Jane Austen-Pride & Prejudice

Themes Explored: manners, societal pressures, matrimony, pride, prejudice, love, loss, sibling rivalries, sibling relationships, social critique, reputation, marriage, parental approval, British aristocracy, femininity, class, family, virtue, honor, purity.

Synopsis: Originally published in 1813, this romantic novel charts the life and times of Elizabeth Bennet and her four sisters as they navigate society.  

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“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”

Review: Pride & Prejudice remains one of the best satirical and social critiques of the social pressures and expectations of women in the eighteenth century (Jan 1, 1701 – Dec 31, 1800). The story endures due to the clear writing and the universal themes of love, loss, and second chances. During the eighteenth century in England (and the rest of the civilized world at the time), a woman’s main marriage currency were her reputation and femininity. Lose your reputation and you squander your only shot at securing a decent husband with a steady income. Women, especially members of the aristocracy, had to adhere to certain rules and behavior in both the private and public sphere. Several of the Bennet sisters step outside of these restrictions in ways that harmed their whole family’s reputations.

Mr. Bennet, Esquire, the patriarch of the now-dwindling Bennet family married Mrs. Bennet, the daughter of a Meryton attorney, Mr. Gardener Sr. Together the couple produced five daughters: Jane, Elizabeth (“Lizzy”/”Eliza”), Mary, Catherine (“Kitty”), and Lydia Bennet. At the beginning of the novel, none of the girls are married or engaged.

Mr. Bennet owned an entailed estate, which meant that he had no sons. As such, all his property and money automatically goes to the closest male relative in the event of his death. In this case, Mr. Collins, a paternal cousin. All the girls would receive a modest dowry but could not inherit Longbourn House. However, Mr. Collins’ would lose his inheritance if one of Mr. Bennet’s daughters gave birth to a son before his death. This grandson would then become the new heir presumptive by virtue of being Mr. Bennet’s closest living male relative. Entailments only passed through the male line. If Mr. Collins married one of one of Mr. Bennet’s daughters and fathered a son, he would guarantee inheriting Longbourn.

Within the hierarchy of British Aristocracy, the Bennet family existed on the lower end of high society. While Mr. Bennet was a gentleman, he was not directly related to the peerage. Landed gentry, like the Bennet’s, is a distinctive British social class between the peerage and the common man. The gentry consisted of landowners who could live entirely from rental income and/or the proceeds from a country estate. Socially, the gentry socialized “below”, the aristocracy or peerage, although some of the landed gentry possessed significant more wealth than the peerage and many gentry were the younger sons of the aristocrats. Since their fathers’ possessed money, many women from the landed gentry social class could marry “up” into the peerage due to significant dowries. At this particular period, a lot of the aristocracy were land rich but cash poor. Marrying a woman who came with a significant dowry (50,000 pounds+) could solve many problems.

The Bennet sisters suffered on the marriage market since they only had a dowry of between 200-500 pounds apiece. Mr. Bennet only pulled in an annual income of 2,000 pounds, a decent income but not enough to allow five daughters to make advantageous marriages. Lizzy and Darcy, socially, belong to the same social class. However, Darcy’s family descended from the peerage, so has higher standing in aristocratic circles.

In the eighteenth century, a household of five girls with no advantage other than good looks and feminine accomplishments, presented many challenges. Yet Mr and Mrs Bennet failed to prepare their girls for the marriage market. Mrs Bennet, a rather unrefined woman, repeatedly made a spectacle of herself, incapable of realizing that crude manners would deter any rich, eligible young man who noticed any of her daughters. Mr Bennet only married Mrs Bennet for her looks and later realized that he disliked her personality. He became an indifferent husband and gave up on reining in his wife’s and younger daughters’ embarrassing behavior.

All five girls acted in accordance with the education they received. Jane and Elizabeth, the two eldest and prettiest, show irreproachable conduct and have their father’s respect and appreciation. Mary, the third oldest, displays intellectual and musical pretensions but possess few looks. Kitty and Lydia, the two youngest, run wild under the rather careless supervision of their mother.

Extended members of the Bennet family include Mrs Bennet’s brother and sister – Mr. Gardiner and Mrs. Philips-and the pompous and foolish Mr. William Collins. Mrs. Philips and Mr. Gardiner  contribute significantly to the progress of the story and act as surrogate parental figure to Jane and Lizzy in their times of need.  Mr. Collins’s provides a link between the gentry of Hertfordshire and the incredibly wealth Lady Catherine de Bourgh and her nephew, Mr. Darcy.

As the title suggests, prejudice forms one of the main themes of the novel. Prejudice is one of many obstacles that gets in the way of Lizzy and Mr. Darcy from connecting. Mr. Darcy judges Lizzy harshly based upon her lower social standing and the uncouth behavior of Mrs. Bennet. He does not immediately notice her strength of character since he is above her in class and believes himself superior. This prejudice also influences why Darcy dissuades Bingley from pursuing Jane, even though they complement each other in every way despite the differences in social standing.

On the other side, Lizzy’s pride causes her to misjudge Darcy and treat him poorly in subsequent meetings. Jane Austen believed firmly in the importance of love in a marriage. In Austen’s view, Lizzy rejects Mr. Darcy’s first proposal because she neither loves nor respects him. Lizzy wanted a marriage where she can respect her husband and he respects her, unlike the example of her parents. This is in direct contrast to the union of Charlotte Lucas and Mr Collins. Charlotte only accepted Collins’ proposal because she needed the respectability and security of marriage. Otherwise, she risked becoming a burden to her brothers upon the death of their father. However, Charlotte neither loves nor respects her husband. Collins merely presented the only way for Charlotte to secure her future.

The lines of class remain strictly enforced by the characters. Austen satirizes this class-consciousness, particularly through Mr. Collins, who spends his time flattering Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Several other characters, including Mr. Darcy, share Collins’ extreme conscience of class. Miss Bingley and Wickham will doing anything required to raise their social standing. Mr. Collins’s views are merely the most obvious.

In the depiction of the Darcy-Elizabeth and Bingley-Jane marriages, Austen displays how love and happiness can overcome class boundaries and prejudices. The underlying implication being that such prejudices are hollow and unnecessary. On the other hand, one critique of Austen is that she is also a classist, as she does not represent anyone from the lower classes. Those servants she does portray are generally happy with their lot. While Austen does criticize class structure, her critique solely focuses on the differences housed within the upper segments of society.

Austen is certainly critical of the gender injustices present in English society, particularly within the institution of marriage. Many of the women in the novel must marry to secure their financial security. Through the characters of Lizzy and Jane, Austen shows that women possess equal intelligence and capabilities as their male counterparts. Jane herself went against convention by remaining unmarried and earning a living through writing. In her personal correspondences, Austen advised her friends to marry for love. Lizzy’s happy marriage reveals Austen’s belief that a woman should remain independent until she meets the right man. Pride & Prejudice remains a popular novel as the themes of class, love, marriage, and societal responsibility still exist today and shape people’s behavior and preconceptions.

Pride & Prejudice, 1813, Modern Library, ISBN: 9780679783268

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