Single women in Georgian England
Elizabeth Elliot from Persuasion “had the consciousness of being nine-and-twenty to give her some regrets and some apprehensions: she was fully satisfied of being still quite as handsome as ever, but she felt her approach to the years of danger.”
Charlotte Lucas’s brothers “were relieved from their apprehension of Charlotte's dying an old maid” when they learned she accepted Mr Collins.
When Harriet says that Emma Woodhouse would end up like Miss Bates if she insists on not marrying, Emma says, “Never mind, Harriet, I shall not be a poor old maid; and it is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public! A single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable, old maid! the proper sport of boys and girls.”
Although she’s not as old, Elizabeth Bennet in An Affectionate Heart is another poor, single woman aware of how little agency she has over her life. She and Lydia are the only unmarried Bennet sisters, Mr Bennet is dead, and Elizabeth’s shuffled between the households of her married sisters. She’s useful, but not wanted, and she’s constantly reminded of her subordinate, dependent position.
In this scene, Elizabeth has returned to Longbourn after visiting a married Jane in town, and Mrs Bennet and Mary Collins are gossiping with the neighbors.
Mrs Long said to Mrs Bennet, “Mrs Cuthbert, Mrs Collins, and Mrs Redmond married young. I suspect your Lydia will be married within a year. She is a handsome, lively girl.”
“Beauty and liveliness are no guarantee that a gentleman will make an offer.” Lady Lucas’s voice dropped. “Look at Eliza. At least my Charlotte has three brothers of her own.”
To be unmarried did not wound Elizabeth, but to be a single woman on so narrow an income as whatever her uncle Gardiner or her brothers-in-law chose to grant her was maddening. She was always at another’s mercy. To be poor and dependent was more of a galling bitterness than to be unloved by a man.
“Being married is the only honourable provision for a well-educated young woman of small fortune.” Mary’s voice dripped with pride. “It is her pleasantest preservation from want, but not all women are able to achieve that state. Lizzy may end up a hopeless old spinster, but it is our duty to care for unmarried sisters.”
To remain single would not be as bad as being married to a stupid man like Mr Collins.
Mrs Bennet lifted the teapot, but Mary cleared her throat; Mrs Bennet blushed and put it down to allow her daughter to do the honours of the table. Mary gave a superior smile to her assembled party. “Lizzy will not wonder how to employ herself as she grows old, without husband or children at her side, as she can show her worth to her family by being of use in her married sisters’ households.”
Two years ago, Elizabeth might have been diverted by their folly. Or she might have excused herself from the visiting ladies and hidden in the library with her father. But now the books, along with everything else in the house, belonged to Mr Collins. He was not a sensible man, and the deficiency of nature had been but little assisted by education and society. Having now inherited Longbourn and a sufficient income, his self-conceit and weak head were firmly settled.
Between his pompous nothings, and Mary’s pride in being mistress of Longbourn that likewise give her a conceited manner, they deserve one another.
“Lizzy, come and tell the ladies how you found Jane’s boys,” said her mother. “Do you think the new baby much like Mary’s young William?”
“I suspect any letter from Jane will do the boys all the justice a doting mother can give. Excuse me; I was about to go to the instrument.”
“No, you will not,” Mary spoke sharply, and Elizabeth stopped. “The child might be sleeping, and I will not have you disturb him. I have decided you may play my instrument only in the morning before breakfast, if you first ask me for permission.”
A single woman in regency England was dependent on her family and generally lived with a married sibling. It was unseemly for her to live alone and she couldn’t even travel alone. Jane Austen mentions in her letters being obliged to wait until one of her brothers can come for her in order to travel home or travel to London. They were expected to pitch in and earn their keep in their siblings households, whether it was being a hostess to their bachelor brother like Miss Bingley in Pride and Prejudice, or Anne Elliot being shuttled to her sister’s to help care for her nephews since her father and brother don’t want her in Bath.
Marriage was a social and financial necessity for most women, but that doesn’t mean that many had an opportunity, let alone a good opportunity. Some who never married were marginalized, and it was worse when they were poor, or they were viewed as an inconvenience by parents or married siblings.
In An Affectionate Heart, Elizabeth is fed up being pitied and resented. The question is, what is she going to do about it?