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‘Men of sense do not want silly wives’ says the wonderfully sensible Mr Knightley, that infinitely dependable hero whom everybody in Highbury – and Jane Austen’s readers – know to be an infallible guide. But who is really speaking here? Is Jane Austen having a secret laugh with us behind Mr Knightley’s back? After all, his own brother, astute and perceptive as he is shown to be, has married Emma’s sister Isabella who ‘was not a woman of strong understanding or any quickness.’

Clever men have a habit of marrying silly women in Jane Austen novels. Not that they mean to; it’s as if Jane Austen observed from life that sensible, rational men can be remarkably stupid in matters of the heart. Mr Bennet married without taking the trouble to discover that underneath the sexual attractions of youth and beauty his wife was ‘a woman of mean understanding, little information and uncertain temper.’ Not really a man of sense then, one can’t help thinking.

Mr Palmer has fallen into the same trap: ‘through some unaccountable bias in favour of beauty, he was the husband of a very silly woman’. Is the ironic inclusion of the word ‘unaccountable’ Jane Austen having another sly laugh at men?

A woman’s appearance is almost always what initially attracts and matters most to Jane Austen’s men. Even Mr Darcy, who we suspect has thought much on the subject, says of Elizabeth ‘she is not handsome enough to tempt me’, before eyeing her up and down and deciding that her ‘figure is light and pleasing’.

Sometimes even the possession of beauty or sex appeal doesn’t explain why silly women secure men of sense as husbands. ‘Mrs Allen was one of that numerous class of females, whose society can raise no other emotion than surprise at their being any men in the world who could like them enough to marry them. She had neither beauty, genius, accomplishment nor manner.’ But this excessively boring woman who talks of nothing but her gowns has still managed to get a husband. Jane Austen’s explanation is simple and sarcastic enough. ‘The air of a gentlewoman, a great deal of quiet, inactive good temper, and a trifling turn of mind were all that could account for her being the choice of a sensible, intelligent man like Mr Allen.’

So how do these men of sense conduct themselves when they realise that while they may not have wanted a silly wife, they have got one by mistake? Honourably it appears, though Jane Austen is not in the business of writing explicitly about extra marital forays. Mr Bennet, we are told, ‘was not of a disposition to seek comfort, for the disappointment which his own imprudence had brought on in any of the pleasures which too often console the unfortunate for their folly or their vice. He was fond of the country and of books; and from these tastes had arisen his principal enjoyments’.

Reading offers itself as an escape. Mr Bennet shuts himself up in his library; Mr Palmer buries himself in the newspaper: Lady Middleton, snobbish and less amiable than her sister Charlotte but equally vacuous ‘exerted herself to ask Mr Palmer if there was any news in the paper. “No, none at all,” he replied and read on.

Silly women in Jane Austen novels do not care for reading. It is quite impossible to picture Mrs Bennet holding a book. Lady Middleton dislikes the Dashwood girls because they are well-read. Miss Bingley pretends to read, but only picks up a book because it is the second volume of the one Darcy is reading. Characters who don’t read are shown to be ill-educated and superficial; Mr Darcy may sound intolerably condescending when he pronounces that a lady should improve her mind by extensive reading, but it is clear that Jane Austen is generally in agreement with this principle, even if she can’t resist poking fun at its unfortunate effects in Mary Bennet.

These men of sense who marry silly women may resort to grumpy rudeness (Mr Palmer) or ridicule and mockery (Mr Bennet) or playing at cards (Mr Allen) but Jane Austen largely ignores any serious unhappiness in their marriages. As for the wives, silliness and good temper sometimes offers its own protection. Charlotte Palmer, a pretty, giggling doll, prattles away, her sheen of stupidity sealing her off from the consciousness of what is going through her husband’s head.

In Jane Austen’s day marriage was the necessary goal for women, and understandably enough they had to use every weapon they possessed to achieve it. ‘My aunt Philips wants you so to get husbands, you can’t think’ – Mrs Bennet, Charlotte Palmer and Mrs Allen succeeded in this at any rate, so you could say they have the last laugh.

Jane Austen is careful to show us these disappointed husbands being thoughtful to other characters if not to their wives. But there is a touch of cruelty in her suggestion that stupid women deserve all they get or are too thick to have real feelings, and should be regarded as mere figures of fun. Although Elizabeth Bennet knows that her father’s treatment of her mother is ‘reprehensible’, as readers we are encouraged to forget about this and forgive all in our enjoyment of his perfect putdowns.

These unequal marriages give us the funniest scenes in Jane Austen’s novels. If we want a more sombre, serious  look at the regret suffered by a man of sense marrying in haste we have to wait for Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters with its brilliant creation of Mrs Gibson  – but that penetrating combination of comedy and tragedy deserves a post of its own.