During the last couple of weeks, while Jane Austen fans have been paying tribute to the famous novelist on the 200th anniversary of her death, devotees of a very different type of fiction have been getting their fix of Game of Thrones, Season 7. From all accounts this television series has more dead bodies than a busy mortuary, making it incredibly popular for some reason. A trailer for the series that I came across had over 35 million views.
As one writer has observed, death is barely glimpsed in Austen’s six novels. Writing at a time when high infant mortality and common diseases made death a regular visitor even in the families of the gentry, claiming Austen herself at the age of 41, she never killed off a major character. Her concern is with life and the great institution that produces and nurtures it: marriage.
Despite the dramatic differences between her world and ours, it is about this subject that her stories have most to teach our age. The fact that ours has largely lost the plot about matrimony may even be the reason that stories like Pride and Prejudice continue to find an audience after all this time: courtship, marriage, intimacy, children, in that order: how novel!
Marriage dictates the architecture of an Austen novel as it does comedy in general. All her heroines are on a voyage of self-discovery with marriage in view – even Emma Woodhouse, companion of her hypochondriac father, who says she will never marry but busies herself in a Freudian manner matchmaking for other women. Marriage is a near prospect for Austen’s young people, the beginning of adult life, not something that occurs — as so often now — halfway to middle age, the icing on a cake that is, in truth, already somewhat stale.
And it’s not all about money and class for the Georgian girls. True, relatively modest means and inheritance traditions make “marrying up” an important issue for the Bennet sisters of Pride and Prejudice and the Dashwood sisters of Sense and Sensibility – not to mention Fanny Price, the poor relation of the crowd at Mansfield Park – but naturally they are looking for, even holding out for love.
Lizzy Bennet’s friend Charlotte Lucas “settles” for security with the pompous and obsequious cleric Mr Collins, but this is clearly not a solution that Austen, while understanding the motive, wants to encourage. Anne Elliot, of Persuasion, after being talked into rejecting, years ago, a man she still loves, because he lacked wealth and class, has rejected another suitor and seems resigned to spinsterhood rather than marry for a roof over her head.
The marriages which conclude all these stories are love matches that have stood the tests of misunderstanding, separation, competition, humiliation and all the great and small difficulties that can beset lovers in every age – albeit within a mercifully short time frame in most cases.
Short courtships are one reason that Austen’s leading couples also withstand the temptation to put the carriage before the horse in terms of sexual intimacy. Social conventions ensure that they meet only in company with others, with the odd private word in a corner of the room or while strolling in the garden. This has the advantage of learning about the other’s character as they relate to family, friends and the larger society (something that is often amusing and always revealing in Austen) and not only when they are at their sweetest or most gallant with their intended.
By contrast, the premature sex and cohabiting which increasingly takes the place of courtship and marriage today is a gamble that much of the time does not lead to marital commitment but rather undermines it. If we don’t want to tell our young people this, we could at least give them a copy of P&P to read for some fresh ideas about romantic happiness.
But marriage in Austen’s world is not just about living happily ever after with Mr Right. Sometimes, as the Bennet parents demonstrate, it involves compromise ever after with Mrs or Mr Wrong. In spite of the failures, however, marriage remains the social institution par excellence, uniting families and and renewing society from within. The Georgian family, often large and extended through a vast network of relations, was still the bedrock of society. Fanny Price is one of nine children and is sent off to live with wealthier relations who have four children of their own. The wealthy had obligations to poorer relations, which, in Austen’s stories, they by and large fulfil, if sometimes with condescension.
It is true that industrialisation was about to wreak havoc on the family life of lower classes, and poverty became more of an issue for the state, but we know from more recent history (before divorce and the Pill) that where marriage remained the basis of family life there was upward mobility even for the poor. And this is still true.
Today, as we hear warnings about the “death of Europe” because of the dismally low fertility of its native population; and the spread of poverty into the middle classes throughout the West by way of divorce and single motherhood, the Leviathan state treats us all as individuals beholden to its hand-outs.
But who cares, so long as we have a television set and can watch Game of Thrones?
In one of the new books that have come out for the Austen bicentenary – Jane Austen, the Secret Radical – Helena Kelly finds all sorts of subversive political messages between the lines of her novels (for example, “sex can kill you”, a reference to the dead wife in Northanger Abbey, Austen’s satire on Gothic novels).
Perhaps Austen did subtly criticise class barriers, slavery and the condition of the rural poor. But her most subversive message for us today is plain for all to see: it’s marriage that gives romantic love its full scope for happiness and its dividend for society, and you don’t have to be married, as Miss Austen was not, to grasp that.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.