P&P, day 23, episode 5: Elopement (and a cheat)

Austen Advent Calendar

I’ll start with the cheating: I’ve watched the whole series already, since I didn’t know if I’d have enough time to watch and write and do everything connected to Christmas and uni assignments over Christmas during the last two days. So I’m cheating. There will still be blog posts coming up about two more episodes, but I’ve been practicing time management, and now I’ve been transparent about it too!

On to the episode, and the main theme of this episode is Lydia’s elopement. Even if history isn’t your main interest in the world, you probably know that having sex outside of marriage, or more accurately, if it was known that you’d had sex outside of marriage, was not encouraged in society. Especially women were punished by social exclusion, and it seems like it was the duty of everyone, including the woman in question, to protect women from everything sexual, both consensual and (the much worse but no less occuring) unconsensual, before being married. This is perhaps why Mary goes on about “loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable, and therefore, we cannot be too guarded in our behaviour towards the undeserving of the other sex” and Mr. Gardiner thinks it unlikely that Wickham would go after “a girl who is by no means unprotected or friendless, and who’s actually staying in the Colonel’s family”.

This post will concentrate more on the consensual elopement, because it’s a less upsetting subject, though we can all condemn Wickham for being an adult creep targeting young, 15-16 year-old girls.

All articles I’ve found about elopement in England in the 19th century (and late 18th) draws the conclusion that it has its basis in the Marriage Act of 1753, or the Hardwicke Act. This law states that the persons marrying should both be at least 21 years old or have their parents’ or guardians’ permission to marry. The law also called for banns to be called for three weeks to make sure the couple was eligeble for marriage, and not engaged to another, married to another (a book called Jane Eyre springs to mind here…) or inappropriately related. This makes me want to look into the whole thing with cousins marrying in Austen’s novels, perhaps cousins were the first “acceptable” kind of relation with whom you could marry? If you had money and needed to marry in a hurry, you could purchase a special licence to skip the banns, but at £100 it would have been out of many people’s means.

The purpose of the law was to prevent scoundrels (like Wickham) to elope with heiresses for their money. The practical effects of the law was the setting of Gretna Green as a Las Vegas of 19th century Britain, because Scottish marriage laws were less rigid. In Scotland, you didn’t need the consent of your guardians, and you could be younger than 21 to marry. The Scottish age limit differs with different sources, so I’m uncertain if it was 16 for both, or if it was 14 for boys and 12 for girls. This information makes me happy to live in a place and time where the legislation and societal norms of matrimonial age both are much higher than that…

That Lydia seems to be fine with her and Wickham not going to Scotland can be explained with that many couples, especially where money was tight, couldn’t travel the four-ish days to Scotland. There were many couples going to London or other large towns, loosing themselves in the crowd, and marrying when their relatives hadn’t had time to react to the banns. This option was cheaper, and there is a passage in the book where they think that Lydia and Wickham could have come up with the plan to marry cheaper in London, though if it made it to the adaption, I’ve missed it.

The panic the others feel for Lydia is real. And in the end, when everything has solved itself as good as you can hope for given the circumstances, Lizzie’s comment is: “And they must marry. Yet he is such a man.” It’s a sad story, which is felt by everyone as it takes place, except Lydia, and perhaps Wickham… My interpretation is that they’ll probably feel the effects of it later on in their lives though…


Read more about a real elopement, reported in the newspapers in 1809.

Or read more about this Austen Advent Calendar in my posts, or the posts from Drunk Austen, whose idea this whole Austen advent calendar is!

The image is from the online collection of the British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

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