Pride and Prejudice | Study Guide

Jane Austen

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Professor Bradley Greenburg of Northeastern Illinois University explains the historical and cultural context of Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice.

Pride and Prejudice | Context


Historical Content

Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice in England's Georgian era, named for a series of kings named George, including George III, familiar to Americans as the reigning king during the American Revolution. Austen revised the novel during the Regency era, which began in 1811, the year George III was deemed insane and his son, the eventual George IV, began ruling as regent.

During the Regency era, the French military leader Napoleon Bonaparte seemed determined to rule the world, and the English worried that his troops might cross the English Channel. As a result, militias formed throughout England. The temporary posting of the militia in Meryton, the town where much of Pride and Prejudice takes place, reflects this concern about invasion.

The Regency era also marked the beginning of the industrial revolution. Changes in manufacturing processes would soon bring sweeping social and economic changes to England. Because of changes in the country's economic structure, more people had the opportunity to become truly wealthy through manufacturing and trade. In fact, one of the main characters in Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Bingley, comes from a family that inherited its wealth from their father's business in the north of England—the seat of heavily industrial cities like Manchester. Another character, Mr. Gardiner, Elizabeth's uncle, gains upper-middle-class status through business in London. But in the early stages of industrialization, England was still an agrarian, or farming, economy. In fact, until well into the 19th century, wealth accumulated through landownership and passed down through inheritance was considered the very best kind of wealth.

Social Context

Landownership was a true mark of status. Anyone who owned more than approximately 300 acres of land was a member of the landed gentry and thus highly respectable. The landed gentry weren't the top of the social heap by any means. In Austen's England, the social hierarchy can be likened to a five-level pyramid, with the following classes listed in descending order, from the top tier to the bottom:

  1. Royalty (kings, queens, princes, and princesses)
  2. Aristocracy or nobility (dukes, marquises, earls, viscounts, and barons)
  3. Upper-class gentry, including landed gentry with large estates, high-level clergy and government officials, bankers, merchants, and barristers (lawyers)
  4. Middle-class gentry, including landed gentry with smaller estates, various professionals, military officers, and lower-level clergy
  5. Lower and working classes

For the most part, Pride and Prejudice represents the interactions of characters from the middle of the pyramid—the gentry.

Austen, like the Bennet family portrayed in Pride and Prejudice, belonged to the educated upper-middle-class gentry. Even though the members of this class often lacked the wealth and resources of the aristocracy, they were free to socialize with them. Because only the eldest son inherited land, other sons of the landed gentry might serve in the clergy (like Austen's father) or the military. These professions are specifically represented in Pride and Prejudice.

Women of the gentry in the Regency period did not have careers. They did not even have legal rights—though some were beginning to discuss the topic openly. Unless a gentlewoman became a governess (a live-in tutor of wealthy children), her only acceptable role was as a wife. To attract a husband, women of the gentry were expected to accumulate a list of "accomplishments," including being skilled in needlework, music, foreign languages, and art. To prepare for her role as wife, mother, and hostess, a gentlewoman was expected to master intricate rules of etiquette, including detailed rules for making social calls and accepting guests.

With the exception of women who were fortunate to inherit some wealth from their parents, marriage was also the only way for a woman to determine her financial destiny. By law, women had little control over their finances; money was controlled by the men of the family. Women who did not marry did not have a clear role in society. Called spinsters, they might at best be relegated to running the household of an unmarried brother. Austen herself never married. When her father died, she lived off money provided by her brothers. (Though some of her novels sold well, the cost she bore in having them published ate up her profits.)

Literary Context

Unlike her literary peers, Austen gave her novels everyday settings and characters who lead relatively normal lives. Her protagonists struggle with real problems—usually involving courtship and marriage—through trial and error. Her genius lay in her use of satire to ridicule the follies and vices of early 19th-century English society. The lively dialogue, sharply drawn characters, and observations in Pride and Prejudice have entertained generations of readers, and Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy remain among the most beloved couples in literature.

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