handsome

Category: Love & Marriage | Type: Glossary Word | Title: Pride and Prejudice (in Context) | Author: Jane Austen | Ch: Chapter 1

Austen commonly uses "handsome" to describe women, and "pretty" can apply to either sex.

Sex will not be openly discussed in Austen but it's omnipresent and important. Mr. Bennet alludes here to his wife's physical appeal and his attraction to her. The moment is all the more noticeable because these are among his first words in the novel to his wife.

While there's an overtone of irony and a pleasure he takes in baiting her vanity, the fact is that Mr. Bennet married her not for her social rank, money, or, we'll see, quality of mind, which leaves chiefly her physical appeal. He has in a sense been punished, for while they've had five healthy children they're all girls, and he lacks adequate money to give each a dowry that will make her a likely prospect for marriage. They are going to have to rely in part on the physical charms they've inherited from their mother and such intelligence as they've inherited from him.

Austen is thoroughly and approvingly aware of the importance of physical attraction between couples, but it is apt in her fiction to be a problem when it is the chief no less the only appeal. All of her admirable courtships allude to the importance of the physical as erotic, but she condemns relationships, particularly when they assume the responsibilities of having and raising children, that lack a great deal more in which to embed the physical.

The matter of a man's physical attraction to a beautiful woman with little if anything else to recommend her will reappear in Mansfield Park, where the consequences are ultimately devastating. That novel also has much to say about female beauty and sexual appeal.

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