Nation and Novel: The English Novel from Its Origins to the Present Day

By Patrick Parrinder | Go to book overview

8
Tory Daughters and the Politics of
Marriage: Jane Austen, Charlotte
Brontë, and Elizabeth Gaskell

IN Marriage (1818) by the Scottish novelist Susan Ferrier, Lord Courtland demands that his daughter should make a traditional aristocratic marriage:

'She shall marry for the purpose for which matrimony was ordained amongst
people of birth—that is, for the aggrandisement of her family, the extending of
their political influence—for becoming, in short, the depository of their mutual
interest. These are the only purposes for which persons of rank ever think of
marriage.'1

Since this is a novel, we may be sure that Lord Courtland will be disappointed. The idea that young lovers are bound to defy social convention is one of the generic requirements of fictional romance, but the novels of Jane Austen and her contemporaries such as Maria Edgeworth and Susan Ferrier reflect specific anxieties about marriage in the early nineteenth century. The English aristocracy, having seen the flower of the French nobility sent to the guillotine in the Terror, was determined to defend its political power and to ensure its own survival. At the same time, the middle-class pattern of companionate marriage was becoming increasingly dominant, and novels did much to propagate this middleclass ideal.2

Although the novel and drama throughout history can be taken as advocating love matches and companionate marriage, such marriages in fiction invariably have an allegorical dimension. If literature asserts the right of two individuals to choose one another freely, it also tends to reveal the special appropriateness and poetic justice of the choices they make. Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is not merely an individual love tragedy; it tells us that family vendettas are evil, and would have done so even if the lovers had survived and ended happily. Aristocratic marriage is arranged, negotiated, and authorized, at least by the bride's parents;

-180-

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