Many novels about the middle class in the nineteenth century are mainly about the struggles of common citizens and the struggles of the lower class. Precisely, the novels feature the struggles of the lower citizens’ efforts to gain upward mobility, which gave rise to the social realism subgenre. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen, and Silas Marner by George Elliot are among the most popular novels in the social realism genre. Closely linked to the theme of wealth in the Victorian period was the theme of love or marriage and how property and social class influenced the choice of a partner. As many partners sort economic stability and security in the 19th century, marrying for love was uncommon, especially for middle-class women and men in the upper class.
Jane Eyre is an early 18th-century novel that depicts the upper, middle, and lower class in English society as well as their attitudes towards life and habits. The first chapter points to wealth, marriage, and social class as the novel’s main themes. The relationship between marriage, social awareness of class, particularly property and money are emphasized to explain why the nineteenth-century Victorian society considered wealth important when identifying a suitable partner for marriage. From an early age, Jane, the protagonist struggles with getting married for convenience.
Notably, by marrying into a wealthy family, a woman upgraded her social status and avoided remaining a spinster. Moreover, a marriage of any kind was supposed to bring benefits to women after gaining the wife status. A woman’s place was not equal to a man’s in this society because a man could choose marriage partners or remain bachelors. Contrarily, women did not have this luxury and had to marry for life. Marriage was the only proper occupation for women and a virtual sentence to a legal and economic subjugation they could escape.
However, Bronte’s novel is a protest against these social conventions and patriarchal authority. Jane is portrayed from a traditional motif about a young girl confronting these conformities as she develops into maturity regarding issues like social class, gender, status, love and marriage, and a woman’s place in society. Bronte tries to dispute the idea that marriage is a social contract and suggests that love and equality are critical in marriage. As such, Bronte depicts Jane as a woman struggling against society’s conventions and a
woman’s subordination to her husband. Jane states,“If at my convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth – so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane: with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions (Bronte 405). Jane’s words depict her objection against the societal expectations of marriage and insist that these notions have to change.
Furthermore, Bronte highlights how loveless marriage brings misery to women due to the restrictions placed on them. Women had no freedom of choice in marriage or job opportunities because they were considered weak. However, Bronte presents a character who manages to overcome female passivity to become a strong and independent woman who equals men and supports herself. Jane states, “Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do (Bronte…132). From a feminist approach, Bronte, through Jane, speaks against loveless marriages and the oppression of women, especially in the upper class.
In the last chapter of Jane Eyre, Bronte provides her view of an ideal marriage, which was not common in the nineteenth century. Bronte proposes equality in marriage as a critical component of love. Precisely, Mr. Rochester states, “My bride is here,” he said….” because my equal is here, and my likeness. Jane, will you marry me?” (Bronte 267). The construction of Jane’s and Rochester’s relationship in its ideal form through romantic congruence rhetoric is a realization of Bronte’s feminist manifestation that there should be more to marriage than upholding social place and protecting wealth. Bronte arrives at a conclusion that precludes any potential imbalances in Jane’s and Rochester’s marriage.
Sense and Sensibility
In Sense and Sensibility, the plot focuses on marriage. The novel begins with Marianne and Elinor as unmarried but eligible maidens and concludes with both women settled into marriage. Additionally, possible matches, engagement, and marriage are primary concepts that concern characters in the novel and the subject of most conversations. As such, love is a central theme as Elinor and Marianne seek and fall in love with the men they love. For instance, when Elinor falls in love with Edward and when she is sure that her feelings are equal, she looks forward to marrying him.
Austen writes, “ No sooner did she perceive any symptom of love in his behavior to Elinor, than she considered their serious attachment as certain, and looked forward to their marriage as rapidly approaching (Austen). Despite her sister’s initial disapproval Elianor esteemed and loved Edward and would be engaged to him. However, like many cases in the Victorian era, marriage is more about marrying the person one falls in love with in the Sense and Sensibility world. Marriage is often about gaining social standing, uniting two families, and protecting family wealth.
The novel features parents and families that attempt to decide and create engagement as much as any individual wife or husband. For instance, Mrs. Ferrars only cares about her sons marrying upper-class and wealthy women. Mrs. Ferrars does not care whether Lucy and Edward are in love and breaks all ties with her son once she learns of their engagement. For Mrs. Ferrars, deciding who Edward and his brother marry is her responsibility because marriage in the Victorian era was about the interests of the entire family and not an individual’s desires.
Another notable instance that shows how marriage was more than love is that even after meeting and falling in love with Elinor Dashwood, Edward does not break his engagement with Lucy. In nineteenth-century Victorian society, a man was only as good as his word. As an honorable and principled man, Edward could not go back on his word about marrying.
Lucy. Edward says, “I was simple enough to think that because my faith was plighted to another, there could be no danger in my being with you; and that the consciousness of my engagement was to keep my heart as safe and sacred as my honor“ (Austen). The statement shows that a marriage offer in England was a binding contract that families undertook to ensure continuity and protection of family wealth. Any party breaching the contract would attract legal issues. Thus, if Edward severed Lucy’s engagement with him, she would have sort legal redress with a breach of contract (promise suit). The prospects of a scandal, bad publicity, fines, and loss of wealth were enough to scare a delegate to honor the marriage promise.
In a 1995 article entitled Promises Broken: Courtship, Class, and gender in Victorian England, Ginger informs that in the nineteenth century, an engagement was a social contract and was legally binding for both parties. Unlike other contacts, courts could not enforce these contracts as they would not force people into marriages. However, the parties that broke the contract were liable for damages (Ginger 16).
This explains why many people in the Victorian era would remain in loveless marriages as a binding contract to protect family wealth and prevent losing it to fines and settlement if they breached the contract. As Austen shows, marriage was an important part of the function of the upper class as it determined who inherited the family’s property and fortunes. Most importantly, Austen shows how much marriage was of importance to women because their future depended heavily on the prospects of their future husbands as also shown by Bronte in Jane Eyre.
In Silas Marner, George Elliot depicts the subjects in economic and social relations in Victorian society. According to Farahbakhsh and Ahmadi (33), Money turned into an essential material factor in the eighteenth and nineteenth Victorian era. In consequence, success in life in this society prevailed in money and social class, making the Victorian society a capitalistic society where the elite upper class set standards in the political leadership and gentility for the rest of society. In Silas Marner, Elliot depicts the Cass family as influential in the Raveloe community. Squire Cas was the most remarkable man in this community, but people saw some weakness in keeping his sons Dunstan and Godfrey idle at home (Farahbakhsh and Ahmadi 33).
Due to their father’s wealth and position in Raveloe, the Cass sons had no particular skills and work. Godfrey, the older son, married Molly, a young woman in secrecy who is way below his social class. The narrator in the novel provides constant commentary on Godfrey’s thoughts about his first wife, which are negative in many cases showing that Molly was in a lower social class and unsuitable for the elite class. Unlike Dunstan, Godfrey is good-natured except for the weak will that makes him unable to think and act above the material comfort his father offers (Farahbakhsh and Ahmadi 33).
The poor manner in which he handles his marriage with Molly displays moral cowardice as he consents to the marriage out of guilt but has to keep it secret because his father will disown and disinherit him once he finds out. Molly Farren is impoverished and of a lower class who is unwelcome in Cass’s social class. Like Jane Eyre and Sense and sensibility, marriage is an essential function of the high society where people must marry within their social class to protect family fortunes and property.
Like in Sense and Sensibility, any attempt to step out of this society’s convention has consequences. For instance, Godfrey is subjected to Dunsey’s blackmail who knows of his secret marriage. Dunsey states, I might get you turned out of house and home, and cut off with a shilling any day. “…I might tell the Squire how his handsome son was married to that nice young woman, Molly Farren, and was very unhappy because he couldn’t live with his drunken wife, and slip into your place as comfortable as could be…”(Elliot). If Squire became aware that his son had married someone below their social position, he would disinherit and disown him, resulting in Godfrey missing out on the opportunity to become acceptable within the elite and upper-class society. The Godfrey and Molly marriage situation further reveals how lower-class individuals were not welcome in the aristocratic and upper class as the elite class sought to protect their position, image and wealth.
In Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, wealth, love, and knowledge are recurring themes as different characters who fall in love and get married have different experiences. Pip’s marriage, in particular shows how much wealth and social class matter in a marriage. In Pip’s case, for instance, he falls in love and marries a woman who does not respect him. Estella is a beautiful but proud and self-possessed woman, which does not prevent Pip from falling in love with her. During their first meeting, Estella notices his “thick boots” and “coarse hands”, which shows that Pip comes from the low class that comprises working men and laborers (Dickens 262).
Despite her disgust with his social status and rude behavior, Pip admits, “I loved her against reason, against promise, against peace, against hope, against happiness, against all discouragement that could be” (Dickens 263). Pip loves Estella but this love is not reciprocated because he is in the working class. However, Estella sows the seed of ambition so that he becomes a gentleman as he reasons that becoming wealthy is the only way to get Estella’s hand. After his treatment from Estella, he is embarrassed about Joe, his place, and poverty, and it is clear that he suffers from some form of inferiority complex about his social place. Pip like the title of the novel has great expectations that prompt him to work hard for Estella to accept him. Unfortunately, this unrequited love fails to bring the happiness he seeks but makes him more miserable.
Great Expectations shows how much the pressure to achieve a higher social class and finding love may lead to bad choices. Estella, an intelligent and beautiful girl, is of a lower social class, and the daughter of a coarse convict, rejects Pip because he cannot provide the social class elevation she desires if she marries him (Dickens 263). She uses her beauty as a weapon of revenge in breaking men’s hearts.
In chapter 11, Estella lets Pip kiss her, which she suggests that she could be suppressing feelings for Pip and admits that it will hurt other men, but Pip when she is asked, “Do you want me then”, said Estella, turning suddenly with a fixed and serious, if not angry, look, “to deceive and entrap you?” Do you deceive and entrap him, Estella?” Yes, and many others—all of them but you” (Dickens 334). As for Pip when he seeks a higher social position for Estella’s meaningless love, Pip ignores and distances himself from the people that previously mattered to him and associates with bad company leading him to huge debts. Although Pip recovers from his debts, it is clear how love and the desire for a higher social position lead both characters to make bad choices.
Conclusively, the union of a man and woman was not only between the partners but was the unity between two families whose image and property in society had to be safeguarded. Thus, marriage incorporated family status and wealth. The pressure to uphold their social image prompted upper-class families to marry others of the same social class, often betrothed at an early age, to ensure the continuity of their wealth and maintain their social status.
Similarly, women from the lower and middle classes hardly married for love. The women were obligated to elevate their family’s social status by marrying into families in higher social ranks for their social security and that of their families. Therefore, since the ideal marriage based on love was uncommon, men and women languished in the economic and legal prisons of Victorian-era marriages as depicted in the four novels.
Austen, Jane. Sense and sensibility. OUP Oxford, 2004.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane eyre. CRC Press, 2018.
Dickens, Charles. Great expectations. Standard Ebooks, 2019.
Eliot, George. Silas Marner. Penguin UK, 2003.
Farahbaksh, A. and Ahmadi, Z. “A Foucauldian Analysis of Money in George Eliot’s Silas Marner”. Arcjournals.Org, 2021, https://www.arcjournals.org/pdfs/ijsell/v4-i8/3.pdf. Accessed 21 May 2021.