Wednesday, December 15, 2010

On Jane Austen and modern marriage

It is probably not in the interest of maintaining a reputation for manliest to admit that one is a Jane Austen fan. Then again, one would first need a reputation to diminish.

The criticisms are well-known: she writes about the same subject--marriage--and the same group of people, traveling within the same narrow social circle. These strike me as uncharitable. There is only one Shakespeare, whose imagination could transcend the narrow range of circumstances with which he was familiar. Austen was well aware of her limitations; she wrote beautifully based on what she knew. We cannot be sure she would have written so well had she attempted something outside of her purview.

Like any good novelist, Austen tells the truth. Certain of her characters may lose sense in looking at love and marriage, yet the writer never does. We might expect an unmarried woman--for Austen never married--to be bitter about the institution; alternatively, she might be disdainful over something which she considered beneath her. We find neither. She heartily defends marriage, not through exhaustive asides, but through the characters in her stories.

In The Age of Napoleon Will and Ariel Durant observe, "She perceives that the basic aspect of life is the conscription of the individual into the service of the race; that the crises of government, the conflicts of power, even the cries for social justice are not as fundamental as the repeated, unconscious effort of youth to mature and be used and consumed." (p. 412)

If we use this quote to examine how well our current culture is faring when it comes to the basic aspect of life, we can only conclude that we are doing very badly. This has been a near constant theme of this blog, but I wish to set aside the usual pronouncements of demographic doom to look closer at marriage with the assistance of Miss Austen.

Austen's ideal is clearly love and a good marriage. The former we are to understand as more than a fleeting passion, while the latter comprises a good home and a considerable income so that the wife would not be forced to work. This antipathy toward labor did not stem from laziness or decadence; on the contrary, Austen was Aristotelian in her ethical conception: a certain amount of financial security was required to provide the leisure which made a life of virtue possible. It is true that Austen's characters tend to be fond of balls. But these are irregular and therefore important; they are in full accordance of her conception of the virtuous life.

Unless we are extraordinarily wealthy, this idea is totally foreign to us. For all I know it may be foreign even to them, but it is at least possible for the very rich to live the virtuous life as Austen sees it. The poor can obviously take no part in this vision. Stranger, perhaps, is that the middle class is similarly ill disposed to live thus. Or rather, it would take a radical transformation of habit and behavior to make this a possibility.

While there are some exceptions, for the vast majority of middle class women, the primary objective is not to marry well, but rather to go off to college to obtain a degree so as to obtain a career. At some later point, marriage becomes the desired goal. Yet even if women wished to pursue Austen's route of virtue, it would be virtually impossible to do this, first, because these women still want their careers; and second, because, for all that has changed in the last two hundred years, it's still much more difficult for an aging woman to land a man who possesses the requisite wealth and status. He'd just as soon marry her younger sister.

Austen understood this. While the goal of her female characters is to maintain an ideal marriage, the sensible ones express awareness that the ideal may not come to pass. Since she's sees life as comedic, we don't see her characters end unhappily--this is true of the novels I've read; it may not be true for all of them--but that this possibility exists there can be no doubt.

The idea that men will marry younger women is so well grounded that only a rabid feminist could dispute it. But there is something undeniably cold about facts expressed bluntly. Like any modern heresy, feminism denied the existence of scarcity, and hence, opportunity cost. It preached that one could go to school, have a career, and marry the man of one's dreams--who just happens to be rich. There is no special program to follow; simply follow one's heart and all will work out in the end. This is nonsense, of course. Setting aside years of one's life to attend school and start a career has a real cost; during that time, one cannot be finding a husband. True, one can have a career and a husband, but even this will necessitate some sacrifice, for one or the other goals. Frequently, it seems that the husband finding is put off until later, an excellent illustration of the concept of opportunity cost.

It's true that the cost exists for men, too, but it runs in the other direction. Eight years ago I was a nerd who fiddled with a computer and read too many books. Now I'm a software engineer who still reads too many books but drives a nicer car. The investment in a college education was, for me, a good one--both economically and otherwise. If marriage is not in my near future, my prospects haven't been lowered due to the experience.

It would be false if I insisted that I am viewing this issue dispassionately. While it's true that the sorry state of marriage presents a large problem for society at large, this particular issue effects me at a personal level. Like Austen, I am a defender of marriage as an institution. Unlike Austen, I live at a time when the benefits of marriage are becoming much less clear, at least as far as the man is considered.

For the novelist, it was clear that marriage has the potential to bring the woman a great deal of good. Unhappy marriages were distinctly possible, but divorce was unthinkable, for a variety of reasons, one of which was that even the least propitious of unions still brought the woman some good. (We set aside instances of outright violence; no one credibly claims that the fifty percent divorce rate is due to an epidemic of spousal abuse. )There was also the fact that the woman gave her assent, and therefore bound herself--a notion increasingly alien in our culture of no fault divorce.

The benefits for men were similarly clear. But in this respect we've seen tumultuous changes since Austen's time. Setting aside the comparative qualities of the modern American female, the institution itself has been altered. The marriage is more likely to end in divorce, most initiations of which begin with the woman. The man is thence taken to be raked over the coals, courtesy of the family courts. He is to continue to slave away for his children, without being able to see them when he wishes.

Of course, this isn't the fate of all men. But it does happen, and has been happening at a disconcerting rate; wounded men have begun cropped up on the Internet, counseling younger men to avoid marriage. There are a large number of blogs devoted to the topic of guiding men through the pitfalls of marriage, chiefly through game and avoidance. This phenomenon is too large to be ignored. If the solutions offered fail to satisfy, they nonetheless reveal a deep problem with relations between the sexes.

As a proponent of marriage, I find this trend alarming. If men refuse to marry, society is well nigh doomed. But it is preposterous to simply blame men for not wanting to commit. Until the institution itself is reformed, it is perfectly rational to be suspicious of the raw deal modern marriage offers. As a traditional Catholic, the risk is lowered--traditional Catholics don't believe in divorce. So long as I marry within the fold, so to speak, marriage remains an option; but it is a concern even for me.

It is far from clear if Austen would still wield her pen as a defender of marriage were she alive and writing today. I have my doubts.

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