Explore in detail how Austen creates an untypical regency woman through the views and actions of the character Elizabeth Bennett
Pride and Prejudice was first published on the 28th of January 1813, it is one of the most famous of Jane Austen’s novels and is one of the first romantic comedies in the history of the history of the novel. The manuscript was first written between 1796 and 1797, it was initially called ‘First Impressions’ but it was never published under that title. The novel opens with the line, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife”.
In the late 18th century England, women were downgraded to the minor roles in society in relation to property and social responsibilities. For example, women were not allowed to visit new arrivals to the town (such as Mr. Bingley) until the male, head of their household, had done so first. Women were under enormous pressure to marry for the principle of securing their financial futures and making valuable connections between their families.
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Consequently, marriage, although it is romanticised, was in many ways a financial contract and social agreement, rather than a subject of love. Although Jane Austen did not condone loveless marriages, as she stayed single all her life, she did approve of matches having equal opportunity in a range of aspects such as wealth, social status, love and character. In Pride and Prejudice, wealth, social status, integrity and physical attractiveness are portrayed as factors that will affect a woman’s likelihood for a good quality marriage.
Pride, this word can mean many things, from a group of lions to an opinion. The meaning of pride in relation to this book is the state of being proud or a high opinion of one’s own dignity. It can also mean pleasure or satisfaction in having done something to oneself or believed to reflect credit upon oneself. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr Darcy is seen to be very proud, quite rightly so when you take a look at his achievements, but he is seen as being prejudice towards people less fortunate than him, such as the Bennett’s and other people in the village.
Elizabeth can also be seen to be proud as she seems to have pride in the fact that she isn’t afraid to speak her mind and that she has no fear of men, as typical regency women should have done during this period. Elizabeth Bennett is the heart of the family; she is the second of Mr. and Mrs. Bennett’s five daughters. She is intelligent, bold and attractive twenty years old when the story begins and in addition to being Mr Bennett’s favourite, Elizabeth is considered as a sensible yet stubborn young woman.
During the period of time that Elizabeth Bennett’s character was alive, women were expected to act extremely unlike how Elizabeth acted. A typical regency woman would be very reserved and wouldn’t speak their mind. A typical regency woman can be represented in Pride and Prejudice as Charlotte Lucas, Charlotte is very much like the typical regency woman because she marries Mr Collins at the age of 27, Charlotte expresses her views of marriage throughout the novel: Without thinking highly of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantness preservative from want’. Charlotte’s opinion is of a typical regency women’s, she believes that a woman should marry for money and status, not just for love. In chapter 6, she expresses this by saying in a conversation to Elizabeth that ‘happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance’.
The character of Elizabeth disagrees with this because she doesn’t believe that you should marry someone unless you truly love them, as she makes very clear by her rejection of both Mr Collins and Mr Darcy’s proposals. Typical regency women were also expected to be immaculately presented, which does not represent the way Elizabeth acts in chapter 8 when she decides to go and visit her sister Jane, who is ill at Netherfield. She hikes over on foot and when she arrives she is soaked with dirty stockings which causes quite a stir, and the Bingley’s certainly disapprove of her looking like this in public.
Miss Bingley is another example of a typical regency woman, not because of her views on marriage, because of her views on how a lady should act, she believes they should be presented perfectly and never step out of line, so when Elizabeth arrives at Netherfield in chapter 8, after hiking through the rain to see her sister, as soon as Elizabeth is out of the room she says ‘Yes, and her petticoat; I hope you saw her petticoat, six inches deep in mud… , she is always trying to show Mr Darcy what her opinion of Elizabeth is because she can see that Mr Darcy likes Elizabeth and she doesn’t want him to because she thinks he can do better than her because he family isn’t of the same status as his is. Elizabeth’s family’s status in the book is very low class; there are no sons or brothers in the family so Mrs Bennett is extremely insistent of marrying off all her daughters to worthy men in order to improve their status.
In Mr Darcy’s letter to Elizabeth, he says, ”The situation of your mothers family, though objectionable, was nothing in comparison of that total want of prosperity so frequently, so almost uniformly betrayed by herself.. ‘ By saying this, he is saying to Elizabeth that her family doesn’t act as they should, they haven’t got very high status, and they aren’t very well presented. When he says ‘total want of prosperity’ he is referring to her mother wanting to do all different things in order to improve her status, but by it being ‘uniformly betrayed by herself’ he thinks that it is her own fault that her status is how it is.
By the way she is always trying to improve it, so looks desperate to improve it that everyone notices and it just reduces their status even more. On the other hand, Mr Bennett cares very little about status, as in chapter 20, when Mr Collins proposes to Elizabeth and she rejects him, Mrs Bennett says to Elizabeth that if she does not accept the proposal then she will never talk to her again. Mrs Bennett wants Elizabeth to accept the proposal as Mr Collins is a very respectable man and it would increase their status if Elizabeth were to accept the proposal.
Mr Bennett’s views on the matter are very much the opposite of Mrs Bennett’s. His reaction to Mrs Bennett’s threat is, ‘An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day forward you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr Collins, and I will never see you again if you do’. Mr Bennett doesn’t care about status; he is very similar to Elizabeth about his views on marriage. He also believes you shouldn’t marry for status or money, you should marry for love.
Mr Collins is a good example of a higher class man and in Chapter 19 he goes to visit Elizabeth and she doesn’t want to stay in the same room as him on her own because she doesn’t like him but Mr Collins thinks it is because she doesn’t believe she has high enough status to be in a room on her own with him. Elizabeth says in the presence of Mr Collins that ‘he can have nothing to say to me that anybody need not hear’, Mr Collins interprets this to mean that he is too higher status to be able to say anything to her in private, when really she just doesn’t want to talk to him.
Mr Collins likes to think of himself as a very important person in society and when he says ‘your modesty’ he is trying to make Elizabeth think that he is a great man, as he is about to propose. Elizabeth rejects this proposal immediately, although Mr Collins insists upon it. Mr Collins suspects that this is Elizabeth’s way of saying that she does want to marry him but she is merely trying to make him more interested in marrying her by rejecting him. This rejection is very untypical of a woman of her time, any typical woman would have accepted straight away as Mr Collins is a high-class, respectable man.
The main theme of Pride and Prejudice is marriage; lots of people get married within the duration of the book. Because of the Bennett’s low status, they aren’t as likely to get married to rich, successful men. This is one of the reason’s Mrs Bennett is always trying to marry off her daughters, as she doesn’t think that her daughters will be able to marry fine men because of their low status. In the book, it says ‘The business of her life is to get her daughters married’.
In Chapter 1, a ‘young man of large fortune’ had bought Netherfield park and Mrs Bennett is very keen that they go and meet him as she hopes he will marry one of her daughters, ‘You must know that I am thinking of his marrying one of them’. Mrs Bennett wants one of her daughters to marry him because of how much money he has, she thinks that it will increase her status if one of her daughters marries a man of good fortune. Elizabeth Bennett has a very different view of marriage than her mother, she believes that you should only marry a man if you truly love him, and she will not marry for any other reason.
Charlotte Lucas’s view of marriage is very much the typical regency view; she believes ‘it is better not to know your husband too well’. Mr Darcy is 28 years old, he is the son of a wealthy, well-established family, and he is the owner of the great estate of Pemberley. His status is very much higher than most other people in the book, certainly much higher than the Bennett’s. Darcy’s proposal of marriage in Chapter 34 demonstrates his views towards marriage and towards Elizabeth, ‘In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed.
You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you. ‘ By saying this, Mr Darcy is saying that he has ‘struggled’ as although they are different classes and Elizabeth is an untypical regency woman, he cannot help but love her. This can be seen as a compliment but it can also mean that he doesn’t want to be in love with her as it would go against his better judgement and all his views will have been wronged, the marriage would also not be approved of. He spends more time emphasizing her lower rank and unsuitability for marrying him than he does complimenting her or pledging his love.
He is too proud to overcome his sense of superiority than to accept that he loves Elizabeth. Mr Darcy goes against all his views of marriage when he proposes to Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s status is much lower than Mr Darcy’s but in spite of this, he proposes to her, any typical regency woman would have accepted immediately as it would be a great honour to be married to such a man like Mr Darcy, he has a huge fortune and his status is probably the highest of anyone you would ever be likely to meet.
Elizabeth feels like Mr Darcy has been somewhat rude for ever suggesting it, she says, ‘if I could feel gratitude, I would now thank you – I have never desired your good opinion and you have certainly bestowed it most unwillingly’ Elizabeth doesn’t care how Mr Darcy feels as she does not feel the same. However, this proposal acts as a turning point in the story of Pride and Prejudice, before the proposal, Elizabeth despised Mr Darcy but after he proposes to her, she begins to se him in a new light.
In chapter 3 at the Meryton ball, Mr Darcy is prompted to dance with Elizabeth and he rejects this by saying, ‘She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me’, you can see that he is quite rude about Elizabeth but later on in the book, he begins to be really nice and Austen starts to reveal the goodness of his character. Elizabeth’s change of heart towards Darcy is unexpected as all she thinks of Darcy is that he is arrogant and his attempts to interfere in Bingley’s courtship to Jane and his alleged mistreatment of Wickham.
Her opinion of Mr Darcy has been very prejudice against his snobbishness and the fact that his pride obstructs his attempt to express any affection. In Chapter 43, Elizabeth takes a trip to Pemberley and when she sees it, her ‘spirits go into a high flutter’, this is because she is exited to see Mr Darcy, even though she knows that Mr Darcy isn’t there and she starts to think that if she’d have said ‘yes’ to Mr Darcy’s proposal, then she would be the mistress of Pemberley and she suddenly thinks that, ‘to be the mistress of Pemberley might be something’.
She is beginning to change her mind about Mr Darcy. In the letter that Mr Darcy writes to Elizabeth, you can see that he is quite sensitive to Elizabeth’s feelings. Elizabeth is very prejudice towards Mr Darcy and she is in denial that he loves her; she has held her view about Mr Darcy for so long that she doesn’t want to have to suddenly change it. However, in spite of this she is beginning to have a change of heart towards him.
In Chapter 36 she says that she has been ‘blind, partial, prejudice and absurd’, when she says this, she has realised about all her thoughts and feelings towards Wickham have been wrong and she doubts her own judgement as she feels that maybe her opinion of Mr Darcy might have also been wrong. She can now see things as Mr Darcy sees them, before, when she disliked Mr Darcy, she couldn’t understand what he was talking about by her sister being very reserved and covering up her feelings towards Mr Bingley.
She says that maybe the reason that she couldn’t see this before is that she was blinded, as if by love, ‘Love is blind’. Although her character was created in 1813, I think that Elizabeth Bennett is very much a modern woman, she is not a typical regency woman in any way, she has her own opinion and she has no fear to voice it. A typical regency woman would never say a thing if she disagreed with a man, it just wasn’t acceptable. However, Elizabeth doesn’t feel the same sense of where her place in society is as much as where the other women do.
A perfect example of this would be in chapter 34 when Mr Darcy proposes to Elizabeth, the typical thing to do would have been to accept the proposal or at least reject it politely but Elizabeth continues to argue her case against rejecting the proposal, she says, ‘I have never desired your good opinion ad you have certainly bestowed it most unwillingly. ‘ She talks to him like no other woman would, she talks to him as if she is of the same or of higher status than he is which is of course not true in that day of age.
This makes her character truly an untypical regency woman. I have learnt a lot from Elizabeth Bennett, she should have been the same as everyone else and followed the ‘rules’ of how she should have acted but she didn’t, she spoke her mind and didn’t care about how anyone else would react or what they would think of her. I like her character for this because I believe nobody should pretend to be someone they aren’t just because it’s the ‘right thing to do’ so I think she is a very good character to have been created for this point.