Marrying for money is a recurrent theme in Austen. Sometimes it’s the act of a villain. (Willoughby! How could you?) But sometimes it’s natural, even sensible. (Colonel Fitzwilliam’s a great guy, and who can blame him for wanting some financial security?) With multiple contrasting viewpoints, what’s the real message in Austen’s novels about marrying for money? Let’s take a look at what Austen’s heroines have to say on the subject.
Catherine: It’s Wicked.
Catherine Moreland in Northanger Abbey believes that marrying for money is “the wickedest thing in existence.” In fact, she thinks that a marriage between two rich people is wasteful, explaining, “If there is a good fortune on one side, there can be no occasion for any on the other. No matter which has it, so that there is enough.” Catherine, I love this economic plan. Rich people everywhere should marry poor saps like myself instead of throwing their money away on other rich people.
Does Austen agree with Catherine that marrying for money is evil? Maybe a little—since a mercenary marriage is the hallmark of the Austen villain. Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility becomes engaged for money and breaks Marianne’s heart—a double sin. Mr. Elliot from Persuasion passes over Anne’s sister to marry into money, and he’s a definite bad guy. Then there’s Wickham, the worst villain of all, who snubs Elizabeth to pursue the fortune of that “nasty little freckled” Miss King.
There are female villains guilty of the same crime. Mrs. Clay in Persuasion is after Walter Elliot’s money, and Lady Susan is a particularly intriguing gold digging heroine.
Still, Catherine is the most naïve of Austen’s heroines, and “evil” feels like an overstatement. Our next Austen heroines have a less extreme opinion.
Fanny & Emma: It’s immoral and improper.
Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price seems to think that marrying for money isn’t evil, but it isn’t right. She’s wooed by the dashing Henry Crawford. He’s handsome! He’s charming! He’s rich! But he’s a cad, and he’s not Edmund, so Fanny can’t do it, and Fanny’s a stickler for listening to her conscience: “We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.”
Emma is also against marrying for money, but for snobbier reasons—she is against the lower classes marrying into the upper class. She’s the anti-Catherine, believing like should marry like. At first, when Emma thinks Harriet is the daughter of rich parents, Emma’s all for a match between Harriet and Mr. Elton. But when it comes out that Harriet’s “the daughter of a tradesman” (shudder!), Emma acknowledges that Harriet has “the stain of illegitimacy,” which is “a stain indeed.” Emma’s pretty embarrassed that she ever thought Harriet worthy of Elton, or Frank Churchill, or (can you believe it?!) Mr. Knightley after finding out about Harriet’s lowly origins.
For different reasons, then, Fanny and Emma would say that marrying for money isn’t evil, but it’s Not Right.
Elizabeth: It’s a sensible economic decision—for men.
Charlotte Lucas famously tells us that marrying for money saves a woman from a lifetime of poverty and dependency. Miss Bates shows us this life: She’s poor, unmarried, and everyone pities her. It’s hard to blame Charlotte for wanting to avoid that fate. Charlotte tells us, “I ask only a comfortable home.”
Elizabeth even agrees with Charlotte—when the men make this decision. When Wickham passes Elizabeth over to pursue someone richer, Elizabeth understands “his wish of independence,” saying, “nothing…could be more natural.” As she tells her aunt Gardiner, “Handsome young men must have something to live on as well as the plain.”
We know she later sees Wickham for what he is, but what about Colonel Fitzwilliam? He does the same thing! He tells Elizabeth, “Younger sons cannot marry where they like.” Elizabeth thinks he’s subtly indicating that he likes her but cannot pursue her, and she is not offended. She again finds his wish for independence natural.
Elizabeth asks, “Pray, my dear aunt, what is the difference in matrimonial affairs, between the mercenary and the prudent motive?” It’s the heart of the question, Elizabeth—is marrying for money mercenary or just plain sensible? It’s hard to tell, so, Elizabeth seems to say, we shouldn’t judge.
Unless it’s Charlotte. Why is Elizabeth biased in Charlotte’s case? Maybe because Charlotte is her friend. Maybe because Mr. Collins is a tough pill to swallow. And maybe because Austen’s showing us the sexism at play here. Women have no income and need to marry for financial support, but they are judged for marrying up. If you’re a man, however, marrying an heiress is a sensible economic decision.
By the way, Emma’s Mr. Knightley agrees with Charlotte. He explains to Emma that Elton wants to marry a woman with money. Mr. Knightley says that Elton “knows the value of a good income as well as any body. Elton may talk sentimentally, but he will act rationally.” Mr. Knightley is right. Elton wants to marry up, but Knightley doesn’t call this gold digging. He calls it acting “rationally.” (But he doesn’t seem to think Harriet’s pursuit of Elton is acting rationally…)
We know Austen had a pure and simple view on marriage: It must be for love.
In a letter to her niece, Fanny, she advises Fanny not to marry without affection, stating, “Nothing can be compared to the misery of being bound without love.”
To her sister Cassandra, she writes, “I consider everybody as having a right to marry once in their lives for love, if they can.”
An interesting piece of Austen’s novels is that this beautiful and simple philosophy—marry for love—is couched around a plethora of other examples that show us marriage is a complicated game. A woman has no steady income without marriage, so she needs to marry a man with money—but she’s a gold digger if she marries a man with too much money. Plus, finding a good man with money and a ring isn’t easy. As Austen writes in Mansfield Park, “There certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world as there are pretty women to deserve them.” (Isn’t that the truth? There just aren’t enough Mr. Darcys in the world.)
Mrs. Smith in Persuasion tells us, “When one lives in the world, a man or woman’s marrying for money is too common to strike one as it ought.”
How is it supposed to strike us? Like Mrs. Smith, many of Austen’s heroines disapprove, and Austen is sharing some of that disapproval with us. But perhaps we’re also supposed to see that marrying for money is sensible, and it’s common, and it’s judged, and it’s sexist, and it’s complicated.
Whoever said these books were simple stories of love and marriage really didn’t get it.
What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts below!