Examination of 19th Century English Society and Realism in Pride and Prejudice
How it works
Pride and Prejudice, a novel set in the early 19th century, can be used to study British society in the era when it was written. The aspects of life in the early 19th century that can be examined are historical context, marriage and gender roles, class, income, land ownership, and reputation. Pride and Prejudice, a novel by Jane Austen, was written during the turn of the century, which was one of the most transformative eras in European History. This novel can be used to examine 19th century English Society.
The historical context surrounding Jane Austen as she wrote Pride and Prejudice greatly influenced the contents of the novel. The late 18th and early 19th centuries were a transitional era. Beginning in 1811 was the Regency Period, named for the Prince of Wales, ruling as Regent after King George had gone insane. The Regency Period encompassed most of the 1810s and 20s (Aschkenes). Over the Regency Era, wars ravaged the world. Evidently, these wars had an effect on life and the novels written at that time. Between 1789 and 1799, the French Revolution was fought. Marie Antoinette was guillotined; Napoleon rose to power and conquered most of Western Europe. The place of the military in English society as seen by troops in Brighton. (Aschkenes) Austen’s brother Henry became a member of the militia in 1793 (like Wickham) (Huston) “The presence of the troops at Brighton and militia officers like Wickham reflect wider concerns about the place of the military in English civil society.” (Aschkenes)
The joining of England and Ireland in 1801 formed the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The Slave trade was abolished by parliament on March 25, 1807. During this period, the Industrial Revolution was beginning and Enlightenment ideas began changing to Romantic (“Historical Context”). The first whispers of feminism and abolitionism were heard. All through society, ideas, and values were shifting and changing. These events and ideas affected all of British society (“Historical Context”).
Marriage and gender roles in British Society were central to its function. Marriage was a way to gain wealth very quickly. The goal was often to link families and consolidate wealth. Many people married solely for money and comfortable life, but Elizabeth did not.
Women had very limited roles in Regency-era England. Getting married was one of the only acceptable roles that women could fill. Daughters became a way for families to obtain greater wealth. In turn, there were high expectations for their behavior. These high expectations included manners, beauty, and accomplishments, including drawing, needlework, playing the pianoforte, or singing. If a woman had these accomplishments, she was considered marriageable. In addition, women were generally discouraged from being too “bookish” because they would be considered “bluestockings” and, in turn, less marriageable. If a woman got “too old” (around mid to early twenties) without marrying, she became either a spinster (an outlier in society) or a burden on her family. Both were undesirable fates.
In order to keep women in submission, they were discouraged from education. Even though there was high pressure on women, they had little or no control over money, in turn giving them little independence. Overall, women were devalued as people and instead were a means to an end.
During the Regency Period, individuals and groups with progressive ideas came forth. They believed that things needed to change. One was Mary Wollstonecraft, a proponent of expanded rights for women. She wrote a book called Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). The beginning hints of feminism had begun to appear. Elizabeth Bennett shows the conflict between the established and rising roles of women in British society. “Disinherited of her father’s property, Elizabeth is not financially independent, and in fact depends upon an advantageous marriage for her future survival. Yet throughout the novel, she asserts intellectual and moral independence that reflects a Wollstoncraftian conception of gender politics.” (Aschkenes)
Throughout Pride and Prejudice, there are examples of how income, land ownership, and class affected British Society in the 1800s. The class system imposed rigid limits upon society. The gentry was the influential upper middle class, who could live entirely from rental income or at least had a country estate. The Bennets, Darcys, and Bingleys were gentry; however, they were different classes within the gentry. Class differences influenced who talked to whom, how one conversed, how one acted, and how one lived. Throughout Pride and Prejudice, the characters are influenced and directed by class. Mr. Collins, a “lowly clergy” member, sucks up to his patroness Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
“Mr. Collins’s views [on class] are the most extreme and obvious. The satire directed at Mr. Collins is therefore also more subtly directed at the entire social hierarchy and the conception of all those within it at its correctness, in complete disregard of other, more worthy virtues. Through the Darcy-Elizabeth and Bingley-Jane marriages, Austen shows the power of love and happiness to overcome class boundaries and prejudices, thereby implying that such prejudices are hollow, unfeeling, and unproductive.”
Austen writes as though a title is almost a guarantee of “fatuousness.” (Cambridge Companion 115). This shows her disdain of the class system and her belief that titled people are likely to be foolish and silly as well as smug and self-satisfied. The Darcy family is not titled, but they are extremely respected (Cambridge Companion 117), so Mr. Darcy feels a sense of dignity and pride in his lineage. To Darcy, the class of the Bennets is a concern especially if he desires to marry Elizabeth and join their lines. His first proposal included comments on her family’s lower position. (Huston) Those comments are probably part of the reason that Elizabeth refused him. She shuns society’s beliefs and puts more value in a person’s character than their title.
The titles that the privileged few carried did indeed come with responsibility. Estate-owners had tenants they were expected to care for and look after. In fact, “Elizabeth freezes Darcy off when he is proud and pretentious, but she warms to him when she discovers how as master of Pemberley he uses his extensive power for the good of those around him.” (Cambridge Companion 118). Miss Bingley does not like anyone who is not as “socially accepted” as she is. Wickham wants to get money to get a higher situation.
“A man’s income was always reported as a number of pounds (£) “per year,” such as Mr. Bingley’s “four or five thousand a year.” … Mr. Bennet draws about £2,000 a year, which would be sufficient to keep the appearance of comfort and respectability; but he bears the financial burden of providing dowries for five daughters. However, his estate is “entailed” upon his death away from the family to be given to a distant branch of the family in lieu of a male Bennet heir. But an income of more than £4,000 a year, like Bingley’s, could well-provide for both country and townhomes, with all of the modern comforts and latest fashions. Indeed, Mr. Darcy’s £10,000 a year has been calculated in recent decades to be worth between $300,000 and $800,000 in U.S. dollars; while another estimate, comparing Mr. Darcy’s income against the Regency average, gives him the real purchasing power of a modern multimillionaire.
Land ownership and inheritance are closely related to courtship and marriage. In England, there were strict inheritance laws. Large country estates served as a symbol of wealth and power. The Darcy estate, which Elizabeth jokes are the reason she is marrying Darcy, is large and grand. (Cambridge Companion 119) How it is shown in the novel.
Reputation is the main theme in Pride and Prejudice and was very important to the lives of young women and families in England. A woman’s reputation could be ruined in many situations. If a woman were to be alone with a non-relative or a man who was not her husband, her reputation could be ruined. When Elizabeth calls on the Bingleys to check on her sister and her skirts are muddy from trekking to their house, she risks mussing her reputation. The author’s mood in this scenario is lighthearted, because she really has not done anything too scandalous, and Elizabeth is the type to shun society’s expectations. The ill-mannered, ridiculous behavior of Mrs. Bennet gives her a bad reputation with the more refined (and snobbish) Darcys and Bingleys. Again, Austen takes a more light-hearted approach to this situation. However, when Lydia elopes, (which was actually a very serious issue), her actions could disgrace her whole family. Austen’s criticisms (implied and stated) through the novel convey the unfairness of the fact that one person’s bad choices could disgrace her whole family. (“Themes”) The idea that reputation and social standing were shaky and changeable was unfair, but also very tangible in the lives of the English.
During the early 19th century, Austen wrote a classic novel – Pride and Prejudice. The novel was influenced by the era it was written in as well as society’s customs and rules. The elements of society that can be examined in this novel are marriage and gender roles, class, income and land ownership, as well as reputation. Austen’s novel can be used to analyze the society and era it was written in – early 19th century England. It was a time before and during some of the core ideas and values of Society was changing. The concepts of class and status underwent dramatic revisions. Because of the times that Austen lived in as well as her characters that broke the mold, the early 21st Century has a society that has progressed, with rights and equality for most.