Grumpy husbands, silly wives, and schemes of happiness: real marriages in Jane Austen’s novels

At 25 or 26, Mr Palmer is already a grumpy man. He is rude, insolent, and contemptuous; he scolds and abuses his wife, and, in short, is ‘always out of humour’ – a description that makes you wonder what he will be like at 50 or 60. Mr Bennet ridicules his lady in front of their children, shuts himself up in the library, and neglects his parental duties.

What is wrong with them? It seems that early in their marriages both found out that, like many others, ‘through some unaccountable bias in favour of beauty,’ they had wedded very silly women. According to Elinor Dashwood, though it might sour the male temper a little bit, the mistake is ‘too common for any sensible man to be lastingly hurt by it,’ from which she concludes that Mr Palmer just wishes to assert his superiority by displaying his ill-breeding.

Mr Bennet, however, was paralysed by this overwhelming realisation. Whether he had thought himself too clever to fall for a pretty face and a pleasing figure or underestimated the power of hormones, he must have felt humiliated. The sex went on for many years, anyway, and not just because they needed a son to cut off the entail: in chapter 1 he tells her she is ‘as handsome as any’ of their daughters. Do we detect a little sarcasm here? Perhaps, but even now he cannot deny she is still physically attractive.

‘Men of sense,’ Mr Knightley states, ‘do not want silly wives.’ Yet the way courtship was conducted in Austen’s time posed a risk:  ‘How many a man has committed himself on a short acquaintance,’ exclaims Frank Churchill, ‘and rued it all the rest of his life!’ Mr Bennet was ‘captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour which youth and beauty generally give.’ His beloved’s ‘weak understanding and illiberal mind,’ though, must have been there for the moderately intelligent and learned to notice. It must be mortifying to know you have been such a fool, to have no one but yourself to blame. Of course he could always take it out on her, ‘put an end to all real affection for her.’ At some point he must have admitted to himself that ‘respect, esteem, and confidence had vanished for ever.’

Mrs Grant, ‘with a temper to love and be loved,’ is neither pretty nor dumb – so what is Dr Grant’s excuse? Too lazy to ‘take the trouble of being agreeable,’ he ‘has nothing to do but read the newspaper, watch the weather, and quarrel with his wife,’ with whom he is ‘out of humour’ whenever cook makes a blunder. She has to grin and bear it, but somehow does not think it so bad.

‘There is not one in a hundred of either sex who is not taken in when they marry,’ says her sister. She further elaborates:

I know so many who have married in the full expectation and confidence of some one particular advantage in the connexion, or accomplishment, or good quality in the person, who have found themselves entirely deceived, and been obliged to put up with exactly the reverse. What is this but a take in?

‘My dear child, [replies Mrs Grant] there must be a little imagination here. I beg your pardon, but I cannot quite believe you. Depend upon it, you see but half. You see the evil, but you do not see the consolation. There will be little rubs and disappointments everywhere, and we are all apt to expect too much; but then, if one scheme of happiness fails, human nature turns to another; if the first calculation is wrong, we make a second better: we find comfort somewhere–and those evil-minded observers, dearest Mary, who make much of a little, are more taken in and deceived than the parties themselves.’

Mr Palmer
Illustration from http://www.mollands.net

There is only one divorce in Jane Austen’s novels, which Mr Rushworth has ‘no difficulty in procuring’ after his wife elopes with Mr Crawford. A papal annulment solves a similar problem in Lesley Castle. Only the wealthy could afford a divorce in those days, and public disgrace would inevitably follow. It would have been virtually impossible for a woman to obtain one even if she had the means, unless her husband agreed or his ill-treatment posed a threat to her life. It would therefore have been out of the question for the couples whose situations we are considering. Based on what we know, there would have been no real grounds for it, anyway, except, perhaps, in the Bennets’ case.

‘Do anything rather than marry without affection,’ Jane tells Lizzy. At the very least she hopes their friend Charlotte Lucas ‘may feel something like regard and esteem,’ for Mr Collins. Insisting on the subject, Austen writes to her niece Fanny Knight:

I shall … entreat you not to commit yourself farther, & not to think of accepting him unless you really do like him. Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection; and if his deficiencies of Manner &. &c strike you more than all his good qualities, if you continue to think strongly of them, give him up at once.

Mr Bennet, alas, acknowledged these shortcomings only too late. Fortunately, he

was not of a disposition to seek comfort, for the disappointment which his own imprudence had brought on, in any of those pleasures which too often console the unfortunate for their folly or their vice. He was fond of the country and of books; and from these tastes had arisen his principal enjoyments.

In other words, he does not have a mistress or engage in sexual relations with the servants or prostitutes. Mrs Bennet should almost be thankful for that, for the author loathes such practices:

I am proud to say that I have a very good eye at an Adultress, for tho’ repeatedly assured that another in the same party was the She, I fixed upon the right one from the first … She is not so pretty as I expected; her face has the same defect of baldness as her sisters, & her features not so handsome;- she was highly rouged, & looked rather quietly & contentedly silly than anything else.

A few years later she rhetorically asks: ‘What can be expected from a Paget, born & brought up in the centre of conjugal Infidelity & Divorces? … I abhor all the race of Pagets.’

Mr Bennet finds other outlets for his bitter resentment:

To his wife he was very little otherwise indebted, than as her ignorance and folly had contributed to his amusement. This is not the sort of happiness which a man would in general wish to owe to his wife; but where other powers of entertainment are wanting, the true philosopher will derive benefit from such as are given.

Elizabeth, however, had never been blind to the impropriety of her father’s behaviour as a husband. She had always seen it with pain; but respecting his abilities, and grateful for his affectionate treatment of herself, she endeavoured to forget what she could not overlook, and to banish from her thoughts that continual breach of conjugal obligation and decorum which, in exposing his wife to the contempt of her own children, was so highly reprehensible.

But she had never … been so fully aware of the evils arising from so ill-judged a direction of talents; talents which rightly used, might at least have preserved the respectability of his daughters, even if incapable of enlarging the mind of his wife.

Mr Bennet
Illustration from http://www.mollands.net

In the first chapter we are told that after 23 years she is still unable to ‘understand his character,’ and she does not seem aware of the depth of his dislike. But I think she must perceive, somehow, that things are not all right between them. What is her alternative ‘scheme of happiness’? ‘The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news’ – sounds like a good plan for a woman of ‘mean understanding’ and ‘little information.’ And, in spite of all her flaws, more useful to the girls: had it all been left to their father, they might not even have met Mr Bingley …

Mrs Palmer is blissfully ignorant of her husband’s disappointment: she considers him ‘droll’ and does not mind his bad manners. At any rate, they are stuck with each other:

Charlotte laughed heartily to think that her husband could not get rid of her; and exultingly said, she did not care how cross he was to her, as they must live together. It was impossible for any one to be more thoroughly good-natured, or more determined to be happy than Mrs. Palmer.

As Emma puts it, ‘there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,’ and even Mr Palmer must reluctantly appreciate that. Deep down there is ‘real humanity and good nature’ in him too. But since he is not very agreeable himself, a smiling pretty wife might be an asset in his political career:

We are so gay now, for Mr. Palmer is always going about the country canvassing against the election; and so many people came to dine with us that I never saw before, it is quite charming! But, poor fellow! it is very fatiguing to him! for he is forced to make every body like him.

Mrs Grant, in turn,

having by this time run through the usual resources of ladies residing in the country without a family of children–having more than filled her favourite sitting-room with pretty furniture, and made a choice collection of plants and poultry–was very much in want of some variety at home. The arrival, therefore, of a sister whom she had always loved, and now hoped to retain with her as long as she remained single, was highly agreeable.

Their brother comes too, and the friendly intercourse with the inhabitants of Mansfield Park is a source of pleasure to them all. She even agrees to take part in private theatricals.

We know next to nothing about what happens after the wedding bells ring for our heroes and heroines. The happily ever after of romantic comedy prevents us from enquiring too much into detail. Only secondary characters are allowed ‘real’ unions. Here Austen’s view is rather nuanced: she draws our attention to their virtues as well as to their flaws, and lets us witness their everyday life. At times we are even forced to see what we might wish to overlook. We may celebrate Mr Bennet’s witty remarks and sense of humour, but a closer look makes us regret such a waste of talent. I cannot help feeling that his wife would have been a bit less vulgar ‘if he had behaved only tolerably by her.’

References

Jane Austen’s novels quoted from http://www.mollands.net

Adkins, Roy and Lesley. 2014. Jane Austen’s England. Daily Life in the Georgian and Regency Periods. New York: Penguin Books.

Le Faye, Deirdre, ed. 2011. Jane Austen Letters. Oxford: OUP.

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