Money & Prejudice
My grandmother once told me: “Jane Austen novels are money stories, not romance stories”. Yes, she is a great English teacher, but she nearly spoiled the fun of reading Austen’s novels and she certainly is in contradiction with the “Bridgerton” trend in pop culture, which tends to only focus on the romantic and esthetic aspects of the heritage of Austen. I remember watching the BBC’s version of Pride & Prejudice as a teenager, skipping the “boring parts” to go to the ball scenes or the love declarations. This is what the two seasons of the Netflix series Bridgerton channel: Jane Austen with fewer money problems and more sex scenes.
But as always, she is right. When you think of it, Pride and Prejudice is kind of a horror story. In rural England in the early XIXth century, the Bennett family lives off their land. Mr. Bennett is part of the landed gentry, meaning, the income of the family comes from their estate. He only has daughters, which means his estate will go to a distant male cousin, because of the rule of “entailment”. Entailment is an inheritance system made to avoid land being divided between many heirs, but going to, usually, one male heir. But Mr. Bennett has five daughters and a wife who will never inherit his land when he dies. These women have no other sources of income, nor the possibility to work. The only good outcome is for the daughters to marry and to marry well.
During the whole book, Mrs. Bennett is obsessed, and comically so, with finding a wealthy husband for her daughters. Her behavior is frowned upon by Mr. Darcy, the (wealthy) love interest of our heroine Elizabeth, and the mother is sometimes described with more or less subtlety as a venal woman. Her behavior even makes an obstacle for her daughters, as she repels the good gentlemen that could love and marry them by making her goal very obvious. It is something Elizabeth acknowledges when thinking about her older sister Jane:
How grievous then was the thought that, of a situation so desirable in every respect, so replete with advantage, so promising for happiness, Jane had been deprived, by the folly and indecorum of her own family!
One way Austen makes us forget the terrifying tragedy of Mrs. Bennett not finding husbands for her daughters, and the eventuality of a “from riches to rags” fate, is to make Mrs. Bennett a comic relief character. She is loud and talkative, annoying and venal, only speaking about rich husbands. The characters we root for, on the contrary, never speak about money, but only about romantic love. Also, it is to be noted that Pride & Prejudice has a happy ending for Mrs. Bennett: three of her daughters get married, two of them to very wealthy men. Jane and Elizabeth are rewarded for not thinking too much about money, even being disgusted by it. For the romance to prevail, there should not be any suspicion that they are, in fact, gold diggers!
The characters who associate love and money are the funniest characters in the book, devoid of any redeeming personality traits or depth of character. The other “obsessive” character would be Mr. Collins, the cousin who will inherit the Bennett estate, who makes a comically mortifying marriage proposal to Elizabeth because it sounds like what it actually is: a very sound business proposal. However, there is an exception with Charlotte, the best friend of Elizabeth who decides to marry Mr. Collins after the heroine rejects his proposal, in spite of his ridicule. Her pragmatism to marry whoever wants her borders tragedy. She is perhaps the most relatable character in the book, and it is why her 2005 version became viral on Tiktok:
But what would happen to the Bennett sisters and mother is not a fever dream imagined by the nervous Mrs. Bennett. This is actually the subject of another Jane Austen book, Sense & Sensibility. In this novel, a widow and her daughters, the Dashwood sisters, are kicked out of their house with very little money by the son of Mr. Dashwood’s first marriage. Mrs. Bennett expresses her fears in an undignified way, but she is right to have those fears, as she may very well be asked to leave her own house at the death of her husband. Comedy can be a lot of things, even a great tool for subversion, but it can also be a way of reaffirming social norms by mocking abnormal characters. Mrs. Bennett’s portrayal tells the readers how you should not act as she acts, you should not talk so openly about your financial situation and the anxiety it causes you, and you should instead always be dignified about it.
The financial situation of women has greatly changed in two centuries: entailment is a thing of the past, in the United Kingdom at least, and it is unlikely that you would get kicked out of your house by a distant relative when your parents die, hopefully. That may be why the romance aspect of Austen’s work is what is the most well-known part of it, and less the money part. As XXIst-century readers, we empathize more with the idea of having an annoying mother who really wants to see us married and settled to any man with a little bit of status.
But I do empathize with Mrs. Bennett, even without Jane Austen’s approval. Not being able to talk freely, or even complain about your own financial distress, even if it’s just because of social norms, has a real impact on the financial situation of women. And I do empathize with her even more deeply after reading Le Genre du Capital (The Gender of Capital) by sociology researchers Caroline Bessière and Sibylle Gollac. The two authors actually mention Pride & Prejudice when discussing the evolution of the law when it comes to inheritance in chapter 4, named “Des comptabilités sexistes sous couvert d’un droit égalitaire” — “Sexist accounting under the guise of equal rights”. Bessière and Gollac make the observation that even if our current rights are, on paper, equal, the reality of inheritance is still dismissing widows as obstacles to what is deemed the most natural inheritance, which is giving the valuable assets (a company, farming lands, or the main residence) to the main heir, the oldest man of the children. If you speak French, I am referring to this passage:
Tous les dossiers de cantonnement des libéralités qui nous ont été relatés en entretien reprennent ce schéma : une veuve “qui n’avait pas besoin de ça” pour vivre et qui est considérée comme “pas intéressée”, voire “réticente” ou “incompétente” pour la gestion du patrimoine. La figure de la veuve — qui est à la fois une femme, une pièce rapportée et souvent une personne agée — constitue donc l’exact opposé du “bon héritier” masculin, jeune et compétent, apte à faire fructifier le patrimoine et à le maintenir au sein de la lignée.
Indeed, the distrust and scorn Austen shows for her character can still be seen in the work of the notaries the two researchers interviewed. And the dignity of the widows expressing how they want to favor the children of their husbands sometimes ends up at their disadvantage. In chapter 2, Jeanne, a widow, wants to sell the house she lives to buy something smaller and easier to maintain for a woman of her age. But the “rightful heir”, one of her sons, opposes his mother living in a better situation because she has to keep the house… for him. The entailment is long dead, but the restrained role of a dignified widow lives on. Perhaps instead of mocking women who inadequately talk about their financial situation, we should praise them for advocating for their own cause.
The etiquette and the morals on how we should talk about money should always be challenged. It is a universally acknowledged fact that being proper and quiet can be a disadvantage for women when negotiating for their salary, but this politeness does not do women any favors in other aspects of their finances either. And as food for thought, I will finish with a quote from Elizabeth in Pride & Prejudice:
Pray, my dear aunt, what is the difference in matrimonial affairs, between the mercenary and the prudent motive? Where does discretion end, and avarice begins?
Thank you for reading! This article is dedicated to my grand-mother Marie-Ange who sparked my love for English literature, and to this Tiktok that sparked my re-reading of Pride and Prejudice: https://www.tiktok.com/@doomantidote/video/7157308912239201542
And thank you to my dear friend Jacqueline Lane for her kind feedback, comment, and proofreading!