Jane Austen's Daily Mirrors of Marriage

Elizabeth Bennet, the protagonist of Jane Austen’s most famous novel Pride and Prejudicemuses that “Till this moment, I never knew myself.” A letter of information and insights from her perceived enemy, Mr. Darcy, enlightens Elizabeth that she has been blind in her judgement of events, the character of other people, and most importantly, herself. Elizabeth reflects on something common to the human experience. We would all like to imagine that we understand ourselves: our motivations, flaws, and virtues. And yet, clarity of vision in viewing our own souls often eludes us. We cannot know ourselves in isolation. We are revealed to ourselves through what transcends us: other people in our community and the grace of God. On our own, we see a warped image like the distorted reflection of a funhouse mirror.

While our relationship with our parents, children, friends, and neighbors all play their part as mirrors reflecting our flaws back to us, British novelist Jane Austen explores how romantic love and the sacrament of Holy Matrimony are designed to be graces that lead us to virtue. Her novels hinge on the theme of self-knowledge for her protagonists and how it is achieved on the path of love, which in her novels is a journey leading either to pain or to marriage. Austen examines these themes in the context of walks in the park, proposals, picnic baskets, and the daily lives of people in Regency England, but her depth of insight is anything but ordinary.

Elizabeth Bennet’s acquaintance with Mr. Darcy is the catalyst for her epiphany in Pride and Prejudice, and Mr. Darcy’s realization that he, too, has vices is thanks to Elizabeth’s brutally honest dismissal of his first marriage proposal. Austen shows that two flawed people can spur each other on toward virtue and that true love is that which leads both parties closer to holiness. If the sacrament of marriage is designed to bring each spouse closer to heaven, Austen shows with brilliant nuance how relationships between men and women can achieve this, as well as how pairing up with a vicious person can lead to doom.

The meddlesome heroine of Austen’s Emma, Miss Emma Woodhouse of Hartfield in the little town of Highbury, is perhaps the worst culprit of all Austen’s leading ladies regarding self-awareness. Emma, the apple of her doting father’s eye, becomes lady of the house at a young age due to her mother’s death and her sister’s marriage. She has had “very little to distress or vex her” during her twenty-one turns around the sun and the lack of friction in her life has not served her well.[1] Her ideas and behavior have rarely been challenged by anyone, allowing her to misjudge the wisdom of her actions and perceptions to disastrous result.

The wealthiest woman in the small community, Emma’s misguided attempts at taking less fortunate souls under her wing and encouraging marriages wreak havoc for her matchmaking victims. Emma sees the world as she imagines it to be instead of seeing others as they really are, undervaluing the worthy and putting the mediocre on pedestals. She imagines her pretty, but brainless and flattering best friend, Harriet Smith, to be a catch of a bride for men who, above her in both rank and fortune, would not give the silly young woman a second glance. Men she judges to be above reproach are revealed to be small-souled and vindictive, or reckless and disingenuous, and the scrapes and missteps resulting from her poor judgement cause pain for Emma and those in her circle. Readers love to hate Emma for her obliviousness, her pride, and her constant interference in the lives of others, but thankfully she is not doomed to drown in these vices. Honesty from a loving friend opens her eyes to her own folly and leads her to redemption.

The whole novel hinges on one scene: a picnic at nearby Box Hill. During this outing Emma humiliates a kind, impecunious, and irritatingly chatty spinster, Miss Bates. Emma makes a cruel public joke pointing out Miss Bates’s tendency to babble, wounding her deeply. Although her enjoyment of the day is pricked by her conscience, Emma does not face up to her misbehavior until her neighbor, Mr. Knightley, takes her to task over her heartlessness: “How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates? How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation?” Emma at first denies wrongdoing, “Nay, how could I help saying what I did?—Nobody could have helped it. It was not so very bad.” But Mr. Knightley explains why embarrassing a woman in already humiliating circumstances was so inexcusable by saying, “She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done, indeed!”[2] “Badly done, Emma,” are words our leading lady may never have heard before in her life and the critique meets its mark.

Emma must confront the truth that she has behaved abominably, not only in this one moment toward Miss Bates, but again and again by neglecting her faithful friends and treating them with condescension and ridicule. She has seen herself as the belle and benefactress of her small town, but has misjudged herself and the people around her reprehensibly. The gravity of her behavior hits home for the first time: “Never had she felt so agitated, mortified, grieved, at any circumstance in her life. She was most forcibly struck. The truth of his representation there was no denying. She felt it at her heart. How could she have been so brutal, so cruel to Miss Bates!”[3] Because the lecture comes from someone she respects and whose friendship has been a lifelong touchstone, Emma is able to accept the truth of what Mr. Knightley says and immediately begins trying to make amends.

While the famous aphorism tells us “love is blind,” Jane Austen’s stories reveal, rather, that true love makes our vision clear. Mr. Knightley’s devotion to Emma allows him to see Emma as she is, flaws as well as virtues, and still love her. And yet, although it pains him to speak the truth, he cannot leave her blind in her sin. Although Emma is, at the time of this chastisement, “totally ignorant of her own heart,” she comes to realize that Mr. Knightley’s good opinion is dearer to her than any other.[4] When matrimony is on the horizon, the reader has every reason to hope for continued growth in self-knowledge for our young protagonist. To wed a virtuous man like Mr. Knightley who loves and respects her enough to challenge her bodes well for Emma’s path to holiness.

A few years ago I saw the most poignant image of what marriage is designed to be. As I waited in line for Confession, an elderly woman at the front of the line held the arm of her unsteady husband and walked him to the door of the confessional before taking a seat to wait for him. What better picture of Holy Matrimony than leading your beloved to the grace waiting in the Sacrament of Reconciliation—in the confessional, where we must face ourselves as well as encounter Our Lord! Marriage calls us to love our spouse, not with a blind love, but with the kind of love that pushes each toward self-knowledge and the grace that accompanies acknowledging our sin and strengthening us in our path toward virtue. Marriage is designed to be the grace that turns us again and again to the truth about ourselves and to the mercy of God.

Jane Austen’s depiction of Holy Matrimony in its ideal form is not far from this image of accompanying one’s spouse toward holiness. As Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s relationship reveals, each lover needs the other to realize their own vices and how those sins cloud their understanding. In Elizabeth’s case her sin is her rash judgement about others, and in Mr. Darcy’s case, his arrogance. Love for the beloved can offer a clear mirror that shows us ourselves as we truly are so that, aware of our flaws, we can become more virtuous together.

While the couples who end up at the altar at the end of Austen’s novels are always improved by their beloved to some degree, there is a good deal of variety as to the matches. Some of Austen’s lovers are equally matched like Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy or Persuasion’s Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth. In these cases, each lover has flaws to overcome, and is challenged and motivated by their beloved. In other novels, an older, wiser man brings his romantic interest to deeper self-knowledge and wisdom as Mr. Knightley does for Emma, and as Henry Tilney of Northanger Abbey and Colonel Brandon of Sense and Sensibility do.

In other novels, the roles are quite reversed. The young Fanny Price of Mansfield Park, for instance, must bide her time as her older love interest Edmund Bertram slowly gains good judgement of character—due in great part to her example. But no matter the situation, at the last page of an Austen novel, the reader is encouraged that the nuptial ending will result in more iron sharpening iron and the couple’s progress toward virtue will continue throughout the years of their married life. It does not seem to matter to Austen which lover began the marriage with more virtue and wisdom and which has farther to go. Stepping out of the doors of the church together after the wedding as a new kind of creature, one flesh seeking the virtuous life, is what is important to Austen’s characters.

Yet, Austen is not naive about the complications of marriage. While her leading ladies are always set up to thrive with their new spouses, good marriages are not achieved by all wedded couples. Austen’s novels are full of bad marriages. While wedding a virtuous person will lead to respect, honesty, and mutual improvement, a bad marriage can lead to vice and destruction. Being wedded for life to a vicious or flattering person can merely increase one’s self-deceit and vice. We see Emma’s local vicar, Mr. Elton, become only more petty and arrogant when he marries the insufferable Mrs. Elton. John Dashwood in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, as another example, is described as “not an ill-disposed young man” who might have been improved “had he married a more amiable woman.” Alas, he becomes selfish and greedy after marrying his wife, Fanny, who is “a strong caricature of himself;--more narrow-minded and selfish.”[5] Even Mr. and Mrs. Bennet of Pride & Prejudice, although often amusing us with their comical banter, reveal the tragedy of two people ill-equipped to lead the other toward virtue. Mr. Bennet treats his wife with constant ridicule and both spouses fall into patterns of selfishness resulting in disharmony in their family life and pain and embarrassment for their children.

To have a marriage that lives up to its true purpose, the spouses must understand virtue and be brave and honest enough to seek it and support their beloved in his or her path to holiness. Some of Austen’s spouses are so oblivious that they are unaware of their own sin and unmotivated to overcome their flaws. Others, like Mr. Bennet, are not entirely unaware of their vices and those of their spouses, but lack the fortitude to overcome them—resorting instead to sloth and mockery.

Married love is meant to be a reflection of the kind of sacrificial love that Christ has for his Church, and it calls each spouse to daily conversion. As Elizabeth Bennet’s epiphany reading Mr. Darcy’s letter and Emma’s revelation after her misbehavior at Box Hill show, Austen’s protagonists often have one moment that transforms their perception of themselves. But as we can assume the protagonists of her novels will experience as they walk through married life, we require more than one moment of dramatic conversion. We need others to be the daily mirrors that reflect us back to ourselves. We may say a thousand times with Elizabeth, “Till this moment, I never knew myself,” as we slowly discover ourselves thanks to our spouse. Ultimately, the sacramental grace of Holy Matrimony pushes this self-knowledge gained through married life toward the mutual goal of reaching heaven with the help of our beloved.

[1] Jane Austen, Emma (New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1996), 3.

[2] Ibid., 346.

[3] Ibid., 347.

[4] Ibid., 381.

[5] Jane Austen. Sense & Sensibility. (New York: Penguin, 2008), 7.

Featured Image: Pompeii, Casa di Terentius Neo (VII, 2, 6), c. 20-30; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Haley Stewart

Haley Stewart is a writer, speaker, and podcaster living in central Texas with her beekeeping husband and four children. She earned her BA at Baylor University and is the author of The Grace of Enough: Pursuing Less and Living More in a Throwaway Culture. You can find her at her blog Carrots for Michaelmas and as co-host of the podcast Fountains of Carrots.

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