It has often been pointed out that Jane Austen’s novels deal only with the world of which she had firsthand knowledge. They are set in the ballrooms, the drawing rooms, the bedrooms, and the gardens where, like the ladies in her books, she spent her life. Her books do not reflect the political turmoil of her time, revolution and conquest on the Continent, fears of revolution in Great Britain. If her works are limited in scope, however, they are not without serious import. Austen’s methods are those of the satirist, her subject is society, and her preoccupation is the creation of an effective family unit through marriage.
As Austen shows so clearly in Pride and Prejudice, unsuitable marriages lead only to unhappiness and social instability. After discovering that his wife is incapable of comprehending anything he says, Mr. Bennet has stopped trying to communicate with her. A man of his reserved and scholarly nature can adjust easily to isolation from his family, and Mrs. Bennet is too scatterbrained to suspect that something may be missing from her relationship with her husband. It is the Bennet children who suffer most from the ill-conceived marriage of their parents. Left to their mother, three of the five Bennet daughters turn out badly. Mary Bennet is a pedant without intellectual gifts; Kitty Bennet, a flirtatious fool; and Lydia, a girl so unthinking that she runs off with the first plausible man who comes along, thereby disgracing her family and destroying the possibility of any other marriage or even, if she remains unmarried, her acceptance in respectable society. As Mr. Bennet admits, Lydia’s actions are in part the consequence of his paternal neglect, but that in turn is the result of his marrying unwisely, without regard for his future wife’s suitability in temperament, character, and intelligence.
Austen supports her argument that a bad marriage is worse than no marriage at all with two additional examples. Collins marries Charlotte only because, as a clergyman, he needs a respectable wife; she marries him because, at twenty-seven, she is becoming desperate. The result is not surprising. When Elizabeth goes to visit the newlyweds, she finds that Charlotte has developed a daily routine that places her as far away from her husband as possible. If Charlotte’s situation proves how miserable a marriage of convenience can be, what happens to Lydia and Wickham shows the folly of allowing mere sexual attraction to govern one’s decision about a partner for life. Forced to marry Lydia, Wickham soon tires of her, and before long her affection for him has also died. Moreover, since neither of them is capable of planning for the future, Lydia and Wickham live unsettled lives, frequently moving, constantly plagued by financial difficulties, surviving only through the aid of their prosperous relatives.
Thus, the author shows the unhappy consequences of unwise marriages. Nevertheless, what Austen sees as essential for a happy union is not equality of either fortune or caste. Although they live comfortably, the Bennets do not have the wealth that both Bingley and Darcy possess, and while Mr. Bennet is a member of the gentry, he ranks well below the aristocracy. Jane and Bingley are both easy-going and tolerant people, however, while Elizabeth and Darcy share the same incisive intelligence and strength of will. What Austen seems to be saying is surprisingly modern: that the best basis for marriage is a love based on mutual respect and shown in an easy, comfortable companionship.