“Marriage affords great collective excitations: if we managed to suppress the Oedipus complex and marriage, what would be left for us to tell?”
–Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes
Money and marriage in the time of Jane Austen included a number of terms not in common use in modern day America, like entailment, primogeniture, and dowries. Though these words may seem archaic, they are the root of our financial and inheritance systems.
The notion of “entailment” stems from feudal England and is a guarantee that lands will forever be given to direct descendants. Unfortunately, this was limited to male heirs, since women were not able to own property unless they were widows or spinsters; married men and women were considered one financial entity. It’s not until the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 that married British women could own and control property, for comparison Mississippi became the first state in 1839 to allow women to own property in their name, though it took until 1900 for all states to recognize women as individual entities.
It was difficult for women to inherit property. Unless otherwise defined by a will, the English law of primogeniture automatically gave the oldest son the right to all real property, and the daughter only inherited real property in the absence of a male heir, and this law remained in place until 1925.
Because of these governing issues in Regency England, fathers often provided daughters with a dowry, a transfer of parental property or money to a daughter at her marriage (which then is instantly transferred to the husband by law). Dowries are a prehistoric custom, described as already existing in the Code of Hammurabi in ancient Babylon.
Married women today might not think twice about buying property or opening a bank account, but it wasn’t until 1960 in America and 1975 in the UK that married women were guaranteed the ability to open accounts without their husband’s permission. Until America’s Equal Opportunity Credit Act in 1974 was passed, banks required single, widowed or divorced women to bring a man along to cosign any credit application, regardless of income. And it wasn’t until 1981 that a husband didn’t have the right to unilaterally take out a second mortgage on property held jointly with his wife. Modern young women might find this deeply shocking, but it’s been about 300 years of (very slow) improvement since Jane Austen’s day.
Jane Austen’s novels frequently feature complicated entailments and discussion of money, and a preoccupation of her work was the fate of women in that society. She indirectly managed to question the inheritance practices, and society’s treatment of women, by repeatedly creating sympathetic and deserving women who face financial ruin due to circumstances beyond their control like entailments or a women’s inability to respectably earn money or own property.
Bride or Bust
Marianne is ruled by her “sensibility,” and often refuses to constrain her emotions to society’s dictates. Rules governing courtship were strict, and Marianne’s passionate sensibility inadvertently violated many of the customs of the day, though she and the women in her family largely adhered to the dictates of women’s domesticity. Women could not pursue education or professions, and instead focused on accomplishments like music (Marianne loves the piano), drawing or painting (Elinor excels at this), embroidery, or reciting poetry. Ironically, education was not an accomplishment, as it was assumed that women’s minds were inferior to men’s and incapable of holding complex thought.
Some of the many specific customs of the day included: Ladies should not send letters to men they were unrelated to, unless they were engaged; women were expected to remain “pure” because the least hint of sexual activity rendered her ineligible for marriage; and a lady waited to be introduced to a gentleman and never introduced herself. In general, women under 30 were not to walk alone unless walking to church. In riding in a carriage, ladies should not sit next to men unless they were direct relations.
A woman, and her fortune, became her husband’s property (see “Women, Money, and Marriage”) and he had almost unlimited power over her and her fate. Because women had no power of earning money, it was their duty to marry as well as possible. Many marriages were arranged, and the bride had little choice in the matter and love was not a priority. It was a woman’s duty to be as accomplished and attractive as possible in order to attract the man with the largest fortune. If a lady remained unmarried, she was otherwise forced to rely on the charity of her male relatives; she had no control over how she lived and often became passed around like a parcel to nurse elderly relatives or sick children.
Austen created intelligent women who take control of their destiny and marry men that value their minds and respect them as people. She was at the forefront of changing attitudes towards love and relationships by privileging matches based on mutual respect and love. By not marrying in her lifetime (despite a one night engagement) and having her own (anonymous) writing career, she personally disregarded the “bride or bust” expectation.
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