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 Three Sisters is one of the frankest portrayals of “marriage as prostitution” (as Mary Wollstonecraft described marrying for material reasons) within all of Austen’s writings.
Miss Stanhope takes no pains to conceal her motives while negotiating her price:
“You must build me an elegant Greenhouse and stock it with plants. You must let me spend every Winter in Bath, every Spring in Town, Every Summer in taking some Tour, and every Autumn at a Watering Place, and if we are at home the rest of the year (Sophy and I laughed) You must do nothing but give Balls and Masquerades. You must build a room on purpose and a Theatre to act Plays in. The first Play we have shall be Which is the Man, and I will do Lady Bell Bloomer.”
Which is the Man is a play by Hannah Cowley about a fascinating widow who cannot make up her mind among several admirers.
In 1787 Austen’s family considered performing it at Steventon. Although other plays ended up being performed then, Austen was well familiar with Cowley’s plays, and quoted lines from them in her letters.