‘Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance’, Charlotte Lucas states boldly in Jane Austen’s most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice.[i] Having just accepted a proposal from Mr Collins, a pompous, unattractive and unintelligent clergyman, she is seeking to justify her choice to her best friend Elizabeth. Charlotte knows she is a woman without many options in life. Her family is not poor enough for it to be socially acceptable for her to seek employment, even as a governess, but if she does not marry, and soon, she will end up dependent on her brothers, most likely undervalued and overworked in their households. Marriage is, she knows, ‘the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune’ and ‘their pleasantest preservative from want’, and despite Mr Collins’s lack of attractions, she feels ‘all the good luck of it’.
The connection of chance, or luck, and marriage is a common one throughout Austen’s novels. A woman like Charlotte, with little beauty and little fortune, is indeed lucky to marry; a happy, fulfilling marriage would be a very lucky chance for her. Her friend Elizabeth, who refuses two offers of marriage because she is not willing to risk her own happiness, is risking her own livelihood for the chance of something better. It makes for great fiction, but was not a sound strategy for a young woman’s survival in the real world of late 18th century England.
Part of what made marriage such a chancy affair was the lack of opportunity to meet appropriate partners. Frank Churchill, the anti-hero of Emma, notes how many couples marry ‘upon an acquaintance formed only in a public place’, only a matter of weeks after meeting.[ii] The Eltons, who have recently married after just such a short acquaintance and courtship, he describes as ‘very lucky’, ‘peculiarly lucky!’ in being so well-suited, despite these challenges. ‘It is only by seeing women in their own homes, among their own set, just as they always are, that you can form any just judgement. Short of that, it is all guess and luck—and will generally be ill-luck,’ he concludes.
In Austen’s novels, these public-place marriages are rare for her heroines. Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey meets her hero during a visit to Bath, but in every other case, the heroes come to the heroines—to stay in their neighbourhoods or visit with their families. And in each case, the heroine has the opportunity to see how the hero acts, not necessarily ‘in their own homes, among their own set’, but how they behave towards their sister or sister-figures. A man without a sister is not a good match in Austen’s novels. How a man treats his sister is a good prediction for how he will treat his wife: Darcy’s care of Georgiana, Henry Tilney’s camaraderie with Eleanor, Captain Wentworth’s closeness to Mrs Croft—these are all strong indicators that these men will make good husbands. Elizabeth, Catherine and Anne do not need to leave the happiness of their marriages to chance; they can see the character of the man they are choosing reflected in these pre-existing familial relationships.
Yet luck still plays its part, and in no novel is this as evident as in Persuasion. With so many characters members of the Royal Navy, the atmosphere of luck and chance pervades this novel, right alongside a commitment to the idea of the importance of hard work. Captain Wentworth, who ‘had always been lucky’, talks frequently both of his ‘luck’—in securing a ship, in capturing French frigates and the fortunes connected, in the good weather, of advancing in his career despite not having high-ranking patrons.[iii] But he is also convinced that his own hard work and ability have been critical to securing his fortunes. And, finally, he sees his successful engagement to Anne as having been achieved not by his ‘honourable toils and just rewards’, but as an unearned blessing. ‘Like other great men under reverses’, he says to her, with a smile, ‘I must endeavour to subdue my mind to my fortune. I must learn to brook being happier than I deserve.’
It is this combination of luck and effort, ultimately, that seems to be the answer to happiness in marriage in an Austen novel. And so we return to Charlotte, now Collins. It is clear, when Elizabeth visits the newlyweds only a matter of months after their marriage, that Charlotte has not in fact left her happiness in marriage to chance. She has been working hard at securing it, through whatever means are available to her. She has learnt, Elizabeth acknowledges, to guide and bear with her husband. She has structured her days and her house to allow for her own domestic comforts. Even Elizabeth is forced to acknowledge that, when her guests left, Charlotte ‘did not seem to ask for compassion. Her home and her housekeeping, her parish and her poultry, and all their dependent concerns, had not yet lost their charms.’[iv] The suggestion here is, of course, that the charms will one day fade. But they haven’t done so yet, and Charlotte, having chosen to marry for a chance of happiness, will not simply let them fade, leaving her future happiness to chance. Like the gentlemen of the Navy, she knows that chance without work does not lead to success, whether in love or in war.
Wentworth’s ‘being happier than I deserve’, however, sounds less like chance, and more like grace. There are significant parallels between the two terms: both chance and grace are unearned, undeserved, uncontrollable. They happen to us, not because of our effort or our planning, but through circumstances beyond our control. The Bible is clear that God’s grace comes to us not through our efforts, but because of his great love for us. ‘For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast’ (Ephesians 2:8-9). And grace continues to work in us; as we continue to sin and need continual forgiveness, ‘he gives us more grace’, as James 4:6 reminds us. But just as Captain Wentworth attributed his success in the Navy to both good fortune and hard work, and as Charlotte’s happiness in marriage was both a matter of chance and of working to make the best of it, so too the development of ongoing fruitfulness in the Christian life is a result of both ongoing grace, and effort on our part. Paul encourages the Philippian church to ‘continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling’ (Philippians 2:12)—not because their work will earn their salvation, but because both effort and grace are essential to the wellbeing of our relationship with our good and gracious Father. We could all learn something from Charlotte’s example, it seems.
Dr Katrina Clifford is Program Director of The Greenhouse at Anglican Deaconess Ministries. She has a PhD in English Literature from Sydney University.
[i] Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813), ed. Vivien Jones (Penguin, 1996).
[ii] Jane Austen, Emma (1816), ed. Kristin Flieger Samuelian (Broadview Press, 2004).
[iii] Jane Austen, Persuasion (1818), ed. Linda Bree (Broadview Press, 2004).
[iv] Austen, Pride and Prejudice.
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