The complex issues arising from the developing social hierarchy that existed in Britain at the turn of the 19th century are the subjects of many of the great novels of this era. As the literacy rates in Britain improved in the early 1800s, novels became an important form of social commentary with novelists including Jane Austen and later the Bronte sisters producing works that contained microcosms of Victorian society which explored and challenged the social preconceptions of contemporary culture.
Similarly, poetry developed though the works of poets such as husband and wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning as this form of literature also began to provide a source of reflection on society at a time when the rules of race, gender and in particular, class, were changing to keep pace with a developing world. In Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen provides a satirical commentary on the rigid class boundaries that existed in England at the turn of the 19th century.
Whilst fundamentally a love story, it is the examination of the interference with the workings of true love that arise from concerns about social status and connections and the desire of individuals to improve such status and connections that provide the most insight into English society at the time. The novel’s author had grown up in a rigidly patriarchal society, receiving her limited education from her father and brothers. Austen’s writing greatly reflects this upbringing and in particular the dependence of women on marriage to secure economic security and social standing.
This theme is prevalent throughout Pride and Prejudice as the Bennet sisters struggle with their prospects for a future with little social standing and no promise of inheritance. From the beginning of the novel the class structure is set – the Bennets may socialise with the new upper class residents of Netherfield Park but they are clearly socially inferior and bound to be treated that way for the entire novel. As the story unfolds Austen suggests that true love can overcome even the most rigid of class boundaries and shows that the prejudices created by these boundaries are shallow and meaningless.
The most effective way of conveying this theme is through the diverse range of characters that move in and out of the main story. This acceptance of class structure is best found in the cloying character of Mr Collins. Any positive attributes he may possess are hidden by his over enthusiastic devotion to securing the favours of his patron Lady Catherine De Bourgh. However, whilst he is the most obvious in his class consciousness he is not alone. Miss Bingley is instantly dismissive of those she considers below her socially (she is instantly dismissive of the entire Bennet family).
Mr Wickham will go to any ends to improve his social situation and lives a life of lies and deceit as a result. Austen subtly mocks these characters as much as she does the poorly mannered and ridiculous Mrs Bennet whose behaviour is an affront to the more genteel Bingleys and Darcys. The personal restraints imposed on those in Victorian England by the social hierarchy can most clearly be seen by Darcy’s internal struggle to conquer and dismiss his love for Elizabeth.
In his proposal to Elizabeth, Darcy is at odds with himself “His sense of her inferiority- of it being a degradation- of the family obstacles which judgement had always opposed to inclination…” Darcy’s pride about his high social standing greatly impedes his first real attempt to express his feelings to Elizabeth as he learns to prioritise love over his sense of superiority before he is worthy of Elizabeth’s hand. The trifles of the younger Bennet sisters and the silliness of their mother provide a light and often comedic landscape for Austen’s commentary on the issue of inter-class relationships.
Her message that “first impressions” and preconceived ideas as to people’s status can be over come by the power of love is an uncomplicated one and supports the changing social forces that were growing in England at the time. In comparison, the novel Jane Eyre explores an individual’s struggle to cross social boundaries on a more intimate level. The novel, written by Charlotte Bronte, uses its central romance as a study of Victorian class hierarchy and, in particular, of the interaction between the members of the different social classes.
The novel is critical of a society where status was based purely on wealth and birthright and suggests that the impoverished can in fact be “respectable” if they possess a desire to better themselves. The novel’s historical context is important to understanding the extent of its social critique. Written in 1847, Bronte had also grown up in a male dominated society, with the struggle of Jane to assert her own identity mirroring Bronte’s struggle to express herself in a patriarchal Victorian setting.
Despite being intelligent and brave, the character of Jane is often treated as a burden throughout the novel, something that her strong sense of social justice objects to. During her childhood and youth she is constantly reminded that she is poor, alone and that even her cousins’ family think her as lower-class because she has no inheritance. She is continually told her place and that if Mrs Reed “were to turn you off, you would have to go to the poorhouse”.
Her righteous anger at being treated as a second-class citizen because of her position in society is evident from the first chapter, where she responds to being called “dependant” and told “she ought to beg” by attacking John Reed. Jane’s insecurity based on her class manifests itself throughout the novel, and is a constant source of tension in her relationship with Mr Rochester. The presence of Blanche Ingram at Thornhill disrupts the pair’s potential romance purely because of her social standing.
Jane herself comments that it is clear that Ingram and Rochester do not love one another but feels they will marry purely as a result of their mutual wealth and status. As her and Rochester’s relationship develops, Jane continues to define herself by her economically dependent employee status. Moments before Rochester proposes to her Jane proclaims that they can only be together if they “are stood at God’s feet as equals” and even after the pair become engaged Jane maintains a state of apprehension at being of a lower class than her husband.
The novel’s climax, where Jane and Rochester finally are married and happy together only occurs after Jane herself has achieved status through inherited wealth and thereby becomes Mr Rochester’s equal. This raises the question of whether, as in Pride and Prejudice, true love has allowed social boundaries to be crossed or whether it is only after Jane feels that she is Rochester’s equal that she will allow the marriage to take place. Through the character of Jane, Bronte makes a further comment on the worthlessness of the class boundaries themselves.
The character of Jane is placed between the social classes. Throughout the novel she moves from homeless orphan to upper class married woman and is often in a socially ambiguous role. In the Reed household she is not fully included as one of the spoiled Reed children but neither is she one of the working class servants. She is forced to survive between the two classes. The complicated social position role of governess in Victorian society required the conflicting traits of sophistication, education and manners, with the role of being treated and kept like a servant.
When Jane’s education allows her to take up this role she again moves into a new social hierarchy. In speaking out against society’s expectations and attitudes Jane cries to Rochester “Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think me wrong! I have as much soul as you – and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. She is aware of her social limitations but is intelligent and brave enough to fight against them. When Jane finally “comes to have power over Rochester” by miraculously inheriting a large sum of money she finally agrees to marry him. It is this final change in Jane’s status that completes the novel and reinforces Bronte’s point that the economic and social classes were not as immovable as many would have them be. Robert Browning in his poem “My Last Duchess” also explores the representation of class and the issues arising out of the rigid social boundaries of the time.
Unlike Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre the reader gains insight into the upper class point of view and sees, first hand, their obsession with power. The Duke as narrator of the poem tries to control his domestic life with the same vigour and strength as that with which he controls his objects and land. The poem follows the Duke as he admires the portrait of his late wife and admits his preference for her as a completely controlled inanimate object than as an alive and real wife.
When he states “as if she ranked my gift of a nine-hundred years-old name with anybody’s gift” he expresses the view held by many at the time that someone’s name and class is more important that the individual involved. Browning presents the idea that the ignorance and narrow-minded determination of the upper class dominated any real need to value things such as love, virtues or marriage in upper class society at the time. Browning also explores the idea that the upper class valued people only in the same sense as precious objects.
This is very clear as he states “I call that piece a wonder now. ” The demeaning reference to his late wife’s portrait as a ‘piece’ shows how value he placed on his wife did not diminish after her death and that his preference is actually for her in this silent controlled form. This reinforces the views of not only class but also gender inequality that were prevalent at the time. In the novel Jane Eyre Bronte uses the romance between an upper class land owning and affluent male and a poor governess to challenge the class ideology of Victorian society.
By portraying true love as indifferent to matters of wealth and class the novel critiques the notion that only the bourgeois could aspire to romantic happiness. Similarly, in Pride and Prejudice, Austen uses a simple and satirical story line to critique the rigid views of Victorian society. More sinister implications of he desire for status and standing are explored in “My Last Duchess”. Each text however provides interesting insight to the social values held at a unique time in British society.