I'd just like to share with you all a few thoughts I've been having on the subject of sex before or outside marriage in Regency times. Jane Austen's view of such indiscretions appears mixed, to say the least.
A couple of young female characters in Jane Austen's novels are, shall we say, a little indiscreet in their relationships, and certainly meet with the come-uppance a reader of the time would expect. Isabella Thorpe, disappointed by her fiance's comparative lack of fortune, allows herself to be wooed and seduced by Captain Frederick Tilney. In so doing, the full extent of her flawed character is revealed. She finds herself disgraced and abandoned by her more honourable fiance. What befalls her then we do not know. Is she pregnant? Will she ever find a husband? We are left to guess what her future might hold.
Maria Bertram commits a similar sin; having married for money, but without love, she cuckolds her husband with the dashing Henry Crawford. Here her punishment is clear; she is expelled from her marriage, banished from her family and has to suffer the companionship and "comfort" of her Aunt Norris for the remainder of her days. Hellish indeed.
Curiously, not all of Jane Austen's characters who commit similar indiscretions are so punished. Lydia Bennet in Pride & Prejudice, the most shameless and disgraceful flirt of all, has a veneer of respectability placed over her conduct by her family, and is welcomed back into the fold. Eliza Williams in Sense & Sensibility, the daughter of Colonel Brandon's ward who is seduced and left pregnant by John Willoughby, is merely pitied for her plight, though she too will be excluded from polite society.
The difference in treatment of these various characters by Jane Austen seems to depend not so much on the sin of having sexual relationships, but on whether or not those relationships were adulterous, or injurious to another person. Therefore, Lydia Bennet is forgiven, since she has not harmed another suitor, as is Eliza Williams. Maria Bertram and Isabella Thorpe have both wounded honest men, and cannot be forgiven.
This brings me to a final, rather thorny question; that of Marianne Dashwood in Sense & Sensibility. Marianne launches herself into a passionate, unreserved relationship with Mr John Willoughby. Marianne is reckless; open in her regard for Willoughby, driving around the countryside with him unchaperoned, and finally allowing him to bring her to visit his house, Combe Magna. They visit the house in secret and alone, when Willoughby has already hinted at his intentions towards Marianne.
Marianne goes on to marry Colonel Brandon, who has already shown himself to be compassionate and understanding in his manner of dealing with his ward, Eliza Williams, and her situation. I can't help wondering if he was also aware and accepting of the fact that his wife had committed the same transgression as that of his ward, and with the same man? If Marianne had done so, which would surely harm her other suitor Colonel Brandon, she should not have had such a happy ending according to Jane Austen's own self-imposed standard. Or was Marianne the exception which proves the rule?
Because my final question is, did Marianne have sex with Willoughby, or didn't she? What do you think?