Austen knows how to concisely describe her characters. What is amazing is how fair she is. Some of her descriptions are cutting, but other characters, though they have their flaws, can still be regarded as amiable.
For example, I love this description of the Middletons:
They were scarcely ever without some friends staying with them in the house, and they kept more company of every kind than any other family in the neighbourhood. It was necessary to the happiness of both; for however dissimilar in temper and outward behaviour, they strongly resembled each other in that total want of talent and taste which confined their employments, unconnected with such as society produced, within a very narrow compass. Sir John was a sportsman, Lady Middleton a mother. He hunted and shot, and she humoured her children; and these were their only resources. Lady Middleton had the advantage of being able to spoil her children all the year round, while Sir John’s independent employments were in existence only half the time. Continual engagements at home and abroad, however, supplied all the deficiencies of nature and education; supported the good spirits of Sir John, and gave exercise to the good breeding of his wife.
In Sir John’s case, we find him somewhat vapid and ill-educated, but we also discover he is kind and generous. His wife on the other hand…
Am I being unfair? Have I overlooked qualities in Lady M that need to be pointed out?
I also need to comment on “moonlight.” This came up in Northanger Abbey, and I said nothing, and I deeply regret that now. My notes say that moonlight was significant at the time because of course there was no overhead, outdoor lighting, so people actually did plan around the full moon because it meant they could safely travel at night. I love that.
This chapter shows us what entertainment was possible for the gentry, and highlights Marianne’s gifts as a singer and musician. Austen once again shows her genius as a satirist. All these classy, well-bred people talk about how great and important music is all the while talking through Marianne’s performance. We also learn of how the other women had learned to play and sing and perform but gave these things up once they got married. Marianne, naturally, does everything with full heart in contrast with these people who allegedly love particular things, but do they really?
Finally, I have to say something about Colonel Brandon and age. It really isn’t until the 20th century that women over 40 were not considered near death. Marianne deeply appreciates Colonel Brandon’s attention to her performance, but at the same time, he is a man of 35, which makes him decrepit, yet “she was perfection disposed to make every allowance for the colonel’s advanced state of life which humanity required.”
Wow. I have so much else I want to say about this but have prattled on too long. Anyone else have a thought about age? I’m 57 and it is too hot out to find an ice floe. I promise to begin looking in December.
The war against age continues as Marianne defends her position in calling the Colonel old and infirm. I almost pasted some of Marianne’s further aspersions about the Colonel’s decreptitude (is that a word? If not, I’ve deemed it such) but instead, I want to talk about Austen and marriage.
All of her books are about marriage, and this is important. Many people see these as Romance writ large, and I would disagree with them. Examine the marriages that take place in Austen. Examine the engagements and secret engagements and who falls in love with whom. These are not Harlequin romances. Every couple does not end happily. Austen depicts a lot of unhappy, even terrible relationships and marriage. And why does she do that? Because marriage was very important.
In her day, only the very wealthy could get divorced, and that was only by an act of Parliament, and only the husband could ask for the divorce and only if the wife had been unfaithful. So, in other words, you married for life.
Next, no matter what class you were, women were at a distinct disadvantage. Working class women, in one respect, had it better in that they could earn an income, but even in their case, men legally controlled a women’s earnings. In the case of the newly emerging middle class (which really is a new thing in the late 18th century and Austen is writing in the beginning of the 19th) and the gentry, the upper middle class, all finances were controlled by the men, fathers/husbands/sons, and in the cases of these “wealthy” families, women couldn’t work. This is why you will read stories about gentry who are deeply poor. It sounds like a contradiction, but it was actually pretty common. If fortune is passed down through men, and only men could inherit such things as what happens to the Henry Dashwoods occur. They lose their home (it goes to the son) and though he has promised to take care of this second family, you can see by law he can do as he wishes. (By the way, the Henry Dashwoods are not poor—they just aren’t particularly well off. It was not uncommon for people, and by that, I mean women, to live as children in a middle/upper middle class home, but in middle-age to have all the money gone. They might still have the land or the house but no income and no means to make more money…and then we get into women teaching music or china painting or tatting, acceptable ways to occupy time, and a means for receiving basically charity).
The problem for the Henry Dashwoods is that marriage was gradually becoming something one did for love, but it still had its material aspect. So, romantic marriages were becoming more normalized, but in general, even with great feeling behind an attachment, most marriages didn’t come off if there wasn’t also family money and a dowry unless one side was really wealthy and could forgo it. Again, keep in mind that women of certain classes were in a sense forbidden from working, so marriage becomes the way to maintain one’s class.
Austen’s novels have this as a major component. This is why marriage is so important in her books—not the sweet Harlequin ideal, but rather hard reality.
I mention all of this because when we look at Catherine and Tilney in Northanger Abbey and the anger of the General, and we look at Isabella’s machinations, maybe it is a bit clearer now what was going on. And look at the marriage of the Middletons who have nothing in common. And note how Elinor is with Edward in contrast with Marianne’s view of romance. Elinor is restrained and quiet and rarely shares how she feels for Edward. Marianne, on the other hand, has definite views as to how a woman is to be with the man she loves, and if someone doesn’t behave that way, she must be deficient and the relationship doesn’t rate.
I will have more to say on this later—I just think it is very important for us to realize that when it comes to marriage, there is a steely-eyed viewpoint from Austen that is earned. Austen is extremely pragmatic, and she is very sympathetic with women who are put in hard positions of sometimes having to make the hard decision of marry for love or marry for money and position.
And what of Marianne’s spill down the hill, the twisting of the ankle in a rain storm, the beautiful man who finds her and carries her into the house?
Keep in mind especially during the Regency era, unless they were dancing, men and women didn’t touch each other. To be carried, held against a man’s chest—whew! Huge deal.
What do you make of Willoughby? And please be mindful of spoilers if you have read this before. He certainly seems to fit right in the romance novelist’s dream.
My favorite part though is when Marianne attemtps to find out more about Willoughby from Sir John. Austen shows us their character’s viewpoints so well—they talk right past each other because what they value differs so greatly.
“And what sort of a young man is he?“
“As good a kind of fellow as ever lived, I assure you. A very decent shot, and there is not a bolder rider in England.“
“And is that all you can say for him?” cried Marianne, indignantly. “But what are his manners on more intimate acquaintance? What his pursuits, his talents, and genius?”
Sir John was rather puzzled.
“Upon my soul,” said he, “I do not know much about him as to all THAT. But he is a pleasant, good humoured fellow, and has got the nicest little black bitch of a pointer I ever saw. Was she out with him today?“
Of course, what Marianne needs to know is what Willoughby thinks about music and drawing and painting and poetry and walks and romance. Is he passionate? Is he driven? This is what matters.
What matters to you, dear reader?