My novel The Misbegotten is set in Bath in the early 1800s, and is published in the 200th anniversary year of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
So why am I so averse to it being thought of as any kind of Austen tribute?
Perhaps it’s because, after so many picturesque screen adaptations and romantic rewrites, Austen’s stories, tragically, often come across as simply about the vacillations of young women hunting for husbands the way modern schoolgirls hunt for prom dates. But the true situation in 19th-century England was much darker.
Look a little closer, and Austen’s novels are reflective of a time when marriage wasn’t a joke, or even about a love match – but could be the difference between getting by and abject poverty.
In Pride & Prejudice, spirited heroine Elizabeth Bennet turns down her dull, stupid suitor Mr Collins despite his clergman's salary and entitlement to her family home – and when Charlotte Lucas accepts him instead, Elizabeth bemoans her friend sacrificing "every better feeling to worldly advantage". But this would have been the reality of marriage for the majority of women: love and romance were exciting luxuries more often read about in novels. Money and support were what mattered.
In Persuasion, Mrs Smith, a schoolfriend of noble-born Anne Elliot, married a man of "good fortune" who then died and left her with a mass of bad debt. She is reduced to living alone in two rooms in a bad part of Bath, unable to even afford a servant. She's crippled, destitute "and of course almost excluded from society", her life more or less over at the age of 30.
And in Sense & Sensibility, Eliza, Colonel Brandon's former sweetheart, is a divorcee, dying of consumption, and relying on Brandon's kindness to help the young daughter she leaves behind. Brandon does the decent thing and becomes the girl's guardian, only for her to be seduced and ruined by Willoughby as soon as she's old enough to fancy herself in love. Without Brandon's support, she has no possible security.
On the shelf
As I was researching The Misbegotten, I found I couldn’t ignore how little power women had over their own destinies at that time, and how the search for a suitable husband was often a desperate pursuit of respectability and financial ease.
For most women, a husband was the only possible means to a secure future. Of course Mrs Bennet in Pride & Prejudice frets about finding husbands for her five daughters – if they’d all remained spinsters they would have dragged the family into penury.
Women could be regarded as unmarriagable "spinsters" at a startlingly young age, depending on on looks, fortune and respectability. As Emma so baldly states in Austen's eponymous novel: "A single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable old maid". She considers herself no such thing – being witty and rich and clever. Certainly women were thought to have lost their 'bloom' by their mid-twenties; and by the age of 30, unless you were rich or very beautiful, you stood little chance of finding a husband.
There were few opportunities for women in the respectable middle-classes to earn money. Even destitute Mrs Smith in Persuasion donates the things she knits to "very poor families" rather then selling them. The Bennet sisters could have found jobs as governesses, but as I understand it this was seen as an admission of defeat, in terms of both marriageability and money, and was to be resisted for as long as possible. For lower-class women, the job market was even less appealing.
And even if a woman married with circumspection rather than excitement, what if she made the wrong choice? Divorce was practically unheard of… Once wed, even if he was a brute, a woman was stuck with her husband (and vice versa, of course),
It was a bad time for romance. No wonder then that Austen’s stories were so popular in their own time – not only for their satirical wit and lightness of touch, but for the escapism they offered in the sweetness of their denouements. And while I wanted to paint a clear picture of a much darker reality in The Misbegotten, I found that I wanted there to be romance, too, and real love in spite of the odds against it – even if the story makes it walk a twisted path...
The Misbegotten by Katherine Webb is published by Orion.
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