Mansfield Park, Marriage, and Me
I’ve been working my way through Jane Austen’s complete works recently. I like to read for a little while before bed, but as an intermittent insomniac and terrible sleeper, my requirements for the books I read before bed are pretty rigid. Basically, they have to be interesting enough that I want to pick them back up every night, but not so riveting that I can’t put them down or stop thinking about them when it’s finally time to sleep. Jane Austen fits the bill very well. I know going in that the heroine is going to end up well married and financially secure and removed from the friends and relations who do not contribute to her happiness. And nothing so dramatic happens that I’ll be turning it over and over in my mind while I’m trying to sleep.
That is, until I got to Mansfield Park. This is not one of Austen’s more beloved novels, and it’s not difficult to see why. Fanny Price is much meeker than many of Austen’s more well known heroines, lacking Elizabeth Bennett’s vivacity or Elinor Dashwood’s and Anne Elliot’s stoic charm. The man she’s in love with, Edmund Bertram, spends the majority of the novel in love with someone else and it is only that woman’s failure to live up to Edmund’s strict moral code that frees him up for Fanny later. Fanny, whose overburdened family sent her to live with the Bertrams when she was very young, spends much of the novel harangued and harassed by her relatives or hiding in her cold rooms, refusing to request a fire.
Midway through the novel, she receives a proposal from Henry Crawford, a friend of the family, charmer and known rake who starts to pursue her in the quest of novelty and entertainment and ends up falling in love with her. In spite of his wealth, his charm, his connections, and the wishes of her family and friends that she acquiesce to his proposal, he does not live up to Fanny’s own moral code or her desires, and she refuses him.
At this point in the novel, I found my anxiety ratcheting up. Every night became a wrestling match to convince myself to get through one more chapter before turning off my light. But it wasn’t until I was describing this process to my therapist that I understood why.
“Oh,” she said. “Like your worst fear, right?”
And that, my friends, is why we pay them the big bucks.
I probably would have gotten there on my own eventually. I had, in fact, just finished telling my therapist a few weeks before about my recurring dream motif in which I am, wait for it, engaged and deep in the wedding planning process with friends and family and my anonymous fiance, even though I don’t actually want to get married and don’t know how to tell anyone. And yet through the whole second half of Mansfield Park, even knowing how it would end, I kept thinking to myself that Fanny should say yes for financial and familial and future security.
Marriage lives at a fraught nexus, at once romantic, political, social, financial, and religious. In Jane Austen’s novels, it just so happens that our heroines end up marrying their romantic, financial, and social matches. And the novels make clear that marriage is women’s only financial recourse. We spend much of Pride & Prejudice mocking Mrs. Bennet’s obsession with marrying off her daughters, but she quite literally has nothing else to give them. They are dependent upon her husband for safekeeping until their husbands can take over. And if they do not marry before their father dies, they’ll be left at the whim of distant male cousins quite capable of turning them out of house and home to fend for themselves. When Elizabeth’s friend, Charlotte Lucas, agrees to marry the odious Mr. Collins, she reminds Lizzy: “I'm twenty-seven years old, I've no money and no prospects. I'm already a burden to my parents and I'm frightened.”
Circumstances have changed since then, of course, but perhaps not as much as we might have hoped. Women are much more able to achieve independent financial stability, and our laws, at least for the time being, no longer treat us as objects to be passed from man to man until we die. But we still rely on marriage to solve social, financial, and political precarity. Rather than relegating marriage to the purely romantic sphere, we’ve only traded in obvious calculus for something more subtle.
Marriage, of course, is about love and partnership. But it is still a financial transaction, a political statement, a change in macro and micro social standing. It is tied up with our health insurance, our taxes, and our politics. Who is allowed to get married, what that does to improve or worsen their financial situation, what that means for hospital visitation, adoption, and custody are not just products of our laws and our economy, but dependent on who has power and the lengths they are willing to go to fight for equality.
Disabled people can lose their benefits when they get married. Iowa Republicans recently introduced a law to overturn the right of same sex couples to get married. A lesbian mom in Oklahoma recently lost parental rights to her ex-partner and their sperm donor. A Republican in Texas recently introduced a law to give enormous tax benefits to straight couples that increase with the number of children they have - up to 100% cut in property taxes for ten children. To share your health insurance, you must be married or domestically partnered, dooming many to watch lifelong friends fall to financial insolvency and ill health. Who is allowed to get married, how that marriage impacts them, and what happens to them and their children if that marriage ends are questions with enormous impact on real people and yet are often treated as abstract concepts by people who view their own marriages as traditional and sacrosanct while denying those rights to anyone they don’t like or understand.
These questions are imbued with even more weight when we consider that marriage is meant to solve insecurity, financial and emotional alike. Lyz Lenz has done some incredible writing on this recently in her newsletter, pointing to the ways that governments incentivize marriage in everything from taxes to SNAP benefits. And our economic system is designed around marriage - it is nearly impossible for most people to afford a one bedroom apartment in New York City on their own. For many of us, it's roommates until marriage. And so many of us feel like we don’t have enough time for all the things we’re supposed to do, exercise, cook meals, clean our living spaces, work, socialize, and relax, because our economic system grew up around having women at home, either married or paid, to handle that labor, a complete impossibility for most families.
My recurring wedding dream is of course as much a product of my own personal questions and fears as it is the political, social, and economic ones. But it does not surprise me that my brain chose marriage as an outlet for them. As I found myself thinking that perhaps Fanny Price should have said yes to that first proposal, it was as much about my belief that Henry Crawford was better suited for her, someone who might encourage her to have more fun, to move beyond her own rigid morality. She could marry someone to whom she could have been more of an equal, at least emotionally, rather than a dependent. A marriage to Henry Crawford would have provided immediate financial security, an escape from pining after her cousin Edmund and from the harassment of her family.
But Fanny did not want to marry him. A romantic notion, given the eminently practical approach to marriage imbued throughout Austen’s work. And an acknowledgment that, at its heart, spending your life with someone, taking their presence and needs and desires as your responsibility is much more than a political or financial or social transaction. True freedom, true independence is the ability to live your life as you choose whether you are married or not; to be able to marry whom you wish regardless of others religious or moral (in)sensibilities; and to know that the choice is yours and your partners and no one else’s.
We do not live in a Jane Austen novel - we are not all fated to find our social, financial, and romantic match in the same person. Perhaps we should stop designing our social order around the expectation that we will. And when we fight for marriage rights, we should do so with the knowledge that those rights are not just symbolic, but have a real and often terribly urgent impact on people’s ability to live and thrive in the world we’ve made.