Reading Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen is not only a unique opportunity to enjoy one of the most amazing love stories of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. In addition, it is a solid lesson about how people developed their relationships within the British class system in the 19th century. The author relied on her personal experience, observations, and social background to evaluate the importance of power, wealth, marriage, and feelings. On the one hand, it is correct to expect people to behave in a particular way, depending on their classes and intelligence levels. On the other hand, Austen’s work demonstrates that the representatives of the same class and family might prefer different communication styles and manners. Therefore, this novel can be used to examine the peculiarities of the British class system and understand how the decisions made by characters and the outcomes of their choices affected 19th-century society. Addressing the conditions under which Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice, including social and cultural development and the economic situation, the distinction between lower, middle, and upper classes was made to prove its impact on interpersonal relationships, family issues, and power distribution.
Austen’s novel touches upon a variety of significant topics and describes the relationships of people with different social statuses, family ties, and attitudes. The main characters, Darcy and Elizabeth, have to deal with their hidden emotions, personal responsibilities, and social expectations. According to Mary Bennet, pride is “a very common failing,” and “human nature is particularly prone to it,” so “there are few of us who do not cherish a feeling of self-complacency” (Austen, 1882, p. 15). In other words, being raised under similar conditions, people are free to develop their own understandings of pride by finding excusing, making fast conclusions, or feeding their prejudice. The relationships between a daughter of a landed gentlemen and an arrogant aristocrat are never simple due to the inability to admit personal mistakes or ask for help.
In addition to their challenges and complex, loving affairs, many other characters try to find their happiness or achieve success. For example, despite their belonging to the middle class, Mr. Bingley continues living with considerable doubts and dependence on other people’s opinions, while his sister is obsessed with power and control. Even Bennet’s sisters have different interests and fates that go significantly far from their mother’s example and impact. Austen adds more characters that reveal the differences between classes, including Lady Catherine de Bourgh, a rich landowner, Mr. Collins, a clergyman, and Charlotte Lucas, a regency woman who uses marriage for security. Each person plays an important role in the story because the reader can compare the representatives of the same class and see that wealth and power are not as critical as personal qualities and moral beliefs.
Jane Austen did not live a long life, but her knowledge and emotions were enough to create several powerful works in the style of literary realism. The woman worked in rural England between the late 1970s and the early 1800s, which were characterized by the American Revolutionary War, the French Revolution, and the Georgian reign (Sharma, 2018). Although Austen did not pay much attention to the development of those events, their impact on the creation of Pride and Prejudice cannot be neglected. She belonged to the middle class, which helped her observe people, their behaviors, and communication and understand the roots of a rising spirit (Tamrin, 2018). The rebellious nature of Elizabeth Bennet, Darcy’s desire to control everything and everyone, and Mrs. Bennet’s concerns about her daughters’ futures are the elements of social and economic changes in society during the 19th century.
Society and Cultural Development
Social expectations and cultural beliefs shaped interpersonal relationships at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries. The progress of industrial society and the overall impact of industrialization changed the domestic industry and revealed common challenges and opportunities (Sharma, 2018). On the one hand, there was a group of powerful bourgeois based on aristocratic culture and pride obtained during the last several decades. On the other hand, social beliefs and attitudes between men and women were improved because it was possible to assess the current social ranks and eradicate financial exclusion (Sharma, 2018). Thus, Austen wanted to show the reader how contemporary social biases were broken.
The evaluation of the economic situation at the beginning of the 19th century, on the contrary, proves the inequality and the inability to change something. De Bustillo Llorente (2022) admits that more than 2/3 of families belonged to the working class, while the bourgeoisie constituted only 8%, and 16% belonged to the lower middle class (as shown in Figure 1). Therefore, it is correct to say that regardless of their classes, women felt economically useless at home due to decreased responsibilities (Sharma, 2018). In other words, it was no longer necessary for women to strive for independence or employment but use marriage and male support as the only source of successful living. In Austen’s novel, several characters, including Charlotte Lucas and Lydia Bennet, want to obtain economic security via marriage.
In Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, class determination is based on the current social situation, characters’ attitudes toward the existing differences, and personal judgments. For example, Elizabeth does not take seriously social evaluations offered by Miss Bingley and considers them “vain and useless” if people are “already self-destined for another” (Austen, 1882, p. 72). On the contrary, Mr. Collins pays much attention to the social superiority of Lady Catherine. He underlines that the woman “will not think the worse of you for being simply dressed” because “she likes to have the distinction of rank preserved” (Austen, 1882, pp. 137-138). The system of the upper, middle, and lower classes existed in the 19th century (Tiwari, 2018). Still, the novel proves that human lives and future relationships depend on how people treat their differences.
Such characters as Darcy and his sister, Georgiana, or Lady Catherine de Bourgh and her daughter, Anne, represent the upper class. In simple words, this class consisted of rich people and statesmen who owned land and could support the representatives of other classes. Mr. Collins shares his best hopes and pride for being under the patronage of Lady Catherine due to “her high rank” (Austen, 1882, p. 59). Mr. Wickham thinks about her as “dictatorial and insolent” and “her abilities from her rank and fortune, part from her authoritative manner, and the rest from the pride” (Austen, 1882, 72). In both descriptions, class becomes a critical element, proving the power of money and social status.
Darcy’s prejudice based on social inequalities is one of the core themes in the novel. When the reader meets Darcy for the first time, he looks “arrogant and pompous” and follows the 3Rs code of conduct, meaning restraint, refinement, and religion (Tamrin, 2018, p. 215). With time, the man cannot manage his feelings and love for Elizabeth. His words are full of admiration and, at the same time, the inability to neglect the differences. Austen (1882) underlines, “he spoke well, but there were feelings besides those of the heart to be detailed… his sense of her inferiority, of its being a degradation, of the family obstacles” (162). This example allows examining the system, with all its official characteristics and emotional aspects, and understanding how social differences affect people.
The middle and upper classes’ line was unclear because of the abilities and lifestyles people preferred in the 19th century. For example, one could say that Mr. Bennet belongs to the upper class because he is a landowner with “an estate of two thousand a year” (Austen, 1882, p. 22). However, he does not have male heirs, and he marries Mrs. Bennet, the attorney’s daughter, with the estate of four thousand pounds, which is beneath his status. Compared to his wife, Mr. Bennet is aware of honest and noble behavior, and Elizabeth defines him as a gentleman, which makes her equal to Darcy (Austen, 1882, p. 304). Middle-class individuals get the right to socialize with upper-class representatives, relying on their education and family connections.
Similar controversies in defining class belonging may be observed in analyzing Mr. Bingley or Mr. Collins, although these characters are quite different. Mrs. Bingley describes him as “a fine thing for our girls” with “a large fortune; four or five thousand a year” (Austen, 1882, p. 2). While Mr. Bingley is not confident in his feelings and abilities, proving humility is the best way to “disarm reproof,” according to Elizabeth (Austen, 1882, p. 40). Darcey, in his turn, underlines that “nothing is more deceitful… than the appearance of humility” (Austen, 1882, p. 40). All these discussions do not allow the reader to determine Mr. Bingley into a particular class, making him more like the middle class. Mr. Collins, on the other hand, does not have a great estate but relies on his relationship with Lady Catherine and demonstrates his high expectations and snobbish manners.
It seems that Austen does not want to pay much attention to lower-class representatives, their rights, and opportunities to avoid the opinions about her as a classist. The life of people with low or no income is not described in the novel, which might say they are happy with the offered conditions and their statuses. As a rule, servants are responsible for cleaning the house, delivering mail, informing guests, and serving tables (Austen, 1882). Their goal is to do all the necessary physical work, giving more time and space for middle-class and upper-class individuals to develop their relationships, solve their problems, and manage their lives. There areshop workers and couriers who fulfill the author’s unintentional emptiness, but no pride or prejudice towards them is observed.
Impact of Classes on Interpersonal Relationships
Today, the impact of class systems has gained a new meaning compared to the one developed in Pride and Prejudice. Modern people are divided into those who care about their financial statuses, choose an education, and develop their skills in preferred spheres. In the 19th century, there were few opportunities to gain the wanted status, and it was necessary to rely on family relationships, establish connections, marry the right person, and meet social expectations. Elizabeth belonged to the middle class as the author did. Her love for Darcy was not related to his status, but her prejudice depended on that factor. Class differences were visible in the 19th century and explained the characters’ manners, anxieties, and fluctuations (Tiwari, 2018). The concept of a gentleman was beyond the class differences because Austen focused on male behaviors, words, and actions to prove the characters’ nobility and status (Tamrin, 2018). Therefore, the number of middle-class characters and their assessments of upper-class individuals vary, proving the complex nature of the system and wealth.
The book Pride and Prejudice contributes to a solid examination of the British class system in the 19th century. Austen did not cover all social changes and political or economic shifts that affected families. However, cultural beliefs and personal issues were strong enough to explain the distinction between lower, middle, and upper classes and show how people developed relationships and used power sources. Although there are no doubts about the belonging of some characters like Darcy, Elizabeth, and Lady Catherine to a particular group, the distribution of qualities and wealth remains ambiguous for Mr. Bingley, Mr. Bennet, or Mr. Collins. Instead of believing in social statuses, education levels, and family ties, Austen underlines the human factor and the impact of feelings and self-determination in society. Thus, Pride and Prejudice proves the existence of the class system in 19th-century Britain and gives a chance to change the inevitability through addressing honesty, respect, and love.
Austen, J. (1882). Pride and prejudice. Richard Bentley & Son.
De Bustillo Llorente, R. M. (2022). Social classes in economic analysis. A brief historical account. Web.
Sharma, I. (2018). Reflection of Georgian society in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The Criterion: An International Journal in English, 9(1), 96-102.
Tamrin, A. F. (2018). The reflection of regency gentleman in Pride and Prejudice and Emma by Jane Austen. Ethical Lingua: Journal of Language Teaching and Literature, 5(2), 212-218.
Tiwari, R. (2018). Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: Class and society, marriage and women. Journal of Rajasthan Association for Studies in English, 14, 72-84.