Unlike most readers, I didn’t admire Dorothea Brooke the first time I read Middlemarch. Instead, I wanted to be honest, intelligent Mary Garth. Mary is plain, in contrast to Dorothea and Rosamond Vincy, the novel’s other leading ladies. She is largely ignored by everyone, except for Fred Vincy, the man who brings her books and has loved her since childhood. But she won’t marry him, not until she can be sure that he will reform his imprudent ways and find employment for himself.
Mary’s practical nature in the face of love made me think more about the marriage plot. I naturally turned to Jane Austen since she is my favorite author, but I wanted to consider the marriage plot for some of the minor characters first instead of the heroines. In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price’s mother married for love and to disoblige her family and subsequently lived in poverty. In Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Lucas married for money and security, but not love. Mary Garth occupies the middle-ground. I do not think Mary Garth would marry without love and respect (unlike Charlotte Lucas), but she would also not marry a man she loves without being assured that they will not live in poverty (unlike Mrs. Price). Mary seems like she wants Fred to succeed and loves him back, but she is willing to wait until he gets his act together before she will agree to spend her life with him.
Austen’s heroines fare much better than the minor female characters, mostly because we are assured, as readers, that they will receive the happy ending they deserve. In fact, they have the privilege of choice and refusal. Lizzy Bennet turns down two offers of marriage, both from highly suitable men who would have saved her family from utter ruin if her father died. Fanny Price is poor but principled. Although she is not as widely admired as Lizzy Bennet, Fanny demonstrates a thorough self-knowledge and an awesome ability to resist intimidation. She will not be bullied into doing what she knows is wrong. She refuses to marry a rich, eligible man because she does not trust him. Her uncle punishes her by banishing her from Mansfield Park, but he comes to realize that Fanny was right. Both heroines eventually end up with the heroes whom they not only love, but are also wealthy enough to live a comfortable life.
The marriage plot is occasionally turned on its head by impending spinsterhood. In Villette by Charlotte Brontë, Lucy Snowe finishes by invoking the names of those who are also alone yet thriving. She is trying to harden herself to the idea that the man she loves may never come back and to remind herself that she is perfectly capable of living a fulfilling life alone. Villette is not as famous nor as beloved as Jane Eyre, and I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that the latter has a happy ending with the marriage plot fulfilled. There is something extremely satisfying about plodding along in a book, sympathizing while a heroine suffers, and then being assured that they received everything they wanted in life. However, Villette offers an important reminder of the strength of the heroine and her ability to prosper even without a hero.
I feel like the marriage plot is unfairly ridiculed. The unspoken criticism seems to be that there are more important things for heroes and heroines to do, but I wonder if that’s right or not. Jane Austen’s books are just as much about life and society and money as any other author, but she is often written off as being someone who focused on marriage and love while ignoring bigger issues. There is an unfair preference for big gestures, for something other than love, but the truth is that in most of our lives the biggest decision we make will be whom we choose to spend our lives with (or not) and whom we love whether Platonically or romantically.
I think that what I have learned, above all else, from the marriage plot, is that following one’s own instincts and happiness is important above all. As Fanny Price said, “We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.”