A new Bridget Jones movie has been unleashed upon a world that is already in utter confusion about love, sex and marriage. As someone whose literary work has been raided for themes — and a significant name — for this franchise, Jane Austen has something to say.
Dear Miss Jones,
Having kept an eye on the twists and turns of your romantic career for the past 15 years, I now hear that you are going to have a baby. I should like to congratulate you but I have deep misgivings about this news. You are not married. You are not even sure who the father is. DNA tests may settle that question, but will he (that travesty of Mr Darcy, or the new hook-up) marry you?
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man who can get sex without the commitment of marriage is not going to be in a hurry to tie the knot, even when a baby is on the way. Mr Wickham, the “gentlemanlike” villain of Pride and Prejudice, only married Lydia Bennet with a (metaphorical) gun in his back, and I believe that shotgun weddings have not been heard of since about 1970.
I am sure you want this baby – at 43 it may well be your last chance. It may all seem like a good joke to you, and the film director will no doubt contrive a happy ending; but in reality the situation is fraught with uncertainty both for you and your child. If you consult the data, or simply read the Daily Mail, you will find that pre-marital sex, especially with more than one partner, increases your risk of divorce; and should you separate, your child will be robbed of the steady presence of a father and the optimum conditions for his or her wellbeing.
Given these real risks, and since your story is supposedly a 21st century analogue of P&P, I feel compelled to point out where you and your times have actually lost the plot – not only of my book but of marriage itself. (You will forgive me quoting from the Bible and the Prayer Book, but I am a vicar’s daughter!)
‘What God has joined together…’ I mentioned divorce. Your risk of this is greater not only because of your previous experience but also because it is so easy to get. The first big mistake in your era was the introduction of no-fault divorce. The idea that a marriage could be ended because one of the spouses walked out of it has made the whole institution appear arbitrary and fragile. Countless children have been wounded by the separation of parents who could have transcended their differences and focused on the wellbeing of the family unit.
This is roughly what Mr and Mrs Bennet did with their most “unsuitable marriage” because divorce was not an option 200 years ago; certainly not for the gentry and lower classes. And although the results were mixed in terms of the characters of their daughters, there was only one real disaster – partly salvaged by good offices of extended family and Mr Darcy. The law, religion, other social pressures and family support helped them to muddle through.
Today, the law allows people to give up at the first spell of disillusionment and most churches have cravenly gone along with that. Hardly anybody, including close family members, has the fortitude to persuade the troubled parties otherwise. And children grow up afraid to marry lest their own dreams turn to dust. None of the Bennet girls, with the possible exception of Mary, were put off marriage by their parents’ experience, you will notice.
‘First, It was ordained for the procreation of children.’ I know that prejudice is roundly condemned by the moral classes today, so whence this prejudice against large families? As you may know, I was the seventh of eight children. This was not uncommon in my day. The Bennets have five, their neighbours the Lucases at least as many.
Changing family size through “medicine” is the second biggest source of damage to the institution of marriage in your time. This is what the contraceptive pill and the legalised barbarism of abortion are really about – not the liberation of women. How liberated have you been feeling since you entered your 30s, Bridget? It looks very much to me as though the war against fertility has become a war against the female sex and the possibility of their achieving happiness as wives and mothers.
It is true that in my day women often died in childbirth, and many infants were also lost. Life expectancy generally was shorter. But is it not extremely ironic that the recent attack on births began precisely when science and medicine had practically eliminated maternal and infant mortality in countries like England, and when methods of managing fertility were being perfected that did not require sabotaging the very meaning of marital love.
(I suspect that you don’t understand the last point, but that is another letter…)
Large families have many advantages. They form a little society in which there is much give and take and which can meet more of its own needs. During the year before I died of a then incurable illness, it was my dear sister Cassandra who nursed me. Perhaps Jane and Eliza Bennet would not have been nearly so sensible were it not for having silly younger sisters to keep in check.
‘Thirdly, [it is] for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other’. No, this is not a reference to the soul-mate model of marriage, a Hollywood fantasy that has done a lot of harm to people gullible enough to believe what bad novels and films tell them. Marriage is not just about romantic and personal fulfilment, it is about the family: security, raising children to be good citizens, contributing to the community and society at large.
I am talking about the institution of marriage – the kind of marriage that society needs and therefore sanctions and regulates. Eliza Bennet’s best friend Charlotte Lucas married the awful Mr Collins for security; her sister Lydia wanted to marry Wickham because she was carried away her passions. Between these extremes are the marriages of Jane and Elizabeth, which have every chance of making the parties “soul mates”, but through their shared experience of bringing up a family and supporting each other in good times and in bad.
As I said before, the soul-mate model has harmed a lot of people. Not the upper class who propagate “new models” of everything – they marry for very practical reasons as well as love – but those lower down the social scale who have everything to lose by chasing the elusive Hollywood version of love and marriage. Many end up as poor, single mothers or living together in unstable relationships, all of which puts their children’s wellbeing and their own happiness at high risk. I think you can see what I mean, Bridget.
‘Male and female he created them’. I should be shocked, or at least totally bemused by the advent of what you call “same-sex marriage”, but in view of the other developments I have canvassed there is a certain logic to it. If marriage is not mainly about the begetting and raising of children, but about romantic fulfilment (“love”) then it is only custom and prejudice that would prevent two homosexual persons from having a right to their relationship being recognised by the state.
I suppose, Bridget, that being a thoroughly modern miss you approve of this development. And if you do not understand what is wrong with this new picture of marriage, younger people will understand even less as time goes on.
Indeed, I fear that Pride and Prejudice, after its most gratifying 200-years on the best sellers list, may soon be banned from schools and libraries (if it has not been already) because it celebrates marriage only as it came from the hands of the Creator, as God “ordained it” – that is, as the natural, pre-political institution founded on the comprehensive (physical, emotional, spiritual) union of a man and a woman.
Honestly, Bridget, I would not want to write, or read, about any other kind of marriage. Nor would I want to see the movie.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatroNet.