Thursday, August 17, 2006

Austen On Marriage

Wedded bliss depends on the ability to avoid the false premises of marriage
by Nick van der Leek

I am not expert on marriage, except that I am the product of a marriage, I’ve observed plenty of marriages, and I have been asked to make a few speeches at the beginning of a few others. I do consider Jane Austen to be an expert on the subject, and it is interesting to note that neither she – an authority on the subject – nor her sister Cassandra, bound themselves into such a union.

There’s also no evidence to suggest that Jane Austen was disappointed in love. Now I know those who enthusiastically (and without qualification) endorse the marriage contract will immediately argue that Jane Austen was of another age, and anything she had to say about the institution then is simply inappropriate today. Wrong.

Austen is the author of six of arguably the best novels in the history of the English language. She herself describes her area of expertise as being the width of the ivory stick on a piano, and uses this limited space to adorn the details and nuances of life in immaculate detail and with perfect subtlety. Her humility on this point should not diminish our perceptions of the quality and value of her expertise.

It is in Pride and Prejudice (and these two terms capture perfectly some of the principal qualities at work when people, of any age, seek a mate) that Austen balances the gender issues at play when human beings seek partners for life.
She provides 5 examples of marriages in her novel, 3 of which are flawed (including the marriage of her principal characters’ parents, the Bennets, and the marriage of her sister, and the marriage of her best friend) and two which are not. The ‘false premises’ of the three flawed marriages are noteworthy.

The first of these is a marriage based on passion – which may be a passionate lust or greed. I have attended at least one wedding where this was evidently the reason behind the union. In Pride and Prejudice, Lydia and Wickham’s passion leads to an almost disastrous situation, which is salvaged thanks to the patronage and support of some wealthy and well meaning people? Despite these interventions, one wonders how long such an alliance, that begins so shakily and impetuously, will last.

The second false premise is based on prudence. This means marrying for good reason, or in popular parlance, ‘a marriage of convenience’. In her novel, Elizabeth’s best friend marries the pompous, passionless and exceedingly polite Mr. Collins (a preacher), because she, Charlotte, is getting old and doesn’t want to have to fend for herself. It is not long before she has to engineer space between herself and her husband, a man whom she does not respect nor love. Once the comfort of home becomes secondary, the business of dealing with a person who constantly offends, and who cannot command one’s affection becomes an inescapable reality and a primary focus that must also be constantly avoided.

I am aware of at least one alliance that bears all the characteristics of the one mentioned above. It seems to me to be based on what is acceptable in a worldly sense, but what is (what must be) personally very difficult to endure.

The third false premise is a lapse of judgment, which is commonly associated with the very young impetuously and rashly rushing to the altar. In Austen’s book, the Bennets (Mr. and Mrs.) fit this category, and Mr. Bennet finds himself suffering more than 20 years later with a wife who suffers from constant outbursts of silly, nervous energy. After all, in the very first chapter he says, “You mistake me, my dear. I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these twenty years at least.”

I also know of people close to me who fall into this category, and they were the first to divorce. It is an open question, when one has discovered one’s error (in getting married) whether (or for how long) one ought to remain obstructed from bearing out one’s true nature and intentions, or whether one makes the most of an imperfect state of affairs, possibly for the sake of children or possibly out of a stubbornness to not admit to the world that mistakes were made.

Marriages that do work depend on a careful matching of two people with a similar sense of pride, and appreciation of each person’s tastes and sensibilities. All this requires cautious and lengthy consideration, and a deep sense of respect for the other’s universe.

My advice is quite simple. If you’re patient and mature enough to read (and understand) a classic on the subject of marriage (like Pride and Prejudice) – if you’re capable of reading it from the first word of the first page, to the last word of the last, and have absorbed its centre, then you’re ready to know what you’re getting yourself into, and what you’re in for. It’s a big deal, probably the biggest deal of your life. If you manage to not screw up (getting or being married), you ought to be fine. But I agree with Austen: the odds are against us.

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