English 384R, section 1
21 April 2003
The Love War: Jane Austen’s Preference
According to history, Jane Austen was engaged for about twelve hours. On December 2, 1802, she agreed to marry Harris Bigg-Wither. After a night of musing over her decision, she recalled her promise to Harry. Why? Austen’s relations understood that it was because she did not love him—and she could never marry without love (Gray 262-263). Her novels reflected this value. But she had to write about marriage because “marriage remains for Austen the ideal paradigm of the most perfect fusion between the individual and society” (Poovey 203).
By the time Jane Austen was writing and publishing her novels, companionate marriages had become more established than arranged marriages (Waldron, par. 5). In order for companionate marriages to take place, love had to develop during courtship. Two kinds of love existed in courtship: passionate and reserved. Passionate love involved irrational, unhidden emotions, which caused actions that flew in the face of propriety (Marantz, par. 28). Reserved love kept emotions in check and followed the rules of propriety.
Austen portrayed both loves in her novels. But how did she portray them? Which love did she prefer? And why did she value one love over another?
How Things Were Done
Just like today, in Austen’s time certain things were done certain ways. Courtship was one of these things. There was a proper way and an improper way to court. Although the whole process was changing—such as becoming more of a private affair, some things remained in force. Parents and family still took some part in the courtship. The male suitor could not court his lady unless a member of her family knew of his attentions. (Barret-Ducrocq 87)
The females being courted were expected to act in a reserved manner. Many people followed the advice given by John Gregory in his work A Father’s Legacy to His Daughter: Conduct and Behavior. He said that “one of the chief beauties in a female character, is that modest reserve” and further suggested that “this modesty...will naturally dispose you to be rather silent in company…. People of sense and discernment will never mistake such silence for dulness” (Johnson 391-392).
It was not looked upon very well for a girl to be giddy, outspoken, and thoughtless. Such girls were viewed as silly and their actions were improper because they were unreserved. Some men tried to convince girls that unreserved behavior would be more favorable. However, today’s society can guess what these men were after. (Johnson 393)
It was these men who convinced girls that completely private courtships were all right. These men made promises to seek family permission or offered future marriage proposals. But seduction was their goal—and usually a successful one. The girls they aimed at were “disobedient, or indifferent and frivolous” (Barret-Ducrocq 94).
These passionate relationships always crossed the line of propriety. Some couples simply crossed the line because of their flirtatious behavior, which propriety objected to. Other couples disobeyed the rules to an extreme that led to pre-marital relationships. Of these, many pregnancies occurred (Barret-Ducrocq 94). Some degree of shame fell on every girl according to how far she crossed the line.
Austen’s society preferred reserved love. Reserved love was following propriety’s rules. It was also safe. Females maintained their honor and dignity, and so did their families. Passionate love was looked on as the precursor to wicked actions. It must be pointed out that “carnal relations between young people have always been tolerated by the working classes” (Barret-Ducrocq 97). Some may argue that passionate love would be okay in this case. But Austen did not write about the working class. She wrote about the middle class, gentry, and aristocracy. This kind of society was more concerned with what was good and proper. So, “good society” shunned passionate love and hailed reserved love.
Austen instilled society’s values in her novels whether she supported them or not. It was the same case for this issue. Many of her female characters portrayed passionate love or reserved love. All of her novels have good females who followed the rules of propriety: Elinor Dashwood, Jane Bennet, Fanny Price, Jane Fairfax, Catherine Tilney, and Anne Elliot. Perhaps not all of these girls are the most emulative or enviable heroines. Some are weak. Others are a little too quiet. But each experiences her own trials, remains proper and reserved, and receives a husband at the end of her respective novel.
To contrast the reserved females, each novel has at least one passionate female. Some with minor “offences” are Marianne Dashwood, Emma Woodhouse, Isabella Thorpe, and Louisa Musgrove. These girls show a little bit too much emotion or are too flirtatious. Their shame reaches the extent of a few people in society shaking their heads at the girls’ actions. The girls do not partake of marital happiness unless they adopt the trait of reserved love.
Two characters with major offences are Lydia Bennet and Maria Bertram Rushworth. Both run off with men—they go much farther down the path of wickedness after crossing the line with their flirtatious actions. Their shameful behaviors lead to their characters’ ruination and family dishonor. And although both girls find temporary pleasure, it is not lasting happiness.
Austen’s characters give black-and-white beliefs: passionate love led to evil and reserved love was rewarded. Each love has a corresponding result and all of her characters receive their just ending. However, Austen was “acutely aware of the physical constituent in the relations between her men and women” (McMaster, Jane Austen on Love 67). She knew that each gender would be attracted to the other—it is the way of the normal world. Wouldn’t Austen try to combine the two loves in order to give her female heroines physical attraction to her male heroes?
In her article, Paula Marantz made the point that reserved love still has feeling and that Mr. Darcy is a combination of reserved love’s reason and passionate love’s emotion. His emotions are mostly under control. Even his first proposal’s outburst of feeling is checked and brought back under control. But the reader is able to see that even Darcy’s reserved manner of love is still filled with passionate emotions (par. 28).
On further examination, some of Austen’s male characters seem to be full of these controlled, passionate emotions. Mr. Knightley, like Mr. Darcy, shows an outburst of feeling when he declares his love for Emma. Captain Wentworth’s letter is full of animated emotion that races from his pen as his hand tries to keep up with his heart. What about the reserved Henry Tilney? He falls in love with Catherine only after realizing that she loves him (Weinsheimer 70). Somehow, that seems to follow along the path of reserved love. But even his emotions come forth when he disobeys his father and hurriedly follows after Catherine to apologize and propose. Do the men participate in reserved love? It is true that their emotions are in check, but it is obvious that there are some passionate feelings coursing through them. Where does this fit in to the passionate versus reserved love argument?
It fits in to the part that portrays men as the ones with the hormones. That’s what today’s audience would say, and it was true for the audience in Austen’s day. It was the men who always did the initiating of a courtship. “The men, as one would expect, [were] more ready to expatiate on the beauties of their women than vice versa” (McMaster, Jane Austen on Love 67). And it was most often the men who led the relationship to evil, whether that was their initial design or not (e.g. Henry Crawford with Maria Bertram Rushworth). Are these men justified for their passions?
In the early nineteenth century, men were not punished for uncontrolled emotions the way women were. They might have been looked down on by some, but overall they were not affected by it. Austen showed this in Willoughby. He got a girl pregnant, but still was able to go on with life and marry a girl of large fortune. True, his actions were discovered and his aunt disowned him, but he did not have the extent of shame that the females received. So it was with the other men. The question of passionate love and reserved love must then be narrowed to concerning females because they were the ones whose actions society judged the most and whose lives would be affected the most. Then is there a female character that tried to combine the two loves?
It seemed that with Elizabeth Bennet, Austen tried to show a combination of the two loves. Elizabeth was definitely proper and followed the rules. But she was witty. “Wit in women, like sexual aggression, threatens the cultural order of domination” (Maaja 70-71). Wit went against propriety because the girl broke her expected meek stereotype. Wit could be seen as a part of passionate love because of its disobedience to propriety.
But is wit really all that bad? Most would agree that wit does not seem to be a likely cause of evil-doing—just playfulness of mind. However, the reader would admit that Elizabeth is not wholly reserved. Then what is she? G. K. Chesterton referred to it as romantic love: “a rational blend of affection and desire for a person, and an involuntary, often blind, power of emotion that seizes one” (Crowe, par. 21). But romantic love would still be classed under reserved love because emotions and actions are still controlled.
Austen tried to create a combination of reserved and passionate love in at least one of her novels. But even this combination fell under the reserved love classification. Looking at her works, it appears that Austen was promoting reserved love.
Why Reserved Love?
Everyone knows to do what sells. Singers sing what people want to hear. Austen must have written what people wanted to read. If society supported reserved love, then Austen was following the trend. Yet that does not sound like the Austen that people analyze. Many see Austen defying society in her quiet, unchallenging way. But if she isn’t following a trend, what?
Most likely she was writing to reflect her own preference. She wrote about marriage and “upheld the theory dear to the English that a marriage must be made for love” (Epton 273). “What Austen provides is the real happy ending: love restored and longing satisfied, under the best possible conditions for rational happiness” (McMaster, Jane Austen’s Business 15). Rational happiness is a result of rational or reserved love.
Another reason she might write about reserved love is that was all she knew. “She was conscientious in her determination to describe only what she knew” (Gray 291). History states that Austen had an interest in a Mr. Henry Eldridge who her family believed she would have married if he had not had an untimely death (Gray 263-264). If love existed in the relationship before his death, it would have had reserved love. They followed propriety—the family knew of their meetings—and everything was controlled—emotions, actions, etc. She experienced enough to know that reserved love worked and made her happy.
There is no guaranteed way of knowing why Jane Austen supported reserved love. It may have been one of her values and it may have been from experience. It was possible she was following a trend or perhaps she had compared results of reserved love with passionate love. There are many possibilities and no knowing for sure what the real reason was.
It is clear that Austen’s novels do support reserved love. Passionate love kept characters from being happy, or eventually led to unhappiness. Reserved love was the “true love” that readers seem to look for. Some of the love story endings were a bit disappointing because of the lack of emotion or outburst of feeling on the woman’s side. It causes the audience to wonder if the heroine really does love the hero.
Nevertheless, reserved love relationships were what worked. Austen did include romantic love as part of reserved love, which helped to satisfy some readers. She did not use romantic love as much in her novels and very likely because she did not want to venture too far into an area that she was not familiar with. But overall, reserved love was the best option for a happy ending and Austen promoted it skillfully.
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