Thursday, January 09, 2014

Austen's Heroines, Love, and Marriage

For Austen's mature and maturing heroines, from Elinor and Marianne through Fanny and Elizabeth to Anne and Emma, love is a crowning virtue, just as marriage is a crowning reward. Faith, in education, and in themselves, as an intellectual virtue, added to a fundamental faith in God and in the Christian desire for the good, comes before--even if sometimes just before--love. This is why marriage is not ultimately the telos for these heroines....The difference between most of Austen's heroines and the heroines of sentimental romances of her time and ours is that for the majority of the latter, love is paramount, while for the former, love is both preceded by and accompanied by faith and the development of the mind.

Sarah Emsley, Jane Austen's Philosophy of the Virtues, p. 33. And, indeed, it is notable how intellectual the typical development of the Austen heroine is, and the fact that (good) marriage seems to be so consistently linked with moral education in her stories. (This is as true for the Austen heroes as for the heroines -- I think even in the most apparently unbalanced case, that of Catherine Moreland and Henry Tilney, where Tilney has all of the obvious experience, culture, and background education, there are plenty of indications of the importance of mutual moral education.) It is also true that, despite the importance of marriage to every single story, it is always quite clear that marriage is a reward, not the point.


  1. MrsDarwin8:01 AM

    Of course, what Henry instantly values in Catherine is her strong innate moral sense, even without the benefit of formal education. Under the guise of mocking Isabella Thorpe, he describes Catherine perfectly to Eleanor:

    "'Prepare yourself for your sister-in-law, Eleanor, and such a sister-in-law as you must delight in! -- Open, candid, artless, guileless, with affections strong but simple, forming no pretensions, and knowing no disguise.'
    'Such a sister-in-law, Henry, I should delight in,' said Eleanor, with a smile."

    Also, I think Henry (whether consciously or not) is not above appreciating that the untutored Catherine is willing to imprint on him and his opinions.

  2. branemrys10:14 AM

    I think that that's a very good way to put it. And given Tilney's tendency to irony and sarcasm, that's definitely the sort of woman he needs to be interacting with.


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