At the beginning of the 18th century arranged marriages were the norm, but by the end of it they fell out of favour with nearly everyone, the upper class excepted. Family’s interest stood in opposition to Christian morality. Marriage should be for love, because it’s instituted by God, and not by any civil contract. Anglican marriage is a lesser sacrament, and its only condition is the mutual vow of love. One can lie and sign any papers, but one cannot possibly cheat God or hope that God would bless what is an abuse of the sacrament He instituted.
In fact the romantic notion of love and marriage revived because people became more concerned with religion than they were in the 17th century. Yet, it doesn’t mean that they ceased to care about the prudential aspect of it. Parents took care that their daughters met only those gentlemen they could marry without degradation. In other words they were free to fall in love with the men they knew, but the group of the men they were allowed to meet was limited in advance.
The upper classes though, like Lady Catherine and Lady Anne, Darcy’s mother, still viewed marriage as business. Darcy would grow up with the expectation to marry into wealth and connections as his duty. When he marries Elizabeth he does what’s moral, but not what he should as a good and responsible master of Pemberley.
Forcing marriage without love was considered deeply immoral, as well as entering such a marriage willingly. A range of very different authors from Daniel Defoe, Mary Wollstonecraft to Charlotte Turner Smith called it legalised prostitution. Actually Defoe was even harsher, calling it matrimonial whoredom. Austen gives us her own moral view on the matter in The Three Sisters via a very cold description of a woman prostituting herself in such a marriage by having her boldly state her price, as well as in Pride and Prejudice, where Elizabeth expresses Austen’s thoughts in her reaction to Charlotte’s decision. Charlotte is said to have sacrificed every better feeling to worldly advantage, and through the disgrace sunk in Elizabeth’s esteem. Later, Elizabeth tells Jane: You shall not, for the sake of one individual, change the meaning of principle and integrity, nor endeavour to persuade yourself or me that selfishness is prudence, and insensibility of danger, security for happiness.
Austen’s “principle” usually refers to “religious principle”.
That is a strong reaction, far stronger than in the case of Lydia’s elopement. But Lydia did not sin, she loved and believed she was going to be married. She was foolish, but her failure was on the grounds of the mores of the society rather than Christianity. Just half a century earlier she would be considered legally married.
Jane tries to defend Charlotte, saying: be ready to believe, for every body’s sake, that she may feel something like regard and esteem for our cousin, but Austen leaves us no doubt that Charlotte feels none of it. In fact it is clear that Charlotte would rather have Collins’s money without the man himself.
As much as Lizzy’s perspective isn’t always right, and indeed she is wrong thinking that Charlotte will be miserable, her moral views are properly formed and never change, and so her judgement of the moral aspect of Charlotte’s deed is universal. Moreover, in Charlotte’s case, Austen concurs with her heroine by adding the narrator’s opinion, letting us know that Elizabeth judged Charlotte properly while failing to do the same with Wickham (emphasis mine):
The sudden acquisition of ten thousand pounds was the most remarkable charm of the young lady to whom [Wickham] was now rendering himself agreeable; but Elizabeth, less clear-sighted perhaps in his case than in Charlotte’s, did not quarrel with him for his wish of independence.
Charlotte’s case is exactly the opposite to Lydia’s. She made a respectable marriage in the eyes of the society, but in the eyes of God she’s not married at all. As long as she lives she may be content with her house and poultry, but she has sinned, she is going to spend the rest of her life in sin, and she’ll be punished after she dies.
Defoe explains that a single fornication is a much lesser failure than marriage without love. One can fornicate and stop, regret one’s actions and never repeat them again. By entering a loveless marriage one is going to prostitute oneself for the rest of one’s life.
Of course people might reason that any kind of affection or regard would suffice, and no doubt many did. After all one might say that one cares for one’s cousin for example. But that is simply hypocrisy, and in one’s heart one would still know that it is just cheating. Yet, vowing love to one person while loving another was considered even worse. In such a case one could not cheat even oneself, and such people are punished by Austen yet during their life.
It is Austen’s genius to give us Charlotte, a nice, reasonable woman, who commits the sin, rather than a villain, as she does in case of many other characters. Another woman who was guilty of the same was Eliza Williams, Brandon’s first love, and she did end up a prostitute. Maria Bertram became an adulteress in effect of a similar decision. And, who knows, perhaps Willoughby was a murderer in the making. In Charlotte’s case though, as well as in Lucy Steele’s, Austen is realistic. Such marriages have always happened, and at least some of them could be successful on the prudential side, even though they were sinful. Charlotte is reasonable enough to keep up the appearances. After all she married in order to improve her social standing.
Naturally, Austen, as every author concerned with morals, shows the ideal that people should live up to, and criticises their failures. Practice hardly ever lives up to either Christian or other morality. Many people still married for money, and many were known to look for passion elsewhere. Only when a man brought his mistress to his house it could cause the society’s censure. Austen is ever aware of the duplicity of her contemporaries.
Below are various quotes on marriage from modern sources, compiled by Sue in her Regency Encyclopaedia:
Laurence Stone – The Family, Sex & Marriage in England 1500-1800
Penguin Books (1979)
The median age at first marriage for women was 22 or 23 in the 18th century.
The median age at first marriage for heirs of the English squirarchy was 27-29 in the late 18th to early 19th centuries.
On average in the 18th century, younger sons were marrying in their early to middle 30s although their brides were some 10 years younger.
Among the plebs, the age of marriage of the middle and lower classes of both sexes was remarkably late.
After 1780, romantic love became a respectable motive among the propertied classes.
Foreign observers had no doubt that by the second half of the 18th century, there was a clear trend to companionate marriages, particularly in the upper and the lowest levels of society.
Robert B. Shoemaker – Gender in English Society 1650-1850
Pearson Education Limited (1998)
One can detect in the social conservatism following the French Revolution the elaboration of an image of wives providing in their homes a safe haven for their husbands away from the corruption and vexations of public life.
Because the property came from their fathers and daughters played such a minor role in negotiations, it is not surprising that upper class brides were younger, both absolutely and in relation to the age of the groom, than in marriages where less property was at stake.
Although in recent years historians have stressed the important and possibly increasing role played by affect and love, practical considerations may have been more important, with loving relationships often resulting from marriage rather than leading to it. It was the sex with the more secure economic position which could most afford to look for other qualifications in a spouse. In particular, men wanted someone who would run a household for them.
It’s been suggested that marriages of affection were most common among the lower class where spouses were most likely to be the same age and women’s joint participation in bread winning placed them in partnership with their husbands.
Love and companionship could characterize middle class marriages, especially where husband and wife shared firmly held religious or mercantile values, and affection and loving familiarity between spouses shine through many of the gentry’s correspondence.
There is strong evidence of mutual affection from the higher classes in marriage.
Not only did men and women often not get married until they were in their late 20s, but high mortality led to a marital breakdown rate of a similar magnitude to that created by the large number of divorces today.
Rosemary Baird – Mistress of the House, Great Ladies and Grand Houses
It was not until 1780 that most of the propertied classes in any way thought of accepting romance rather than land as the basis for marriage.
By the late 18th century it was often said that if a man wanted the new ideal of a ‘companionate’ marriage, he needed a well-read wife.
In an age when to be a spinster had little status and less glamour, a husband provided social acceptability, family, a sense of purpose, and often the added advantages of love, affection and companionship.
Sharon Laudermilk & Teresa L. Hamlin – The Regency Companion
Garland Publishing (1989)
Misalliances were considered base. A girl should marry to increase her social consequence and thereby her family’s. And certainly she should never marry beneath her. Matches between men and women of unequal social standing were threats to the rigid structure of society.
This was not true of matches between personages of unequal fortunes. In an era where women had few options outside marriage, husband hunting constituted an honorable trade. A portionless miss of good family and high rank had a duty to seek out an eligible party.
Men were also hopeful that their future spouse would bring a substantial sum to their union and this, of course, made the possibility of an eligible offer for a beautiful girl of little fortune small.
Some marriages where based on true affection, but is was a practical age. One was expected to look for pleasure outside an unsatisfactory marriage.
Of supreme importance was the continuance of a gentleman’s name and the debt he owed his family. If his family was facing financial ruin or hardship, it was his duty to marry money no matter how unattractive the package in which it came wrapped.
Should the young beau be the heir to a great name, he was expected to dedicate himself to the future of his family. It was his duty to get an heir of his body to preserve the line. Younger sons could go wild on the town and dissipate their time, wealth & health. The heir must marry and reproduce.
It was not unusual in fashionable marriages for husbands and wives to go their separate ways after a male child was born.
The cynical matches of marriages between fortunes and great estates still existed in the upper ten thousand, but love matches were common and in most cases considered all the crack.
An alliance arranged by Regency parents with or without the child’s consent was not uncommon among the great families in the upper ten thousand. The well-endowed heirs and heiresses were the least free to choose where to bestow their hearts and hands.
Even with the freedom to make their own choice, many a beau and miss were tempted to look as high as they could for a match.
With the fashionable who were not confined and restricted by a great estate, the desire to make a match with affection at its base was considered to marital felicity. This compatible affection need not be a deathless passion but merely a comfortable tolerance to make a marriage of convenience an agreeable enterprise.
Marriages of convenience could be based on many different reasons. A young lady might feel it necessary to sacrifice herself on the altar of family duty by marrying a man of means who could settle an improvident sire’s gambling debts. It might also be convenient for a titled young blood to marry the heiress of the great estate that bordered his own country estate.
Younger sisters and brothers were looked on by the head of the family as elements to be guided by him (in regards to marriage partners) to insure the family’s power and wealth.