"Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor, which is one very strong argument in favour of matrimony"
-- Jane Austen, letter of March13, 1816
In Jane Austen's time, there was no real way for young women of the "genteel" classes to strike out on their own or be independent. Professions, the universities, politics, etc. were notopen to women (thus Elizabeth's opinion "that though this great lady [Lady Catherine] was not in the commission of the peace for the county, she was a most active magistrate in her own parish" isironic, since of course no woman could be a justice of the peace or magistrate). Few occupations were open to them -- and those few that were (such as being a governess, i.e. a live-in teacher for thedaughters or young children of a family) were not highly respected, and did not generally pay well or have very good working conditions: Jane Austen wrote, in a letter of April 30th 1811, about a governesshired by her brother Edward: "By this time I suppose she is hard at it, governing away -- poor creature! I pity her, tho' they are my neices"; and the patronizing Mrs. Elton in Emma is "astonished"that Emma's former governess is "so very lady-like ... quite the gentlewoman" (as opposed to being like a servant).
Therefore most "genteel" women could not get money except by marrying for it orinheriting it (and since the eldest son generally inherits the bulk of an estate, as the "heir", a woman can only really be a "heiress" if she has no brothers). Only a rather small number of women werewhat could be called professionals, who though their own efforts earned an income sufficient to make themselves independent, or had a recognized career (Jane Austen herself was not really one of thesefew women professionals -- during the last six years of her life she earned an average of a little more than £100 a year by her novel-writing, but her family's expenses were four times this amount,...