Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was written in the Regency period, during which England witnessed a decisive change in its hierarchical set-up. At that time gender and class expectations controlled and restricted the lives of people abiding them, particularly the women and the middle class. Each class was governed by a separate and distinct set of values and expectations that were strictly adhered to.
The middle and the upper class were controlled by the expectations placed upon mannerism, social communication, conduct and courtship, whereas pride, honour, boastfulness were regarded a distinctive mannerism for the aristocrats, the superior individuals. In Pride and Prejudice, on one hand there was the traditional landed aristocracy, represented by Lady Catherine and the owner of Pemberley, Darcy, with their insular culture, hesistant to negotiate with the upwardly mobile middle class professionals. At the same time, a new class of gentry as emerging hich had acquired its fortune through trade.
Mr. Bingley belongs to this category. The Lucases, “formerly in trade”, had “made a tolerable fortune” and promptly quit the market town occupied by them earlier. The professionals like Mr. Phillips, an attorney, or Mr. Collins, a clergyman, supported themselves through acquired skills and regulated economy. The Gardiners in “a respectable line of trade” earned their respectability by merit. The army officers, with their flashy lifestyles represent another important social group in that period. Similarly there were distinct set of notions for men and women.
During the Regency period, woman was expected to remain passive throughout her life, marry early, have children and support her husband whenever need may be. Her education as intended only as a preparation for her social life and her marriage for financial security. In the novel, while men manage their estates, take up jobs in navy, become commissioned officers or choose business, law or church, women were not allowed numerous choices. They had no access to paid jobs apart from that of a governess which was neither pleasant nor respectable.
Even for a reasonably well endowed Miss Bingley, marriage is the only possibility for a respectable future. Lady Catherine, for all her wealth and title is paranoid about her daughter’s marriage prospects. Elizabeth’s fortune of “one thousand pounds in 4 per cents” offered her only limited genteel comforts. To find an establishment for themselves, to acquire a stable future, to preside over comfortable domesticity, women had to exercise their intelligence and all their resourcefulness.
The text creates an atmosphere of laid-back country life where women do the odd needle-work and long for balls or discuss the earlier one the men bask in their inherited wealth-visiting, dining, hunting, reading, listening to women play music, etc. Austen in Pride and Prejudice has used marriage as an institution for interaction between various classes and also to depict the values and notions of the Regency marriages.
The opening sentence of the novel- “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife”, although ironic reveals the social standards and class and gender expectations of the time. This suggests that gentry women were expected to marry propertied men in order to become reasonably self-sufficient. This truth is also linked to a lager extent, with the anxiety of middle class parents to marry their daughters to eligible bachelors.
Given that marriage to a man of fortune was one of the very few respectable options available to women, their lives seem to be an anxious waiting for the arrival of men to rescue them from the indignities of poverty and dependence. The injustice of such social pressures and limits imposed on women is indicated by Charlotte’s acceptance of Mr. Collins’ proposal “from pure and disinterested desire of an establishment. ” While Charlotte Lucas marries for convenience, Elizabeth is adamant on marrying for love, and rejects the idea of marrying as a convenience.
If Jane and Elizabeth have escaped Charlotte’s fate it is because of their beauty which gives them somewhat wider choice in marriage market. If attractive masculinity is socially associated with the possession of fortune, attractive femininity capable of arousing romantic desire is conventionally associated with physical beauty. Darcy may grow to admire Elizabeth’s wit and liveliness but he is initially drawn to her by her fine eyes and brilliant complexion. Likewise, the romantic desire Elizabeth begins to feel for Darcy is shown as being linked to his social power.
Her regard for Darcy is initiated by her first visit to Pemberly where she realises the actual extent of his social power. There, his masculinity seems attractive to her. Thus, the romantic love and marriage of Elizabeth and Darcy despite challenging the demands of family authority and considerations of rank are ultimately confined within the conservative notions marriage in which the male partner’s desirability is premised on his social superiority. While that of female partner is beauty and attractiveness. The characters within the fixed social structure that Austen depicts are bounded as much by their class expectations as of their gender.
Darcy, a member of the landed gentry must be able to garner respect from his inferiors, such as the Bennet family, whilst Elizabeth, a member of a lower class must pay appropriate respect to her superiors, which she somewhat refuses to do. Elizabeth’s opinionated attitude never ceases to show, and she is not afraid to confront people wealthier than herself. Close to the conclusion of dining with Lady Catherine deBourgh, Elizabeth strongly asserts her opinion to the aristocratic character. Elizabeth observes that Lady Catherine is ‘quite astonished’ and supposes that she is the first who has ‘dared to trifle with so much impertinence. Lady Catherine has been portrayed as a typical aristocrat of the era. Although more of a caricature, she acts as the most superior of all. She enjoyed more rights than any of the female characters that Mr. Collins pays respect to. This depicts the expectations of classes according to superiority and inferiority. Pride and Prejudice is based solely within a fixed social structure that affected both Austen and her characters. The association of class and gender seems to have been a significance shaping influence on the society of her times.