The Marriage Market in Literature

How far can we separate the Marriage Plot from the Marriage Market?


Literary romances usually involve a happy ending facilitated by the marriage between an economically challenged woman and her ‘ideal’ heroic male figure who possesses that which she lacks; wealth, property or both. The mixing of body and property is currency utilised by both genders on the marriage market and the man’s vulnerability is through his property whereas the woman’s is through her body. The woman character utilises clothing in order to appeal to her potential husband or portray her social rank through image. In this sense, the characters use these gendered attributes instrumentally to gain in the ‘marriage market’, moving marriage from a narrative of romance fulfilment to an end that ensures safety, social mobility and financial security. Ultimately, the behaviour of both genders is policed, albeit in different ways, and is limiting in its confinement of individuals to their corresponding gender norms. This creates a destructive tension between heterosexuality and power, as male dominance is eroticised. When the marriage plot is distanced, or perhaps confused with, the fairy tale narrative, the patriarchal basis for gaining power to compete in the marriage market is damaging to both genders as it is exclusionary to those who do not adhere to the gendered criteria for desirability. I will be discussing the marriage plot as a genre but I will use examples from the literary structures of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, The Making of a Marchioness and Gaudy Night.

Within the marriage market, wealth and status are the attributes of choice that construct the powerful bachelor in the world of a romance. In fiction marketed towards a majorly female audience, one is indoctrinated with the veristic idea that the spoils of matrimony are just that- a quantifiable sum of wealth, property or power, all which amount to the ultimate reward: economic and social safety. Cohn argues that romance repetitively tells the story of how power is deeply encoded under the guise of love (3). The narrative resolution is not solely in the fulfilment of a romance between two lovers in matrimony, but rather in the structural ending of a marriage which allows the heroine to gain access to money in a patriarchal society.

Austen’s Pride and Prejudice creates almost an estate agent’s map of the ending to pinpoint where the characters complete their lives as married couples. Mr. Bingley and Jane move from Netherfield to an estate he buys in Derbyshire (Austen 260), Mr. Collins and Charlotte temporarily move back to the Lucas Lodge to escape the metaphorical “storm” of Lady Catherine’s anger (Austen 259), Mary, the unfortunate old maid, remains at home (Austen 260) and Elizabeth looks forward to her pleasing escape from a displeasing “society” in “the comfort and elegance of their family party at Pemberley”.The listing of estates maps people in relation to where their new property will be and ultimately where their homes, symbols of shelter and “comfort”, are located.

Location takes on an absolutely vital role in the novel’s historical setting due to the established entailment and property law that restrictedthe property transmission of a family by limiting the inheritance to the owner’s lineal descendants (Weiner 1). The implementation of this legal device prevented the descendance to a female heir (or line) and ensured that the property stayed in the same class without being broken up; all of the property and wealth was therefore passed to the primogeniture, usually the eldest son. While Lizzy seems to be handed the fairy-tale romance that comes with loving a romantic hero, the main clause for this happy ending is the resolution to the Entailment law for her family. Their estate will be lost if her father dies due to the lack of male heir and, in effect, there is the implied but very real fear that the daughters will end up practically homeless if they do not marry at all, let alone marry well, which creates tension in the novel- their marriages are urgent.

While Lizzy seems to accidentally happen to stumble into the triple entendre of property, wealth and love symbolised by Darcy, the reader’s knowledge of this tension creates the darker and satirical suggestion that it is Darcy’s property which instigates Lizzy’s desire for him. The Bennetts’ estate stays somewhat close to the family as Charlotte, Lizzy’s best friend, marries Mr. Collins, the heir presumptive to Longbourn. Yet, the real reconciliation of the Romance lies in the development of social status and the redistribution of property as the plot changes when Lizzy sees Darcy’s Pemberley house. Humorously, she tells Jane that her love for Darcy has begun growing “so gradually” that she hardly noticed when it began yet “I believe it must date from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley” (Austen 252). These musings seem to be subconsciously foreshadowed by her first encounter with the “natural beauty” and “taste” of Pemberley house. Its position at the top of the eminence and its “handsome” stature catch “the eye” (Austen 163), repeatedly provoking unvoiced thoughts in Elizabeth of what it would be like to take ownership and become “familiarly acquainted” with the rooms. The expanse of the estate is described by Austen in great detail, and the rooms are almost personified in Lizzy’s longing to become familiar with them. In her admiration, Lizzy makes the same proclamation of desire as she explores its expanse: “to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!” and “I might have been mistress!” (Austen 164) are repeated phrases that parallel each other in structure by exclamations. “Might” suggests a frustration towards the loss of a future that could consists of the authoritative status ofbeing “mistress” of such a grand property. While the hint that she realises her love for Darcy due to this moment is dismissed and trivialised by Austen, the physical proof of Darcy’s wealth correlates with the reduction of her prejudice towards Darcy.

This applies to many of the male characters as, even on the very first page, Netherfield is discussed before Bingley’s name is even asked, and he is referred to as a “young man of large fortune from the north of England.” His age, wealth, status and origin are presented as his most essential, defining qualities that amount to his position as an eligible bachelor and prime contender in the marriage market. Austen argues that, while one should marry for love, it is crucial that one must marry. Love and the fairy-tale narrative it entails is placed secondary to the monetary ends one can gain from matrimony which almost takes on the form of a contract (especially as it used to come with a dowry).As breaking the entailment was a huge disgrace that came with the public acknowledgement of complete failure on behalf of both the son and family, the eldest son was legally and socially obligated to take on the role of patriarch and land owner who must reproduce until his purpose of creating a legitimate heir is fulfilled.

The societal pressures and those from the marriage market diminish the male figure to a man with money and his desirability stems from the power he is capable of exercising through his privilege. While the hero may often also have other desirable qualities, such as well-bred manners or good looks, the force of his social desirability stems from possessions and the status they give him. The male characters lack complexity and, while they have the upper hand, they are objectified and are significant mainly in terms of their placement in the novel’s power structure. While Darcy has the freedom to marry for love unlike Wickham, who has status but no money, Austen’s suggestion that you cannot separate patriarchal power from money highlights the damage of the marriage market on the man. He is confined to his position of power and is dependant on his wealth to secure a valuable masculine role. As the marriage plot functions in terms of a metaphorical market, both genders are allowed limited autonomy.

Brönte’s Jane Eyre seems less aware of the issues with its ‘happy ending’ as, while Jane seems to reject Rochester’s insistence on showering her with wealth, when she returns to him these issues are not directly resolved and the ending is portrayed as a fairy tale, despite the realist way that it is brought about. It tries to separate Jane’s desire for Rochester from Thornfield and Jane shows more interest in Rochester’s character than his wealth, seeming troubled by the treasures he bestows on her as this coincides with his consistent infantilization of her. After they admit their love for one another, Rochester seeks to bedeck Jane against her will, dragging her from silk warehouses to jewellers in the fervent desire to “see me glittering like a parterre” ( Brönte 236). Although Jane avoids his gaze, the reader is imbued by the image of Rochester smiling “such as a sultan might… bestow on a slave his gold and gems had enriched” (Brönte 237). Rochester’s desire to physically exult his wealth onto Jane and “dress me like a doll” simultaneously diminishes her autonomy as the simile objectifies her into a “parterre” for him to decorate with scintillating ornaments. His display of wealth is projected onto her physical body as he seeks to satisfy her through an expression of power and the spoils of his prosperity. The comparison of Rochester to a “sultan”, and Jane to a “slave”, pivots on Brönte’s Orientalist narrative which suggests that Jane sees herself as superior to Eastern women who were bought and enslaved.

Although Brönte’s perspective is colonialist, the incorporation of slavery allusions draws attention to the inextricable link between the attainment of wealth and the male championing of the marriage market. Rochester’s smile is ominous and contrasts from her own demeanour, paralleling his rising power with Jane’s weaker one. There is a lexical field of anger and violence in this passage as, even through her body language and the physical expression of her actions, he persists with his show of dominance. In response, she “crushed his hand, which was ever hunting mine, vigorously, and thrust it back to him red with the passionate pressure” (Brönte 237). His need for control, and attempt to make her something she does not want to be, is expressed in an almost sexually threatening way as his hand “hunts” her own and is “thrust” back to him, creating the image of chase and pursuance with physical rigorousness. Yet, while he seeks to change her superficially by means of his wealth, Jane correspondingly alters his own physical appearance out of anger, although very weakly, by mutilating his hand temporarily so that it reflects her own “burning cheek” and flushed, “passionate pressure”. There is the sense that women’s expenditure may or may not be authorized by men and that jewellery must be bought for them.

Yet, the formulaic resolution of romance serves to “moralise reality” as the authoritarian aspects of the hero, which serve to initially frustrate, demean or torment the heroine, turn out to be the source of her rescue and safety. Jane nevertheless reignites her relationship with Rochester and reaffirms his actions. Rochester cannot recognise Jane’s agency as every objection or threat she makes “with a sense of annoyance and degradation” is diminished to a joke or is ignored. He proceeds to refer to her as a “jewel” he wishes to metaphorically tie to a chain. He moves from calling her a “fairy” and “doll”, which suggests she is delicate and ornamental, to even more strongly objectifying her as a prized treasure among his abundance of wealth. He simultaneously paints her as a child that must be protected and adorned as she lacks the monetary capability to do so herself. However, despite the initial lack of trust on Jane’s part, she agrees to marry him and chooses to wear “a gold watch chain” and “pale blue dress” (Austen 400), a symbol of her inherited wealth, after they are married.

She conforms to his wishes, tying herself to his previously desired “chain”, and Rochester is again the moralised hero, her saviour. Therefore, the currency of the marriage market in romances that involve the marriage plot is a direct indication of male and female power relations. The dominant and desirable male character often derives his primary ammunition from property and wealth- a literal currency. As Cohn affirms, in the structures of contemporary romance there is no way for the heroine to acquire such power except by acquiring the hero (4), who would be vitiated without it. Yet, on the surface story, the heroine’s desire is diminished to the conventionally acceptable desire for love and marriage. While male novels are about getting the power irrespective from getting the woman (who just comes along with it), women’s novels suggest that getting the man gets one the power. But, as Atwood highlights, the hero must love the heroine in order to create the guise of a separation between the marriage plot andthe marriage market; “sex won’t do” (Cohn 13). Nevertheless, it is hinted in the texts that this love is secondary to the material attributes that will really ensure a successful marriage.

The image of the ideal man as a figure of wealth reinforces his masculine role of protector. In romantic relationships where marriage is not simply seen as a contract, the ideas of power and sexuality are inextricably linked. The romance hero is unburdened by the role of the sexual predator because of his wealth, namely in the character of Rochester, and he is enabled to enjoy power where his female counterpart is most powerless (Cohn 12); economically and in some ways even sexually. Desire is heavily masked as, at the deepest level, what is desired is authority itself, the power and autonomy that the social system denies women. Romance as a genre answers needs and desires that cannot be met or spoken of in real life (Cohn 4). Austen’s Charlotte separates the erotic from the economic and rejects the princess narrative explicitly, as she pragmatically navigates the market that she has accepted as the formulation for marriage, primarily due to her age (of 27). However, many other female protagonists often admire the man’s power because of the masculine associations with social superiority. Maria’s Dartford takes “a half consenting, half reluctant kiss” and is eroticised for being able to distinguish when no means yes, eroticising rape culture.

Even in Gaudy Night, written a century later, Sayers idealises Wimsey who, like a more attractive Mr. Collins, does not take no for an answer and continues proposing to Harriet because he seems to suspect that she wants to accept. Money and eroticism are even more closely linked in present day with movies such as Pretty Woman and Fifty Shades of Grey.Radical second wave feminists argued that heterosexuality perpetuates the subordination of women as it is difficult to separate it from a love of power; in effect, they equated desire for man to desire for the woman’s oppressor as society conditioned a belief of the economic and social benefits that women could gain from heterosexual partnership (Valk). This desire for all agency to be taken away from you by someone who knows better is the narrative passed down to us of female dependence on the protective male figure. There is a tension between feminism and heterosexuality that seems impossible to resolve and feeds into fantasies of sexual submission where the woman chooses not to have the power. The heroine appears to have a fair choice, yet her choice is quite limited. The eroticisation of power in this era is inherited by a modern audience from the marriage plot and the treatment of marriage as a social contract makes it difficult to separate female desire towards men from their desire for power.

In contrast, men do not desire powerful women equivalently. The woman characters’ appearances are often highly policed and scrutinised and many are shown decorating themselves totarget the eye of the wealthy hero by appearing delicate and youthful. In Entwistle’s words, “fashion is obsessed with gender” (Haulman 6) and, while it can be used to subvert the gender binary by constantly working and reworking normative conceptions, it is often feminised and is clearly heterosocial; necessary for the performance of social rank.Clothing and dress is a form of gendered power in the social order of heterosexual relations and in the sphere of the marriage plot. While the end of a gratifying romance involves the redistribution of money and property to include the female’s personal interests and well-being, her superficial appearance is instrumental to attracting the male gaze and the property that comes with it. While the male love interest is perfected for the marriage market through the attainment of wealth, his female counterpart perfects her body and sense qualities to become a marriageable bachelorette.

In Burnett’s A Making of A Marchioness, the women characters think of their attire strategically, utilising garmentsin a way that will pay off. Lady Agatha is treated almost as a doll, willingly, and feeds into the satisfied vanity of consumer culture. The Claraways take “strenuous” measures to present Lady Agatha to society, causing financial burdens and falling in debt for the sake of this necessary “expenditure” (Burnett 45). They are portrayed as practically planning an inexhaustible campaign, with Emily’s help, to adjust themselves to their social situation as Agatha dresses for the man she hopes to attain. Dresses, in other words, for the job.Her beauty is constantly discussed and attended to with “last touches”, “suggestions” and gowns of light, innocent colours such as “white muslin” and “very pale blue” (Burnett 58) are planned for the following nights in advance to give the impression that she is “fair and aerial”, almost as if “she might float away” (Burnett 60). The constant assurances that Agatha fits the role of the youthful, waifish nymph, which contrasts from Emily’s own “strong, healthy body” (Burnett 78) that in its practicality attracts the sexless Walderhurst, emphasises the young girl’s psychological upheaval. She is in “nervous” distress (Burnett 59) over satisfying the main purpose imbued in her by her parents, who seek to “advertise” the “new beauty… like a new soap” (Burnett 35).The simile directly compares her to a materialistic object which is symbolic of cleansing and, therefore, purity. She must use her new momentum on the marriage market while it lasts. There is the potential threat that Agatha may disappoint her own family as she seems to be aware of her own window for making this life long transaction as all of her sisters must soon also get married.

Like Pride and Prejudice, there is a great honour in not remaining on the marriage market for too long. Emily is born into this class but, similarly to Jane and other noble women who have fallen through the net, she is not afforded that luxury. Emily’s appearance reflects her position as a working woman who is not obviously being thrust into the marriage market, having passed her key window of time. Her body is described as “taut but noticeably inexpensive” (Burnett 23). In contrast to Agatha, her clothes are very subdued and practical rather than brightly coloured as she ignores her looks due to her lower social status. She chooses the natural, earthly pattern of “a revived brown skirt and white linen shirt with a brown dot on it” (Burnett 23). These garments reflect Emily’s skill set of thrifty domestic virtues and handicraft utilised by Agatha herself, which are ironically prioritised by Walderhurst. Emily is appears fertile enough to facilitate the birth of an heir (despite the slight speculation of her age) and the domesticity to command a house. In contrast, Agatha’s sometimes superficial indications of youth and beauty are associated with floral imagery, as her long neck “swayed like the stem of a flower”, her eyes are repeatedly violet “like blue flowers”(Burnett 44) and her lips are curved “like rose petals” (Burnett 49). The blossoming youth of her prettiness and the double meaning suggests she is the “flower” of the women Walderhurst can choose from as she opens up into society and comes of age. Her body is policed physically, reminiscent of the historical restriction of the female body in the literal sense when stays and corsets were representations of how the body was controlled by a synthetic design (Barrington 1). The corset sculpted, punished and regulated the female form and was a Victorian symbol which damaged bodies and undetermined the mental health of women who were, both mentally and physically, treated as psychologically submissive subjects (Summers 1). Agatha’s body is regulated physically in an equivalent way and she is likewise psychological distressed over the amount of dresses she owns and the money it will cost as well while her physical discomfort symbolises the social and ornamental status of the female body (Steele 1).Burnett repeatedly describes the women as “pathetic”; Agatha is pitiable and weak, treated as a decorative temptation. She is almost utilised by her mother to trap a husband and propel them into security.

Lady Agatha is preened in order to attract the “certain tiara” which Lady Maria “frequently pictured to herself as glittering above Agatha’s exquisitely low brow” (Burnett 48). Walderhurt’s house and his “tiara” are physical symbols of wealth that literally suggest that one can attempt to buy the princess narrative through their physical attraction, youth and beauty. This is an extremely economic way of thinking about clothes. Material possessions in the form of dresses, jewels and other décor are directly utilised to earn other material possessions that will belong to the women after they are symbolically ‘bought’ by a rich man. Physical labour is exerted on and by Agatha to pass as aristocratic and, for both women, clothes become like equipment as they assemble the materials needed for a particular job- that of a marchioness. Agatha is given career-like advice about marriage, which centres on the idea that one must invest in one’s appearance to be a successful product for the bride factory.


Neither Agatha nor Emily “lived in a world where marriage was a thing of romance” and there is a determinist perspective on the attitude a smart woman should take towards her husband; if he was a good-mannered person “of good means”, it was “natural that she should end up liking him sufficiently” even if she does not from the start. The formula of the marriage market displaces romance or love as a reason to engage in a relationship, and Burnett seems to be very aware of the marriage plot. Emily ends up in an almost better position than Jane or Elizabeth as she is given the wealth and corresponding freedom that comes with marrying well without the extra burden of love. The reader is not encouraged to believe in Walderhurst as an attractive hero, in contrast from Darcy and Rochester’s mysterious and arguably alluring countenances. He is almost disembodied; the only accessory which stands out is his silver monocle, which his “unillumined” eye gazes out of. Often, when social attention is drawn to a woman, Walderhurst sits stationary and unashamedly begins “staring” (Burnett 56). The monocle is used to enhance a man’s vision, which draws further attention to the appearance of the women in their bodily form as they are initially seen before they are heard. Their bodies and what they choose to clothe them with are constantly assessed and dissected both by the narrator and the other characters.


In Gaudy Night, as the new women of the 1980s seek to present a serious image rather than an extravagant or flowery one, the sartorial policing moves from instrumental use for marriage to the alignment of respectable social expectations. Harriet returns to the college in a “black frock [that] fitted her like a glove” as well as a “petunia dress (Sayers 8)”, aiming to suggest she is a woman of substance who does not wear clothes “with indecent display of back or breast” (Sayers 5)and can afford to dress properly, with a decent fit. There is a double bind in clothes as women should not be too coquettish but simultaneously should avoid prudishness. Harriet judges other women who do not follow the unwritten rules of looking attractive yet inoffensive as she “observes” the “folly” of a girl’s “incongruous” frock with “irritation”. In seeking to challenge Victorian thinking about marriage and women’s vocations, she has internalised the gendered perception of clothes and projects her own self critique onto other women who do not adhere to it, policing their agency and affirming unrealistic rules which one is doomed to fail. Harriet tries to perfect the balance of wearing a dress, a symbol of femininity as well as her identity as a sexual being, yet discriminates against appearing too serious or trivial. These gendered identity politics suggest women have to prove everything about their character through their appearance yet, paradoxically, look effortless in this narrow area that is only in the eye of the beholder. Like the female college gowns worn by the scholars, clothes become a uniform. They are a way to adjust oneself to a social situation and, as in The Making of a Marchioness, women are involved in a performance of status by bodily constraining themselves. Women compete with each other by using their own form of currency, their body, by feeding into the consumer culture to gain the power that will be granted to them once they are awarded with the object of their efforts- the hero’s attention and the offer of their hand for marriage. However constrained their choices, women do exercise agency in choosing what to wear. Yet there is a common motivation to their dress; the performance of status in a patriarchal social system. Consumption from women is not only for pleasure but is a necessity. Both novels are a counterweight to the stereotypical vision of emotional female spending as expenditure is carefully controlled and strategically planned to satisfy male approval in an economic context. One consumes in order to produce. A double standard is enacted as the reader is rarely told of what the hero is wearing and male bodies are even more rarely described. It is their eyes which take priority.

Traditional marriage seems to transform from a symbol of unconditional love and romance to a transaction between man and woman where she exchanges her body and femininity in return for his status and protection, almost a form of legal and encouraged prostitution. In practical terms, marriage thus becomes distinct from the idea that it is an immediately idyllic structural resolution to romances that incorporate the marriage plot. Both in strategy and consequence, matrimony seems to take on the attributes of a contract or barter. There is a sense that if one operates on the traditional, heterosexual basis of marriage and the gender roles it often entails, it is difficult to ensure a ‘feminist’ happy ending, as is shown when one delves into the details of novels written by often liberating female writers for their time. The male/female power relations constructed through the rules of the marriage plot have become accepted behaviour that ensure success in the marriage market. This thinking has taken on trans-historical and trans-fictional reality; the mixed formula of body and property, allocated almost unapologetically between the genders, transcends the historical situations that it is written in or the fictional worlds that describe it and is normative to present day as money is tied to both masculinity and power.

The traditional romance narrative eroticises male power, limiting men, as there is a very small box for the romantic hero. Women are allowed even less autonomy as they are taught to police themselves in order to gain approval. Therefore, the patriarchal structures that have been accepted as tools for marriage become damaging to everyone. As the novels progress historically to centre around greater female freedom and emancipation, there is less of a burden on performing for marriage and singledom is seen as less of a problem. Yet, the female body is continually policed and scrutinised to fit a narrow box. It is only when stereotypical ideas about gender are not performed within heterosexual relationships that the marriage plot, as a work of fiction, can create a narrative which does not eroticise power or tie it with heterosexuality. Otherwise, although love is insisted by the author to contribute to the happy fairy-tale ending, the marriage plot becomes very difficult to separate from a narrative about the currency used in the marriage market: a mixture of body and property. In such cases, love becomes only a shallow clause of the idealised romance narrative.

                                                       Works Cited:

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Wordsworth Classics, 1999.
Barrington, Mandy. Stays and Corsets: Historical Patterns translated for the modern body. Taylor and Francis, 2015, p 1.
Brönte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Wordsworth Classics, 1999.
Burnett, Frances. The Making of a Marchioness.Watchmaker Publishing, 1931.
Cohn, Jan. Romance and the Erotics of Property: Mass-Market Fiction for Women. Duke University Press, 1998, pp. 4-13.
Drabble, Margaret. A Summer Bird-Cage. Penguin Books, 1977.
Haulman, Kate. Politics of Fashion in 18th Century America. The University of North Carolina Press, 2011, pp. 1-6.
Weiner, Joshua. “Entailment and Property Law”. GrinnelCollege. Accessed 6th Janurary 2018.
White, Hayden. “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality.” Critical Inquiry in the Representation of Reality. Critical Inquiry 7, Autumn 1980, pp. 17-18.
Sayers, Dorothy. Gaudy Night. Hodder and Stoughton, 2016.
Steele, Valerie. The Corset: A Cultural History, Yale University Press 2011, p1.
Summers, Leigh. Bound to Please: A History of the Victorian Corset, Berg Publishers, 2003, p 1.
Valk, Anne. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Nov 13, 2004. Accessed 4th January 2018.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. Maria, or The Wrongs of Woman.Dover, 2009.
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One comment

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