Austen’s novels speak loudly with society’s obsession with money and connections. Money and status was obtained through marriage. What we soon come to accept as a reader of Jane Austen’s novels is that her heroines marry for love (and a bit money). It is not ironic that Austen’s heroines marry within their class. It was expected that a woman do so. Harriet Smith in Emma is criticized for she aspires to wed into the landed gentry. The hero gentlemen in Austen’s books have money, which they generally earn by being a the owner of an estate and collecting rents, as in Fitzwilliam Darcy’s case in Pride and Prejudice or Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility, or from a living bestowed upon the man by a land owner, as in the case of Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility or Henry Tilney, in Northanger Abbey, who is comfortably placed as a beneficed clergyman on his father’s estate.
When we learn of Sir Walter Elliot’s nod of acceptance to Captain Wentworth in Persuasion or of Darcy’s acceptance of the Gardiners’s and Mr. Bingley’s connections to trade, we “praise” the men. These actions are examples of Jane Austen’s values. The fact they more rightly fit the values of the current century is pure happenstance.
Austen’s feelings as applied to silly girls such as Lydia Bennet and Harriet Smith are obvious. She also disapproves of snobs and women who pursue rich men, as in the case of Caroline Bingley in Pride and Prejudice, Lucy Steele in Sense and Sensibility, Elizabeth Elliot in Persuasion, Mrs. Elton in Emma, and Maria Bertram in Mansfield Park. Rakes are often found upon Austen’s page. Mr. George Wickham in Pride and Prejudice woos half of Meryton with his lies. He has no intention of marrying Lydia Bennet until his hand is forced by Mr. Darcy. Mr. Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility is equally as vile. Frank Church plays Emma against Jane Fairfax. Tom Bertram in Mansfield Park has both his good points and his bad ones. He starts off the novel as Mary Crawford’s love interest, and he’s instrumental in getting the “Mansfield theatricals” off the ground. Tom is also responsible for a lot of the major plot points that dominate the start of the novel. His gambling debts are part of the reason why Sir Thomas has to go to Antigua to take care of his financial problems. Tom’s debts also mean that Edmund won’t be able to move into the Parsonage at Mansfield Park when he’s ordained, which of course results in the Grants and the Crawfords moving in. And Tom introduces Mr. Yates, Julia’s future husband, to the Bertrams. Mr. Elliot in Persuasion not only attempts to seduce Anne, but we discover he has much to do with the poor conditions in which Mrs. Smith must live.
Austen’s pages are also full of the ridiculous: Mr. Collins, Mrs. Bennet, and Sir William Lucas in Pride and Prejudice; Lady Bertram in Mansfield Park; Mary Musgrove and Mrs. Musgrove in Persuasion; Mr. and Mrs. Allen in Northanger Abbey; and Mrs. Jennings in Sense and Sensibility.
Austen’s heroines are intelligent females, as was she. Her family permitted Austen much latitude. She discussed politics and religion and society’s issues with her brothers and her father. One can easily imagine Austen arguing with her brothers over important issues in the same manner as her heroines do with the heroes of her books. The difference in Austen and her heroines is that she never married. Many take these “liberties” that she presents her characters as being a “women’s liberation” sort of thing. I beg to differ on that opinion. Although Austen may have hoped for more freedoms for women, she is accepting of what many thought could not be changed. She is no Mary Wollstonecraft writing A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Austen was writing fiction based on what she knew of society. In John Wiltshire’s essay (found in The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, edited by Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster, Cambridge University, 14 February 2011), Wiltshire suggests that Emma and Knightley are the most compatible couple in Austen’s works, for the pair are comparable in intelligence, wit, empathy, and confidence. Darcy and Elizabeth trail in Wiltshire’s estimation, especially because of a lack of confidence in their relationship found in both Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet.