Marriage in Regency England

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Austen explores the monetary pressures to marry that were imposed on young women. Women who didn’t have sufficient wealth felt the greatest pressure to find a man of wealth to look after them, as they would otherwise become a burden to their family. The occupational restrictions placed on women, specifically from the “genteel” class, subjected them to professions that weren’t too highly respected and well paid. Therefore, marriage presented the most common path to financial security. Many female characters in Austen’s novels valued marriage as their highest and most natural aspirations; should they find the right man, marriage was undoubtedly to follow. The concept of marrying for wealth may be perceived as shallow and greedy, however in Austen’s time it was an idea that was seriously considered by even the most sensible of women, justified by their diminishing social standing. It was seen as foolish to marry without having any sense of guaranteed income in advance. Marriage was for life; an assurance of social security. This idea is emphasised in Emma’s confident statement: “A single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable, old maid! The proper sport of boys and girls; but a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as anybody else.” Austen reinforces the importance of social security in Emma’s reaction to Mr Martin’s proposal to Harriet Smith, early in the novel (chapter 7). Mr Martin’s uncertain income and belittling social status lead Emma to be sly and subtle in her influence on Harriet to reject the proposal. Mr Martin was, in Emma’s perspective, merely as respectable and satisfactory as Mr Elton, who she had originally planned to match with Harriet. Harriet’s original rejection to Mr Martin, despite hinted desire, emphasises that marriage was therefore a matter of necessity and business, more often than love. Although it did not always entail mutual affection and left them caught...
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