Spinsterhood and Poverty in Jane Austen

Much has been said about the importance that finding the right husband has for Jane Austen’s female characters. In her novels, young ladies often strive for the attention of suitable males of marriageable age. It is understood that all girls want to get married, and when they don’t, it is because they haven’t met the right man yet; just look at Emma Woodhouse.

However, during the Regency, as it was the case until relatively recent times, getting married was much more than the matter of finding a lifelong partner. Marriage was a business transaction, and as such, it involved the head rather than the heart. Austen’s novels are full of detailed information on the capital and income of their protagonists, both male and female because such things were critical. The disparity of fortunes was as relevant as the similarity of characters when considering the desirability of a marriage alliance.

For a privileged few of Austen’s characters, marriage is a choice. Emma Woodhouse or Georgiana Darcy, for example, are wealthy in their own right. Remaining single is unlikely to affect their standard of living. But what about the women whose fortune entirely depends on making a good marriage? There are several such ladies in Jane Austen novels, starting with Pride and Prejudice.

The five Bennet sisters have little in the way of settlement, and they absolutely must marry well if they are to escape poverty once their father dies. They have no brothers to protect them, and their uncle is well-off, but he has a young family. Their situation is quite desperate. However, the only person apparently aware of their real danger of ending up as a bunch of destitute spinsters dependant on the charity of others is Mrs Bennet. Everyone else politely ignores the issue.

In the same novel, there is another female character that does all she can to escape her fate as impoverished spinster: Charlotte Lucas, Elizabeth’s intimate friend. Charlotte, at age 27, is no romantic. She knows that if she remains in her father’s house as his unmarried daughter, her future is bleak, so she deliberately puts herself in the way of a spurned Mr Collins, who finds in her an understanding and amiable companion. As a result, Charlotte bags herself a respectable (if incredibly irritating) husband. It’s a decision that Elizabeth cannot understand, but that makes perfect sense to Mrs Bennet, who is quite annoyed by it.

But there are many other instances of marriage depicted as the only escape from poverty for young ladies in Austen’s works. In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price is sent to live off the charity of her affluent Bertram relatives at a young age. Years later, after refusing a marriage proposal from the very wealthy but morally dubious Mr Crawford, Fanny’s uncle sends her to stay with her family. There, she comes face to face with the future that is likely to await her as a spinster in Portsmouth: cramped, stuffy, smelly dwellings, ill manners and a lifetime of misery. The lesson that her uncle wants her to learn is that she doesn’t have the fortune to be picky in her choice of husband.

Mansfield Park, largely focused on the subject of matrimony, effectively serves as a cautionary tale against poor choices in marriage. Just take the three Ward sisters we are introduced to at the beginning of the novel. Maria marries a baronet and becomes Lady Bertram; her eldest sister marries Reverend Norris, a clergyman with no fortune but powerful friends; while Frances, the youngest and Fanny Price’s mother, marries “a lieutenant of marines, without education, fortune or connections.” Their lives and destinies as a result of their choice of marriage partner couldn’t be more different.

Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park are by no means the only novels by Austen looking at the importance of marrying the right person to avoid poverty and spinsterhood. Eleanor and Marianne Dashwood of Sense and Sensibility and Anne Eliott of Persuasion all face the prospect of trying financial circumstances in different ways, and for all of them, marriage is a life saver. However, the character that best represents the very real danger of female poverty in Regency times is unmarried Miss Bates of Emma.

Miss Bates, one of Austen’s greatest secondary characters, is the daughter of the former vicar of Highbury and a gentlewoman by birth. She had a very comfortable upbringing, frequenting the best social circles of the county, and has the friendship and respect of men of consequence such as Mr Woodhouse and Mr Knightley. However, with her father dead and no husband or brother to protect her and her mother, Miss Bates finds herself in extremely tight financial circumstances. She is the very picture of genteel poverty, the fate that awaited spinsters with no fortune or protectors.

Incidentally, Miss Bates’ fate is not that different from that of her creator. An unmarried woman herself, Jane Austen was just a few pounds away from destitution on several occasions in her lifetime. She was lucky to have brothers who provided her with a degree of help, and had some income from her works, but achieving financial independence was incredibly difficult for unwed females in the Regency.

No wonder, perhaps, that she had such a fondness for happy endings involving perfectly suited partners. With enough money to live on, of course.


This article was originally published in Austenesque Reviews


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