Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Exit Strategies: Jane Austen, Marriage, and Familial Escape

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Exit Strategies: Jane Austen, Marriage, and Familial Escape

Article excerpt

In Jane Austen's novels, the term "out" most often refers to a young woman's occupying a position of public circulation once she has become available for marriage. However, the term also begs the question: "out of what?" How does "coming out" relate to "getting out," and why is getting out, presumably of one's childhood home and associations with siblings and parents, so important? In this essay, I depart from a tradition of reading Austen's ideal suitor as a fraternal figure who facilitates a continuation of some version of a family of origin. Instead, I argue that Austen values distinctly sexualized and non-fraternal relationships that allow a heroine an exit from the family framework that threatens to impede her happiness.

In thinking and writing about family structures with an awareness of their defects, Jane Austen participated in a wider cultural and literary assessment of kin relations. Christopher Flint notes that "the latter part of the [eighteenth] century is marked by an increased number of narratives that scrutinize the psychological, social and political consequences of kinship in fundamentally sceptical ways" (SO). Ruth Perry argues that the fiction of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries reveals evolving understandings of kinship, in which one's biological family gradually bec[ame] secondary to the chosen family constructed by marriage" (2). Since this distinction between families of origin and conjugal families necessarily led to divided loyalties (Perry 5), the idea of choosing sides became increasingly important, and Austen would not have been alone in participating in the widespread "disavowal" of the family presented by many authors (Flint 30). If understandings of just what family one belonged to were shifting, and individuals, especially women, were being given the option to choose what kin group to prioritize, they would have needed to inspect each more closely before coming to a decision.

Certainly, as Mary Evans points out, Austen "does not idealize the family or make it into a legitimate locus of unquestioned patriarchal authority" (75). Her heroines are more often burdened than supported by the families they are born into. Perry reads the persistent marriage plot of the novels of this period as representative of an attempt "[to find] a safe berth, to land somewhere, to relocate domestic life in an establishment other than their families of origin" (220). The impetus toward marriage, Perry argues, is driven as much by a need to maintain domestic stability as by romantic love. I don't believe, however, that in Austens novels conjugal families merely represent continuations of the stability granted by families of origin. Austen's successful marriages pointedly defy the structures of families of origin, and when heroines strive to replicate their childhood families via endogamous marriages, they encounter multiple sites of disappointment. Endogamous marriages are shown to perpetuate unsatisfying family structures and fail to offer the promise of sexual compatibility.

Mansfield Park is often noted as the novel most explicitly ending with a static, endogamous marriage in which outside influences are forsaken in favor of the familiar and the familial. It is also the novel in which shadows most persistently linger over its comic ending, leading to questions of whether its conclusion was ever really meant as an endogamous endorsement, or whether it should be read as a subversive gesture precisely to the contrary. Pride and Prejudice, on the other hand, contains a marriage as exogamous as one finds in Austen: Darcy has no pre-existing ties to the Bennet family, is a stranger at the beginning of the novel, and is not only not affiliated with Elizabeth's family but presented as their opposite. For Elizabeth to marry Darcy is to move outside of--and quite a distance geographically, financially, and socially away from--her family. Not only is Darcy outside of familial ties, there is also an absence of brotherly guidance in his and Elizabeth's relationship; while he undoubtedly does teach her, not least about herself, "it is also fairly widely accepted that Darcy learns from her" (Shaffer 65), or perhaps more aptly, that they learn from each other. …

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