Anyone who is even remotely familiar with classic literature has heard of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. With its relatable characters and enchanting story line, there’s no wonder why the novel was popular during its day. However, there are many books that were popular at the time they were written, but very few that survived the test of time. What makes this magnificent work able to overcome that particular obstacle when so many others have fallen to it? The answer comes from Jane Austin’s use of the world around her. The world around her was a sexist combination of the Romantic and the Restoration period. That way of life (the combination of Romantic and Restoration ideas) was one of her best inspirations for the world that she created for her readers. One of the more common themes she explored was the idea of marriage during this time.
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Marriage had a lot more value then than it does now. The average woman was married by the time she was 22. Before then, she was trained in what were considered to be ‘womanly arts’ such as playing music and dancing. Marianne displays these qualities tremendously well, as one of her hobbies is playing the piano (Marks). Despite the typical age for a bride, it was not uncommon for a couple to begin courting in the late teens. However, those who wanted to marry under the age of 21 had to get parental consent (Olsen “Marriage”). However, since very few marriages took place because of love (Heywood), consent to the marriage was often denied. The couple could then either elope or break off the engagement until a later date. (Olsen “Marriage). However, most women allowed their parents to choose a husband for them, or chose one themselves to avoid becoming a spinster. If a woman was not married by the time she was in her thirties, she was deemed a lowly spinster, and was considered worthless as anything other than a school teacher, a domestic service worker, or a seamstress. (Wjtczak). Thus, as shown in Jane Austin’s stories, who a woman married had to choose very carefully who she would marry, because from the date of the marriage onward she was more or less his property (Marriage Settlements in England and Wales). In addition, everything she owned (any money or property) would become his as well. If a man wanted his daughter to be treated well, he would have to pay a dowry, which was an amount of money that would be used for the purpose of providing for her. Lower class women would often work to supplement the dowry and give to her future husband as proof of her worth (Olsen “Marriage”). Ideally, the man would be of good character and treat his new wife with respect and use it to care for her and the children she produced. However, the man was also legally allowed to beat, imprison or rape his wife, and spend the dowry money however he liked (Marks). The law could do nothing to help the woman unless the beatings became severe. (Heywood).
Along with the obvious differences in gender equality, women and men also had many different responsibilities that occupied their time. Being a housewife in this time-period was considered respectable, and wealthy woman were put in charge of overseeing any tasks that took place in the home. In addition, they helped care for young children, and shopped for clothing, furniture and other necessary things (Marks). Naturally, any woman was ready for marriage was prepared for numerous pregnancies almost immediately, as birth control did not exist. (Olsen “Marriage”).
A woman of the lower class (that is, anyone who did not hold a servant) had to take care of the household by herself (Marks). She had learned from a young age how to cook, clean, garden, and do basic needle-work. Austen herself learned to make a variety of recipes such as butter, cheese, wine, and bread. There were even entire books dedicated to the recipes for cleaning mixtures and how to be considered a ‘good maid’ (Olsen “Housework”). But many woman (especially in the upper class) had hobbies or artistic endeavors (like talents for drawing or writing as shown by Austen’s characters and by her herself). Many of them even held a sort of ‘secret profession, which remained disguised as a hobby, as women who worked were often looked down upon (Olsen “Marriage”). This explains why Austen’s works were originally published under a male’s name to protect her identity.
One of the reasons women were treated so poorly is because of a commonly held notion that men were physically stronger, and smarter than women. While people were beginning to protest this, the customs of the people still restrained women’s rights, and the laws enforced nearly total dependence on some sort of male counterpart. Based on this stereotypical view of women, men were considered to be society’s leaders, and the people who could truly make change happen. Traits such as courage and persistence were considered manly, whereas women were encouraged to express patience and a loving nature. Unlike women, men were encouraged to hold positions in different fields and receive education in ‘manly’ subjects like the sciences and languages (Marsh).
If a bachelor was not found within the borders of all of England for a woman or was shown no interest in marriage, she did have a few of not-so-acceptable options. Some women, like Miss Austin’s aunt, moved to British Colonies and married there. Though this was seen as something socially wrong, it was necessary, as then men in the colonies vastly outweighed the women (Olsen “Marriage”).
Based on the fact that very few marriages actually contained genuine love at the time, it is obvious why many people did not have happy marriages. However, divorce in the 19th and 20th century was something reserved for the extreme upper class. A man seeking to divorce his wife had to have many connections and a lot of money in addition to a reason to divorce her (usually adultery) (Heywood). As with nearly every other social custom of their day, the woman involved in the case could not defend herself. In addition, he instantly had custody of the children if the case against her was won, and she was not allowed to attempt to divorce him unless he not only committed adultery, but had wronged her with extreme cases of abuse (Heywood). This made a marriage with love and affection seem more desirable for women of the time, because it seemed to the ground for a happy marriage. It is for this reason that Austin wrote about love- because it appealed to readers of the time period.
Despite the sexism that is expressed in cases of divorce, and how women of the lower and middle classes were treated, the rights of upper-class widows were something that were guarded quite carefully. If the husband was living on a manor, and had no children, his wife could receive as much as half of the property he had left behind. If there were no male heirs (an extremely rare case), the widow was entitled to all of the land (“Marriage Settlements in England and Wales”). In addition to the manor-owning couple exception, some upper class husbands wrote marriage articles before their deaths that protected their wives. While the law typically overrode anything over one third of the property left to their wives (giving it to their next of kin), this allowed them to continue to own the property or sell it for extra money (Olsen “Marriage”). This was almost never the case for middle class families with a male heir.
Needless to say, it is obvious that when Miss Austin wrote “Sense and Sensibilities” she was writing from what seemed to be from another time. Another time which promoted women’s equality and love in marriages. Her characters are livid descriptions of their time periods. Consider Marianne’s love and regard for music and poetry, or her dreams of finding the perfect man. In Sense and Sensibilities, we can see that Marianne and her family have a high regard for chivalry, as it seemed to be a mark of good morality and thus the sign of a good husband. This is expressed when Willoughby rescues her when she falls in the woods. Notice the theme of loss at the beginning of the story when the Dashwood women are left all alone and with little money because there father had left a male heir and he had not protected his wife and daughters in his will.
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