Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
Background and History
To set the stage for the writing of this research paper, it is essential to give a little experience of the period in which Jane Austen wrote. The novel took place in the early 1800s when women were more like property than living, breathing beings. Women had no rights during this time which meant they could not own property or accumulate wealth. They could not work or vote, and they had to follow the social graces. They were expected to have a modicum of civility and to learn etiquette, how to dance, and how to take care of a husband. Anything that they were able to acquire would come through their husbands. A girl who was wed when her father died would not inherit his fortune; instead, the husband was in line for the inheritance. This is what would have happened in the Bennet household, and this is one of the reasons that Mrs Bennet wanted to make sure that her girls were wed.
With these ideas in mind, Jane Austen emphasizes the traditional ideals of the society in which her characters reside, in her novel Pride and Prejudice. The period that the book takes place was called the Regency Period. This period was called this because King George IV was in rule between 1810 and 1820, and the story takes place midway between these two years in 1813 (Austen, “Study” 10). During this period, the industrial revolution created wealthy men from the middle class, who were business owners and professionals. They were able to purchase large homes, landscape the grounds, wear elegant clothes and be driven around in beautiful carriages (Austen, “Study” 10). Although many had become wealthy, others were struggling, and many were hungry. When people have these challenges, they often turn to social unrest, which happened at this time, and there were bread riots and worker protests (Austen, “Study” 11). Social customs were essential to this era, and men and women had specific places within society. Austen shows this throughout her novel.
This historical background was never included in Austen’s novels. Instead, she wanted readers to understand what she saw during this time because she was continually observing the middle class that she lived within. Her books depicted the “manners and morals of the middle class” (Austen “Study” 11). This historical background is essential to understand how Austen’s novel reinforced the conservative values of the time.
The Importance of Marriage
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” (Austen “Pride” 5). In the 1800s, women were not allowed to own property or acquire wealth or to work outside their homes if they were from the upper-middle class or the aristocracy. This was a time when men essentially rued the society and women were secondary, having to wait for men to marry them passively. The quote that begins the novel, that is used here, gives the reader an understanding that men were also under scrutiny because they were under pressure to find a wife. In one of the letters that Austen wrote to her niece, Fanny states, “Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor, which is one powerful argument in favour of matrimony …” (qt in Minton). This sentiment gives the reader an understanding that women also had to be married if they expected to live a full life. It seemed that men could marry anyone they wanted as long as the individual was a cousin or someone within their same socio-economic status.
Women had to “know their place” and anything they wanted had to come through men. Interestingly enough, women were able to understand how to manipulate their husbands to receive what she needed (an example of this is Mrs Bennet and how she coerces her husband to be more interested in the plight of the girls than he wants to be). Mrs Bennet was sure that her daughters would need to marry wealthy men if they were going to be well taken care of in the future. Austen presents a myopic view of the courtship between the three sisters and their men, as well as the social mores and values of the period. Another exciting part of this story was that Mr Bennet would have to choose a male to inherit his estate after he dies because he cannot give it to his children because they are all women (Francis). Therefore, Mrs Bennet understands that women must be married.
Jenny Dean states that marriage was essential in the 1800s for women, and they were under tremendous pressure to marry. Because there were no real jobs that women could do, getting married was the only alternative for them to live a good life. Women married for prestige and social status; very rarely were they able to marry for love. Austen is allowing the reader to understand the plight of women during this time and asking them to take a look at the difficulties that women had during this time. Another example of why marriage was important is that there were many genuine laws against allowing women to work or to be educated past grammar school because they were thought of as “feeble-minded [and]
(Sheffield et al.). Because of this, marriage was another way for women to have stability. The entire novel is about the various choices that women made to marry someone of wealth.
Social Rules in Pride and Prejudice as a Reflection of the Time
The novel gives the reader a view of the social rules and social graces of the period. Austen also used her book to give women a voice. As an example, many of the things said by Mrs Bennet and the attitude that Elizabeth Bennet portrays is not consistent with the way that women were treated in the 1800s. Women would not have had an opportunity to say as much, and they would not have had a say in who they married. During this time, there were specific rules that men and women had to follow whether they wanted to or not. As an example, “nice” single ladies could only meet single men through social gatherings that were put together for this purpose. Men had a say in who they talked to within reason. In many situations, as in Mr Darcy’s case, an aunt, a mother or some other female family member was in charge of creating the opportunity for young people to meet. Again, women had to wait until men came up to them and showed interest because they could not go up to a male on their own.
As stated previously, women were not able to hold jobs in this society. They could be a governess or a lady’s companion (Whalan 1). This often meant that young women became the companions of older women, especially when they were not married. The Bennet women did not want to take either of these professions, and the pressure was on them to be married, so they did not have to do something that was below their status.
In 18th Century England, everyone knew what was expected of them whether they were male or female. Civility was a concept that was in place to make sure that everyone did what they were supposed to do. If women did not do what was expected, they could be shunned or shamed in public. An example of how this worked was when Mrs Bennet was talking to her girls about going to one of the first assemblies. One of the women they knew, Mrs Bennet, promised to introduce the girls to a certain single man. Mrs Benet stated, “I do not believe Mrs Long will do any such thing. She has two nieces of her own. She is an egotistical, hypocritical woman and I don’t think of her (Austen “Pride” 8). Protocol or civility would not have allowed Mrs Bennet to say this to Mrs Long’s face, but she could voice these opinions to her daughters. At the assembly, Mrs Bennet would be friendly to Mrs Long regardless of whether she introduces the girls or not.
Another issue that was important to be done through social rules was the issue of marriage. Men were to make the only advances in this, and women were only to accept whatever man came to them. However, Austen was able to change this in her novel, although most of the women did exactly what was expected of them. As an example, when Mr Collins decides he wants to ask Elizabeth to marry him, he must first ask her mother for a private audience with her. Generally speaking, these private audiences always were about a marriage proposal. Unfortunately, most of these proposals were for property and wealth rather than love. When Mr Collins has his conference with Elizabeth, he explains to her why he must marry and why a union between them would be beneficial to both of them. Mr Collins is a minister and needs a wife for this profession. He tells Elizabeth that it would be helpful for her because he would then inherit her father’s fortune and it would be able to be distributed between the girls since she was married (Austen “Pride” 103). The challenge for him is that Elizabeth chooses to decline in a very civil way “… accept my thanks for the compliment you are paying me, I am very sensible of the honour of your proposals, but I can do otherwise than decline them” (Austen, “Pride” 104). To this reader, it seems that there were at least two reasons why Elizabeth may not have wanted to marry him. First, because he never professed his love to her and secondly, she did not know him. Of course, the reader finds out later that she is saving herself for Mr Darcy.
Aristocracies and Virtue
Peter Mathews gives the reader the understanding that the term “aristocrat” means something different in Austen’s novels. During the 1800s, an individual was not necessarily an aristocrat because they were born into it. Many people were moulded and sculpted into aristocracy, and many of these in that society were sworn to uphold it. Many looked down upon those who were in a different economic class. Austen shows this class difference throughout her novel. Also, the Bennet women are constantly reminded that they do not come from high society. As an example, when Mr Darcy begins to show his attention to Elizabeth, his aunt, Lady Catherine, reminds her that she is not at the same socio-economic as Mr Darcy and she should discourage him. After all, he has been betrothed to his cousin since they were infants. Elizabeth, expected to comply, delicately states that she will not do this and Lady Catherine responds, “obstinate, headstrong girl! I am ashamed of you!” (Austen “Pride” 336). This clearly would not have happened in 18th Century England without repercussions to Elizabeth and her family. However, since Austen was giving the women voice, many women who read the novel probably envied the fact that Elizabeth was so brazenly obstinate. Elizabeth has broken with decorum. Although she practised civility with Lady Catherine, she was not going to comply with Lady Catherine because she was already in love with Mr Darcy.
Mary Beth Barbitelli and Douglas Kries state that virtue was essential during this time, and Elizabeth and Mr Darcy saw goodness in each other (30). The challenge to their union was that Lidia and Wickham had already created a family scandal. This should have stopped a marriage between Mr Darcy and Elizabeth, but it did not stop them. According to Pamela Whalan, a scholar who has studied Austen extensively, these various activities were recorded accurately according to some of the women during this time.
The Opposite Viewpoint
Many writers during that time and now express the viewpoint that Austen is writing as a feminist. She has strong female characters, and they are allowed to be very bold in comparison to the women of this period. Jessica Gleason states that Austen made a case for women’s rights in her novel. As an example, Austen allowed many of her characters in all her books to marry the man they loved. As an example, Elizabeth and Mr Darcy. She was not going to take a man who did not love her (Mr Collins) when she could have someone who did.
Part of this idea of feminism in Pride and Prejudice comes from the idea writers think that Austen herself was a feminist who wanted to bring light to the fact that women should have a voice and they should be able to choose their mates. As an example, Miriam Ascarelli compared Austen with Mary Wollstonecraft because they both had similar views on women and marriage. Austen held the belief that women should be able to speak their minds and they should marry not for economic reasons but love. Austen herself was not married when she was writing her novels (Ascarelli 1). Austen also gives the reader a snapshot of what women are during the period and then juxtaposes this image with the sharp vision of Elizabeth. The reader sees Elizabeth as a strong woman who knows her mind and who expects to fall in love with someone before she marries them. This was not a concept available to women during this time without blame from others who would have wanted to keep as oppressed as every other woman during this time. Austen also shows that women who marry for money are not as happy as those who marry for love. Most of the women in the novel except Elizabeth married for money and not for love. Each of them, in turn, had some sort of significant dilemma that they had to face. Kate O’Toole states that many people think she is a feminist and that her writing was “a sharp-witted satire” about the customs during her time. To this reader, it appears that Austen wanted the reader to understand the plight of women during this time and the reasons why they were in such trouble. She was aware of what was going on, and she also wanted the reader to be informed. In the process, she wrote romance, but in the way that it made sense to her.
In conclusion, Austen was a writer who was ahead of her time, but she wanted the reader to understand her time. She wanted the reader to realize that marrying for economics was not the only reason women should marry; instead, they should have a combination of money and live. Austen may have had feminist ideas, but this was not the major thrust of her novel. She was more interested in showing what life was like during a period of her life that she thought was ridiculous. She was one of several writers during that spoke out about the indignities that were given to women.
At the end of the novel, Elizabeth is married to Mr Darcy, and it is one of those story tale romances as far as the reader can see. They genuinely love each other and money is not the main objective for either of them. Although Lady Catherine was outraged, she too was able to express herself (though the reader is not privy to what she said because it would have been uncivilized), she had to accept that Elizabeth was there to stay. Austen ends the novel without a pleased ending which was very interesting for this period.
- Ascarelli, Miriam. “A Feminist Connection: Jane Austen and Mary Wollstonecraft” 2004. Jane
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