Some literary texts, although set in a particular place or time, convey ideas that are universal. In what ways, and to what extent, is this true in works by at least two writers?
[Pride and Prejudice, Tess of the D’Urbervilles and The French Lieutenant’s Woman – yes, I did try to bring three novels in this time!]
Today, there are still many issues and even difficulties regarding love and marriage. Who to marry? Who not to marry? To get married at all. How quickly should one marry; these are all issues that are discussed in Jane Austen’s satirical novel, “Pride and Prejudice”. At the same time, Thomas Hardy’s Victorian novel, “Tess of the D’Urbervilles”, also explores issues of love and marriage, although unlike in “Pride and Prejudice”, Thomas Hardy’s novel takes a more pessimistic approach to the issues surrounding love and marriage.
The first marriage proposal that occurs in “Pride and Prejudice” is that of Mr. Collins to Elizabeth; Austen makes it known that this proposal is entirely devoid of love. Mr. Collins’ reasons for marriage are, “first to set the example of matrimony in his parish,” secondly, “to add very greatly to his happiness” – notably not Elizabeth’s – and thirdly, “because it is the particular advice and recommendation of the very noble Lady Catherine.” Quite amusingly, Mr. Collins makes no mention of any love for Elizabeth whatsoever and devotes the bulk of his proposal to praise of Lady Catherine. That being said, Austen is satirising a very serious matter in her society, critiquing the behaviour of the people in her social set. When Elizabeth turns down Mr. Collins’ hand, Mr. Collins cannot even begin to comprehend why, deluding himself into thinking that “it is usual with young ladies to reject the addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept.” The very notion that Elizabeth would reject him is inconceivable to him because Mr. Collins believes that it “does not appear to him that his hand is unworthy of her acceptance.” Although Mr. Collins’ self-delusional and characteristically proud declaration is laughable, Austen does bring across the message that, for many women, marriage was a question of financial security rather than love. It is no surprise, then, that Mr. Collins is taken aback by Elizabeth’s rejection of him, especially since he is to “inherit their estate after the death of [her] father.” As he says, the “circumstances are highly in his favour,” and Mrs. Bennet cannot comprehend why her daughter will not prevail upon his hand. For the Bennet family of five female daughters, marriage, regardless to whom, is an utmost concern. Austen, however, allows Mr. Bennet to understand, and he provides Elizabeth with a much-welcome ultimatum: “Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you if you do.” Through this, Austen shows her readers that marriage should be more than a question of financial support, but also an issue of compatibility, choice, and mutual respect – and ultimately love. The discrepancy between Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Bennet’s view on Elizabeth’s potential marriage also highlights the incompatibility of Elizabeth’s parents; as Austen says, Elizabeth “could not have formed a very pleasing opinion of conjugal felicity or domestic comfort” based on her parents’ marriage. Theirs was a marriage lacking in mutual respect; just as Elizabeth’s marriage would have been should she have married Mr. Collins.
Although the Elizabeth-Collins match is indisputably doomed to failure, Mr. Collins hardly feels “any regret,” and within a week is engaged to Elizabeth’s best friend, Charlotte Lucas. Although Elizabeth cannot understand her friend’s choice, Charlotte Lucas, “at the age of twenty-seven,” which was old for an unmarried woman in the Regency Period, “without having ever been handsome, felt all the good luck of it.” Although Austen asserts that Elizabeth and Mr. Collins would not have made a good match, Charlotte is “content” in her marriage, and even Elizabeth later sees her “evident enjoyment of it.” For Charlotte, “happiness in marriage is simply a matter of chance,” and although Charlotte does not “love” Mr. Collins (at least, in Elizabeth’s understanding of the word), she and her family are relieved that she would not die “an old maid.” In Jane Austen’s era and social set, there was no option but for females to get married – the very notion of choosing not to marry was inconceivable; should a female not marry, she was doomed for spinsterhood. In this manner, Austen conveys that marriage was of utmost importance to women, and that social status and financial security played a big role in a woman’s choice of determining whom to marry (if there even was a choice in the first place).
This is not quite the case in Hardy’s “Tess”, predominantly due to the fact that the characters in Hardy’s novel belong to a lower social class. For the eponymous heroine, marriage was less of a pressing imperative than for the females of Austen’s novel, as working class women were able to work. This ‘freedom’ for the working class, however limited, meant that the strict rules and conventions surrounding marriage were less prominent, although life was just as hard (if not more arduous). Tess spends most of the novel working, either at Trantridge, Crick’s Dairy, or Flintcombe Ash, and providing for her family. However, marriage was not any less of an imperative – it was still viewed as a means of financial security, a way out of poverty, and a means to move up social classes. At the beginning of the novel, it is Joan Durbeyfield’s hope that a wealthy gentleman will marry Tess, and Mr. Durbeyfield’s pride in asserting their nobility and claiming kin that drives Tess to Trantridge. Joan “would not repress her consciousness of the nuptial Vision conjured up by Tess’ consent” to go to work at Trantridge, and only later consoles her own trepidation by uttering: “if he don’t marry her afore, he will after.” It is Joan’s intention that Tess should marry, and when Tess later returns home, defiled and unmarried, Joan blames Tess for “thinking only of herself.” Marriage, as Hardy shows us, was seen as a way out of hardship. But at this point, Tess has only been a receptacle for Alec’s lust: “on matrimony Alec had never said a word.” Love and marriage, and the darker shades of lust, and the human emotions governing those concepts, are but alien to Tess at this point in the novel. Tess declares to her mother: “Why didn’t you tell me there were danger in men-folk? Why didn’t you warn me?” Tess has been defiled, and she promises herself she will never marry as she views herself as “a figure of Guilt intruding into the haunts of Innocence.” Through Tess, Hardy illustrates the Victorian notion of purity, and the importance of purity in marriage.
This is reflected when Tess later falls in love in Angel, but vows not to marry him, rejecting his advances until he places his “entire happiness and worldly convenience” in her hands and declares himself to be irrevocably in love with her. Hardy’s allowance of such happiness, however, is short-lived. Unlike with the happy ending of multiple marriages in “Pride and Prejudice”, Tess’ marriage to Angel falls apart on their wedding night, when they both confess about their previous sexual experiences. Although Tess doesn’t have to think twice to forgive Angel for his sexual transgression (in fact, she is expected to do so – Angel volunteers to confess first in full confidence that she will have to forgive him, as a woman and as his wife), Angel says to Tess: “forgiveness does not apply in this case. You were one woman, and now you are another.” Hardy shows us that Angel was very much in love with an ideal, an image of Tess as a “virginal daughter of Nature,” and is unable to cope with this new reality although Tess cries that she is “the same woman.” Love, in Angel’s case, cannot be extricated from social mores and conventions; despite Angel’s belief that he is progressive, he is very much a product of a society that “loved spotlessness, and hated impurity.” Had Tess been able to tell Angel of her violation before their marriage, there is little doubt that Angel would not have married her, despite his adoration of her. Hardy is harsh in his criticism of his society’s views of love and marriage and their place in relation to inflexible Victorian morality; however, Angel cannot take full blame for his actions because he had been steeped in a society, and a family, that had these certain views on marriage. As with in “Pride and Prejudice”, social class is of an important consideration in marriage. Tess’ lower social standing is already a cause for contention within Angel’s family – Angel’s brothers Felix and Cuthbert display contempt for their brother’s choice of bride. This is not unsimilar to Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s disapprove of the Darcy-Elizabeth union in “Pride and Prejudice”. Lady Catherine declared: “Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?” believing that Darcy marrying someone as “lowly” as Elizabeth would be a disgrace to their family. Both Austen and Hardy bring across the difficulties of a marriage that was outside of social boundaries. Although in Hardy’s case the castigation against Tess’ social status was not as strong, Angel’s parents are only concerned that Tess is “pure and chaste” and has “a Pauline view of humanity.” Hardy’s use of dramatic irony here feels his readers with an irony and sense of grim dread – Tess, in the view of Victorian society, was far from considered “pure and chaste.” It did not matter that Tess had been “made to break a necessary social law” (note Hardy’s use of the imperative “made” – Tess had no choice) and that Tess’ sins were “sins of inadvertence, not sins of intention.” Neither did it make a difference that Angel had committed a sexual deed, that, in Tess’ own words, “cannot be any different from mine.” Love and marriage were sacrosanct ideals that adhered tightly to rigid notions of morality, and to a certain extent, social class.
This is also a theme that resonates in Austen’s work. Jane and Bingley’s marriage nearly does not happen as Darcy interferes with their relationship on the grounds that Jane does not appear to truly like Bingley, and on account of Jane’s social inferiority, despite her being a gentleman’s daughter. Darcy’s first proposal to Elizabeth is fraught with distaste and contempt for her relations and “her inferiority […] being a degradation.” Austen makes it known that the confines of social class pose a very real threat to love and marriage indeed. For that reason, Austen cannot allow Elizabeth to accept Darcy’s hand after his first proposal; it would not be a marriage of mutual respect and love. In this manner, Elizabeth flagrantly rejects all the expectations revolving around a woman’s choice in marriage in the Regency period – to decline Darcy, his wealth of “ten thousand a year,” and his social status would have been a ridiculous notion to entertain, no matter how “disagreeable” Darcy was. But it is through this plot device – Elizabeth’s rejection of Darcy and her later acceptance of him – that Austen is able to show us that marriage should encompass love. When Elizabeth finally accepts Darcy’s proposal, it is in the belief that he is “exactly the man that would most suit her.” Austen allows both characters to grow in their love and understanding of each other, shed their pride and prejudices, so that they can have a marriage that is satisfactory for them, for Austen, and also for us as readers. Austen ends off the novel with three weddings – that of Elizabeth and Darcy, Jane and Bingley, and Lydia and Wickham. In contrast to the former two, however, Lydia and Wickham’s marriage is said to be unhappy, for “his affection for her soon sunk into indifference; hers lasted a little longer.” Their marriage had been forced; Wickham had in essence been bought by Darcy, and made to marry Lydia in avoidance of social scandal. Trough the unsatisfactory Lydia-Wickham union, Austen shows us the unhappiness of an incompatible marriage.
In consideration of the consequences of an unhappy marriage, the apparent question would be whether to marry at all. Nearly all of Austen’s characters end up betrothed, emphasising the imperative nature of marriage in her social set. However, a contrasting alternative is presented in John Fowles’ “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”, where, in the final ending, the central figures, Charles and Sarah go their separate ways “out again, upon the umplumb’d salt, estranging sea,” rejecting the notion that marriage is the only answer. As a C20 novelist writing a C19 Victorian novel, Fowles is able to pose an alternative – to not get married at all. The aforementioned “estranging sea” is a reference to Matthew Arnold’s poem, “To Marguerite – continued” that suggests that humans live in isolation, propounding the idea of existentialism and eschewing the need for marriage. Fowles’ alternative makes an interesting contrast to Austen’s, as well as Hardy’s view on marriage and love.
Love and marriage are universal concepts that transcend both place and time. Austen aptly starts off with: “it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a future, must be in want of a wife.” This theme clearly recurs throughout her novel; and surely the converse holds – any woman (whether or not in possession of a fortune) is in want of a husband. Hardy then further elucidates the complex issues surrounding marriage and love; indeed these are still questions we grapple with today – who to love, and who to marry.