By Eric Altheide
We cannot help who we fall in love with. Even if we have good reason to resist, any true affection will always prevail in the end. It is a force deep inside us that draws us together, and fighting that inner drive is a losing battle. We realize we are powerless against it and, usually, quite willingly give in, allowing ourselves to fall into the vulnerable state of the need of another person. We accept that love as our own and treasure it; and, if we are lucky, it becomes the road on which we travel through life.
Yet just as sure as we might be of our helplessness to the force of love in our lives, society has always seemed just as sure of its power over it. Traditionally, with love comes the promise of matrimony, and matrimony is a socio-political construct, giving the power of private relationships into the hands of the community. For within the institution of marriage, the personal commitment of two people is given a public forum and with that forum an assumed responsibility of following prescribed social guidelines.
Jane Austen often explored the social imposition on love in her novels. In the Regency England of Pride and Prejudice, we see marriages more as the joining of two purses rather than two hearts. Marriage proposals are business transactions, with wealthy young men sneaking off into back parlor rooms with eager fathers to discuss dowries and estate earnings. Mothers frantically race home at the first word of a fresh new gentleman in town so they can be the first to force their husbands to call on them and establish a relationship that will hopefully save one of their daughters from a life of spinsterhood. A Jane Austen reader often witnesses this maternal drive using underhanded schemes to place their daughters at the front of the hungry pack of young women. If the match is well made, the parents are often congratulated more than the young couple themselves.
Thankfully, amidst all of this madness, Austen provides us with glimpses of real affection in Pride and Prejudice. She gives us the delicious simplicity of the young attraction between Jane and Bingley in all of its delightful, fumbling coyness. At the center of the story, we see the harsh intelligence of the attraction between Elizabeth and Darcy, both of them struggling through the brambles of the prejudices that they were raised with in order to truly see the other for who they are and find justification for their stirrings of affection.
As insulting as it may first appear, Darcy’s first proposal is deeply romantic in its way. He is admitting that all of the social construct that has been the fortification of his life to that moment cannot stand against the driving force of the ferocity of his love for her. Though a modern audience might not fully understand the historical context of his sacrifice in that moment, making his love for her public would be just as much of a risk to his social standing as any interracial couple in the fifties or any same sex couple today.
Charlotte Lucas tells Elizabeth, “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance.” Unfortunately, even in today’s society, that is all too true. The increasing rate of divorce and the increasing number of unmarried adults proves that. Love in marriage will always be at risk, be it from within or from without. However, there are so many people today who believe that marriage is worth fighting for. Perhaps happiness would be more attainable and easier to hold on to if everyone felt the same way.