But there certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world, as there are pretty women to deserve them.
—Jane Austen, Mansfield Park 
All of Jane Austen's six novels follow the heroine's (or heroines') journey from love—or, to use other words that occur in her novels, regard, esteem, gratitude, and attachment—to marriage. At a time when few women had sufficient means to live independently and divorces were difficult to obtain, the choice of a marriage partner was a fateful one. It was also a difficult one, thanks to a combination of interrelated demographic, geographic, and economic factors.
Skewed demographics in the marriage market
The population demographics of the early 19th century in England were skewed in a way that disadvantaged young single women. In the figures from the 1811 census, females outnumbered males by a substantial margin in almost every English county. In Hertfordshire, Derbyshire, and Kent—the three principle counties in which the action of Pride and Prejudice takes place—there were 11,000 more females than males. The problem was worse in some other counties: in the densely populated Middlesex, the county immediately to the south of Hertfordshire and adjacent to London, there were nearly 84,000 more females than males. Of course, only about a third of the population was of marriageable age—for those seeking a first marriage, generally between 15 and 34—but clearly there were considerably more women than men in the marriage market. Also, on average women married men who were about two years older than themselves, and the population of eligible men declined with increasing age. 
Another factor skewing the marriage-age population was that Austen's novels were written during the time of the Napoleonic Wars and continuing military conflict between Britain and the newly independent United States. Roughly half a million men were serving in Britain's armed forces and were not counted in the 1811 census; of course, most of them were also not available as marriage partners. (The soldiers quartered at Meryton at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice are a regiment of the militia, which remained on home soil in order to defend against French invasion or violently suppress unrest among industrial or agricultural workers.)
It is significant, I think, that in Pride and Prejudice all of the men in whom the Bennet sisters express a marital interest, or who express a marital interest in them—Darcy, Bingley, Wickham, Mr. Collins, and Colonel Fitzwilliam—come from outside the Bennets' home county of Hertfordshire. The limited society of a small village or town might provide few potential marriage partners. Mrs. Bennet boasts to Darcy that "we dine with four-and-twenty families," unaware that she has just confirmed his observation that "In a country neighbourhood you move in a very confined and unvarying society."  At the beginning of the 19th century only about a third of the population of England lived in towns of 2500 inhabitants or more, and London was the only city with more than 100,000 inhabitants. Most women faced a pool of potential suitors that was indeed "confined and unvarying."
Class and economic limitations
Marital choice, restricted by demographics and geography, was also circumscribed by class. Because in landed families elder sons inherited (see Sense and Sensibility, inheritance, and money), they were often expected to enlarge estates and solidify family ties through marriage. In Pride and Prejudice, Lady Catherine de Bourgh tells Elizabeth Bennet that she has long been planning for the marriage of her nephew Darcy and her daughter; their marriage would unite the substantial estates of Pemberley and Rosings Park:
"From their infancy, they have been intended for each other. It was the favourite wish of his mother, as well as of hers. While in their cradles, we planned the union: and now, at the moment when the wishes of both sisters would be accomplished in their marriage, to be prevented by a young woman of inferior birth, of no importance in the world, and wholly unallied to the family!" Mr. Bingley, an elder son who does not own an estate because his fortune, inherited from his father, "had been acquired by trade,"  also faces familial expectations about his marriage. Bingley's sister Caroline writes to Jane Bennet that he is expected to marry Darcy's sister Georgiana, and that "her relations all wish the connection as much as his own."  As Elizabeth says to her sister Jane, "They may wish many things besides his happiness; they may wish his increase of wealth and consequence; they may wish him to marry a girl who has all the importance of money, great connections, and pride." 
Younger sons, who did not generally inherit land, might also feel the need to augment their wealth through marriage. As Darcy's cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam tells Elizabeth,
"Younger sons cannot marry where they like."Austen's novels are peopled with younger sons, such as Edmund Bertram (Mansfield Park), Henry Tilney (Northanger Abbey), and Captain Frederick Wentworth (Persuasion), while Edward Ferrars (Sense and Sensibility) has been disinherited—essentially, he is an elder son forced to change places with a younger one. All four must overcome disapproval or the familial expectation and promotion of a different preferred partner before they can unite with the heroine in marriage. 
"Unless where they like women of fortune, which I think they very often do."
"Our habits of expense make us too dependent, and there are not many in my rank of life who can afford to marry without some attention to money."
"Is this," thought Elizabeth, "meant for me?" and she coloured at the idea; but, recovering herself, said in a lively tone, "And pray, what is the usual price of an earl's younger son? Unless the elder brother is very sickly, I suppose you would not ask above fifty thousand pounds." 
It wasn't only sons, of course, who attempted to marry to economic advantage. In Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Lucas explains to Elizabeth why she has accepted the proposal of the priggish, pompous Mr. Collins:
"I am not romantic, you know. I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins's character, connections, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair, as most people can boast on entering the marriage state.""Better feelings," though, might be considered a luxury by women who, in the absence of a husband of at least some means, might face poverty, isolation, or (worse, in some cases) indefinite residence in her parents' home.
Elizabeth...had always felt that Charlotte's opinion of matrimony was not exactly like her own, but she could not have supposed it possible that when called into action, she would have sacrificed every better feeling to worldly advantage. 
But women attempting to "marry up" were facing the highly stratified nature of the British class system. In the early 19th century, the pseudo-gentry, gentry, and aristocracy together made up less than a third of British families.  A daughter of a clergyman, barrister, small estate owner, or successful tradesman would find that most of the men she encountered on a daily basis would be considered unsuitable as objects of her matrimonial aspirations.
The top of the wealth pyramid was very narrow; one economic historian has estimated that in 1790 there were only 400 landowning families with annual incomes between £5000 and £50,000 per year.  In 1803 there were more than 2 million families in England; even if inflation and population growth between 1790 and 1803 had increased the number of families in the highest income brackets, they still represent a fractional percentage of the population. Considered in purely economic terms, Elizabeth Bennet is fortunate indeed to marry Darcy, whose annual income is reported to be £10,000, and her sister Jane nearly as lucky to marry Bingley, whose fortune is in the neighborhood of £100,000. These two young men would have been among the wealthiest bachelors in England.
The experience of re-reading Pride and Prejudice
I had read Pride and Prejudice three times (over 20 years) before embarking on the Six Months with Austen project. But I was surprised to find that this time it seemed like a different novel. Mainly, I found it to be more explicit than I remembered. I had prided myself on divining what I thought were hidden feelings in the characters, and subtle nuances of their situations. But, like a certain character of Austen's, I discovered to my chagrin that my pride was mistaken: Austen is generally very clear about her characters' thoughts and feelings. This did not diminish Pride and Prejudice in my view in any way; it remains for me, thanks to the delightfully witty, flawed, and sympathetic character of Elizabeth Bennet, Austen's most purely enjoyable novel.
Next time: Mansfield Park and slavery I: Fanny Price and Dido Elizabeth Belle
Last time: Sense and Sensibility, inheritance and money
Other posts in the "Six months with Jane Austen" series:
- Favorite adaptations and final thoughts
- Persuasion and Austen's sailor brothers
- Persuasion and the British Navy at war
- Northanger Abbey and women writers and readers
- Emma and the fate of unmarried women
- Mansfield Park and slavery III: Mansfield Park, an estate built on "the ruin and labour of others"
- Mansfield Park and slavery II: Lord Mansfield and the antislavery movement
- The plan
Picture credits, from top to bottom:
- Thomas Lawrence, Portrait of Charlotte and Sarah Carteret-Hardy, 1801 (detail)
- Thomas Lawrence, A Double Portrait of the Fullerton Sisters, 1825 (detail)
- Thomas Lawrence, Portrait of Miss Rosamond Croker, 1827 (detail)
- Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, Volume I Chapter i; Chapter 1
- For 1811 demographic figures, see "Population Statistics: Comparison of Population, England, by County, 1801 and 1811" (http://www.napoleon-series.org/research/abstract/population/population/britain/c_popcomp.html). The percentage of the population between the ages of 15 and 34 in the 1810s was estimated from "Table 1: The age distribution of the population of England and Wales, 1821-1971" in Francois Bedarida, A social history of England, 1851-1975, Methuen, 1979, p. 13.
- Austen, Pride and Prejudice, I. ix.; 9.
- Pride and Prejudice, III. xiv.; 56.
- Pride and Prejudice, I. iv.; 4.
- Pride and Prejudice, I. xxi.; 21.
- Pride and Prejudice, II. i.; 24.
- Pride and Prejudice, II. x.; 33. Fifty thousand pounds would result in an annual income of about £2500. To put this in context, we learn that Elizabeth herself will ultimately receive £1000 from her mother, resulting in an annual income of about £50.
- Edmund Bertram is expected to marry Mary Crawford (who possesses £20,000). Henry Tilney's father initially promotes his attachment to Catherine Morland when he thinks she is rich, but abruptly reverses himself when he discovers that she has no fortune. When Captain Wentworth is merely penniless Lieutenant Wentworth, his suit for Anne Elliot's hand is strongly opposed by Lady Russell. And Fanny Ferrars Dashwood, Edward's brother, makes her disapproval of the attachment between her brother Edward Ferrars and her sister-in-law Elinor Dashwood so apparent that the Dashwood women feel that they have no choice but to move out of the family home. (Edward is later disinherited by his mother for refusing to break his engagement with another woman of no fortune, Lucy Steele.)
- Pride and Prejudice, I. xxii.; 22.
- "Table 6: Social hierarchy and size of income from the seventeenth to the twentieth century (in percentages) 1688-1867: England and Wales" in Francois Bedarida, A social history of England, 1851-1975, Methuen, 1979, p. 216.
- Referenced in James Heldman, "How Wealthy is Mr. Darcy—Really? Pounds and Dollars in the World of Pride and Prejudice." Persuasions 12, 1990, 38-49. http://jasna.org/persuasions/printed/number12/heldman.htm Heldman's calculations of the modern equivalents of early 19th century wealth are somewhat dubious; a more nuanced attempt is made by Katherine Toran in "The Economics of Jane Austen’s World," Persuasions On-Line, 36(1), 2015. http://jasna.org/persuasions/on-line/vol36no1/toran.html Although exact comparisons are, of course, impossible, she calculates that Darcy's income represents something between about US$1 million and US$16.5 million in today's currency.