True or False? A single woman in possession of a good fortune has some free will in the choice of a husband. False, as far as Mrs. Ferrars and Fanny Dashwood are concerned. The woman in question is Miss Morton, the late Lord Morton’s only daughter. This young lady not only comes from a good family, she is in possession of £30,000. Such prized attributes make her a hot commodity on the regency marriage mart.
In Sense and Sensibility, the reader is made acutely aware that Mrs. Ferrars has chosen Miss Morton for her eldest son, Edward. The readers never meet this poor girl, although her unseen presence looms large in the novel. Edward’s purse strings are controlled by his mother, and he stands to lose a fortune if he refuses to obey her. As Fanny Dashwood is quick to remind Mr. Dashwood, Edward will do his mother’s bidding. He has no choice.
Unbeknownst to both Fanny and Mrs. Ferrars, however, Edward has been engaged these many years to Lucy Steele, a little miss nobody with nothing but air and dust in her coffers. As soon as Mrs. Ferrars discovers this unpleasant fact, she disinherits Edward, and quickly switches sons on poor Miss Morton. This suggests that Robert and Edward are fairly interchangeable in their mother’s eyes*, and that Miss Morton would hardly notice the difference between them. (Or care if she did.)
As Miss Morton is lobbed from one son to the next, we begin to feel sorry for her. There is no mention of love or affection, merely the assumption that just as the Ferrars are after Miss Morton’s fortune, so Miss Morton must covet the Ferrars’s fortune. A conversation between an incredulous Elinor and her half-brother John Dashwood illustrates the point:
“We think NOW,”–said Mr. Dashwood, after a short pause, “of ROBERT’S marrying Miss Morton.”
Elinor, smiling at the grave and decisive importance of her brother’s tone, calmly replied,
“The lady, I suppose, has no choice in the affair.”
“Choice!–how do you mean?”
“I only mean that I suppose, from your manner of speaking, it must be the same to Miss Morton whether she marry Edward or Robert.”
“Certainly, there can be no difference; for Robert will now to all intents and purposes be considered as the eldest son;–and as to any thing else, they are both very agreeable young men: I do not know that one is superior to the other.”
Poor Miss Morton: first regarded as a piece of goods, and then jilted by two men! What a degrading situation. Wait, perhaps not. She escaped a lifetime of domination by an awful mother-in-law. We might laugh today at this comedic situation, but in a highly stratified society the BUSINESS of marriage was taken seriously. After coming out, young women were expected to display themselves and their talents in the best light possible, or their prospects of marriage might dim. They spent the social whirl meeting the right people and being seen in the right places. I suspect, however, that Miss Morton with her £30,000 pounds would be regarded as a diamond of the first water even if she developed acne, and had cross eyes and a snaggle tooth.
For more on the topic, please click on the links below:
- Marriage Mart: Regency Marriage
- *The Business of Marriage: Metaphors in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Floor Van Woudenberg (Download html document)