage is an unfortunate economic necessity.
Austen emphasizes the absurd strictness of society’s attitude toward marriage in Chapters 46 through 49, in which Lydia runs off with Wickham. Austen is less interested in exploring Lydia’s experiences—which we hear about only secondhand—than in chronicling the dire impact Lydia’s behavior has on her sisters. Society’s expectations for marriageable women are so stringent, Austen suggests, that one woman’s scandalous behavior is presumed to infect everyone to whom she is related. By sleeping with a man who isn’t her husband, Lydia imperils not only her own name, but also the name of her entire family. While the episode ends without disaster, Austen uses it to show the impossible strictness of society’s demands on women, and the ease with which reputations can be destroyed and marriage made impossible.