“Rational Happiness or Worldly Prosperity”? Jane Austen, post-Enlightenment marriage, and the case for law reform in the 21st Century
In this paper, I explore the changing understanding of the purpose of marriage in the late 18th/early 19th centuries, driven by the Enlightenment ideals of personalism, individualism, and rationalism – and the interpretation of these changes in Pride and Prejudice (1813). As marriage evolved from being seen as an end in itself, usually for economic benefit or stability, to a relationship based on love and personal happiness, Jane Austen’s characterisation of the different marriages contracted in Pride and Prejudice reflects this contemporary shift, and the (necessary) shades of grey between the two extremes. By contrasting the relationships of Lizzie Bennett, Charlotte Lucas, and Lydia Bennett (and their respective spouses), we can see how the “old” and “new” ideals play out in theory and in practice.
Curiously, this social understanding was reflected in the literature but not in any significant legal reform of the time. What does this tell us about society’s legal regulation of marriage then and now, and the limits of such regulation? And, critically, what is the significance of a shifting understanding of marriage for divorce laws in the 21st century? By examining our understanding of the purpose of marriage, and contrasting the approaches played out by the literary characters of the time, we can gain a greater insight into current divorce law, thereby informing current law reform debates. Pride and Prejudice allows us to explore law’s role in regulating social relationships, and the tension between ideals and realities in adult relationships.
I am Professor of Scots Private Law at Edinburgh University, with particular research interests in adult relationships, the parent/child relationship, and heraldry. I am also a Commissioner at the Scottish Law Commission, currently involved in the surrogacy law reform project. Full details, including publications, are at: