“Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection.”
Of course Jane Austen was going to be on this list of Top 10 Real-Life Spinsters. Though she herself was not well known during her lifetime, today she is an inspiration to women, particularly happily single and childfree women, everywhere.
For any new reader of Austen’s work, it may initially come as a surprise that she never married. After all, she wrote almost entirely about happy, love-based marriages in the upper middle and upper classes. How is it that she herself was a lifelong spinster?
Spinsterhood in Victorian England
In Austen’s lifetime and social class, marriage was a responsibility to one’s family. For a woman, making a successful match ensured that one’s parents would be well-cared for in their old age. It was also most women’s only way of securing an income. For an upper middle class woman, a career would have been inappropriate (Austen herself remained an anonymous author until after her death). That left marriage as the only way to secure the future of one’s family.
However, with that responsibility came the loss of much of a woman’s autonomy. Though it might be difficult for modern readers to believe, had Austen married she would very likely have had to give up her career as a writer. Marriage in Victorian England (as mentioned in Anne Brontë‘s section on this list) was unfavorable to women. For instance:
- That a woman obeyed her husband wasn’t just a religious preference – it was law.
- Contraception would have been out of the question.
- All income earned by a woman would have belonged to her husband.
- Her children belonged to her husband.
- She would – quite literally – have belonged to her husband.
If a woman managed to secure a marriage to a wealthy man of good social standing who was also progressive in his attitude toward his wife, this could all work out fine. But there’s no denying that marriage was a great risk for any independent woman. Many scholars believe that it is this reason – the retention of her freedom and pursuit of her career – that Austen never married.
Why this makes Jane Austen an inspirational spinster
Jane Austen expert David Lassman says that this notion,
“…suggests that [Austen] was not only a literary genius but a forward-thinking woman, an independent mind, an astute business person and a feminist pioneer – one who can easily take her place alongside such luminaries as Mary Astell and Mary Wollstonecraft – rolled into one.”
Had marriage been the somewhat more egalitarian institution that it is today, perhaps Jane Austen would have married one of her beaus and continued to create masterpieces of English literature. Perhaps she would still have preferred spinsterhood. As it was, however, the only way for a self-sufficient woman to remain so was to remain a spinster. And her fans are very glad she did.
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