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‘The novel Pride and Prejudice is based primarily within a

fixed social structure which exhibits clear messages on class


and gender expectations.’

Gender and class expectations in the Regency and Victorian periods


were based around a fixed social structure. This is the world
depicted within Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice, written in
1813. Gender expectations controlled and restricted the lives of the
people abiding by them, most notably the women of the Regency
period, who lived in the shadow of men and were disempowered.
Men were expected to be financially viable through means of their
occupation or through inherited family wealth. The fixed social
structure that Austen portrays has a limited social mobility, with the
upper classes and aristocracy extremely reluctant in allowing the
middle classes to marry into their families hence dispersing their
wealth. A distinctive hierarchal system existed, with notable
distinctions between the classes, and each class governed by a
separate set of values and expectations that were strictly adhered
to. The middling and upper classes were controlled by the
expectations placed upon mannerisms, social communication,
conduct and courtship, represented truthfully and intelligently by
Austen as her life was also governed by these expectations.
Austen’s focus on this fixed social structure aids the reader in
understanding the messages being presented on class and gender
expectations and their effect on limiting and restricting the actions
of the people who existed during the time.

Austen focuses on a highly selective world in all of her writing, as it


was a world easily accessible to her. Austen’s father, Revered
George Austen made his wealth through working with the church
whilst Austen’s mother came from a more exalted background.
Austen’s family existed as part of the ‘landed gentry’, and she
writes about this world in all of her novels, creating characters that
live similar lives to her. The characters in Pride and Prejudice exist in
a fixed social structure, and their actions are controlled by the
expectations of gender and of the landed gentry and aristocracy,
their class expectations. Increasing your social status was
increasingly difficult as it altered the social structure and ‘natural
order’. The class and gender expectations dominate the lives of
Austen’s primary characters, unmistakably during our introduction
to Darcy who appears proud and aloof, a distinctive mannerism of
superior individuals. Darcy refuses to dance with any of the ladies at
the ball, commenting on the fact that Bingley’s partner, Jane, is the
only handsome woman in the room and that the others are only just
‘tolerable’. Mary Bennet states that ‘pride relates more to our
opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of
us,’ and a ‘young Lucas’ replies that, ‘If I was as rich as Mr. Darcy… I
should not care how proud I was.’ Although his pride seems ill
mannered, his acquaintances can clearly recognize that his pride is
justified by his wealth and social status and agree that anybody in
his position would show the same signs of pride and self-
importance. Darcy’s pride and self-importance is later explained to
Elizabeth. He clarifies that he was born into and grew up solely in
privilege, ‘ my father…. almost taught me to be selfish and
overbearing, to care for none beyond my own family circle, to think
meanly of all the rest of the world… to think meanly of their sense
and worth compared to my own.’ Contrasting Mr. Collins, whose self
importance and pride has no justification, Darcy’s mannerisms
reflect the world that he was brought up in, and he knows no other
way of behaving around those that have such low ‘sense and worth’
compared to his own.

Sexual equality was unheard of during the Regency period and


women were disempowered. A woman was expected to remain
passive throughout her life, marry early, support her husband when
need be, bear children and live a rewarding social life. A woman’s
education was intended only as a preparation for her social life and
her marriage solely for financial security. Austen makes it obvious
that within such a conformist, fixed social structure, where the
values of class were rigidly adhered to; Elizabeth Bennet challenges
the expectations of women in numerous ways. ‘You speak your
opinion very decidedly for a woman of your age.’ Elizabeth’s active
nature and refusal to adhere to the passive, submissive stereotype
of a woman earns her much discrimination from Lady Catherine,
Mrs. Hurst and Miss. Bingley. Upon walking to visit Jane during her
illness, Elizabeth arrives at Netherfield Hall looking far from
presentable and shocking Bingley’s sisters, who pride themselves
on their looks, ‘I shall never forget her appearance this morning. She
really looked almost wild.’ Her petticoat, six inches deep in mud and
her hair so untidy are talked about by Miss. Bingley and Mrs. Hurst
as if unbelievably outrageous. Additionally, Lady Catherine is
prejudiced against Elizabeth due to her social status and the fact
that she is unable to competently sing, play the piano and that
neither she nor her sisters are able to draw. Austen’s use of a fixed,
limited social structure helps to show clear messages about the
expectations of women, it is Elizabeth’s challenging of these
expectations and non-conformist attitude that highlights the
significance and value of these expectations in Regency society and
makes Elizabeth the pioneer for sexual equality.

Austen exposes and challenges the class and gender expectations


throughout Pride and Prejudice, using her courageous and
independent heroine, Elizabeth Bennet to create messages about
the ridiculous expectations of the time. The opening sentence of
Pride and Prejudice, although ironic, defines the social standards
and expectations of the Regency period, ‘It is a truth universally
acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune,
must be in want of a wife.’ Women were expected to marry single,
wealthy men, showing both joy and gratitude. Whilst the men were
expected to be in possession of wealth I order to attract a wife.
Elizabeth, the non-conformist heroine defies this expectation upon
rejecting the marriage proposal of her wealthier cousin, Mr Collins,
citing his adverse qualities. Actions such as this were considered
outrageous from a woman without significant wealth, as marrying
Mr. Collins would have enabled a woman of the time to have all that
she wants in life.

Pride and Prejudice depicts the typical value of Regency marriages


to be financial security, with ‘true love’ acting as an additional
benefit. Charlotte Lucas, upon accepting the marriage proposal
refused by Elizabeth, explains, ‘I am no romantic you know. I never
was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins’
character, connections, and situation in life, I am convinced that my
chance of happiness with him is as fair, as most people can boast on
entering the marriage state.’ This dictates that a young woman
offered marriage by a wealthy man with ‘connections’ should leap at
the prospect, rather than refuse in order to marry for love. Whilst
Charlotte Lucas marries for convenience, Elizabeth is adamant on
marrying for love, and rejects the idea of marriage as a
convenience.

Throughout Pride and Prejudice, Austen writes about the effects that
class have on marriage, and marriage on class. The situations that
Austen creates in her novel, Pride and Prejudice are reflections of
her own life. She had first hand experience of family interference
during her relationship with Mr. Tom Lefroy. A nephew of Austen’s
friend Anne Lefroy, Tom Lefroy and Austen developed a relationship
from the time that Austen was twenty. Tom was from a good family
but was not wealthy. Austen soon discovered that their relationship
would never progress, and Tom went on to marry a woman with an
appropriately large fortune. He himself was no Mr. Darcy, he wasn’t
an heir to great estates or wealth, but it was clear that his family
had expectations that Jane could not meet.

Mr. Bennet, born into a reasonably wealthy family, married Mrs.


Bennet, of the low middle class, due to his attraction to her, and
sacrificed his social ranking. The main example of this in the text is
depicted within Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth’s relationship. Whilst Darcy
is of much higher class than Elizabeth and at first feels that ‘she is
tolerable, but not handsome enough’ to tempt him, his initial pride
is succumbed by the fact that Elizabeth’s attitude and personality
becomes exceedingly attractive to him. Although Darcy is able to
overcome the barriers presented by their class, Darcy’s aunt, the
aristocratic Lady Catherine deBourgh is unable to deal with their
relationship. ‘You refuse to obey the claims of duty, honour, and
gratitude. You are determined to ruin him in the opinion of all his
friends, and make him the contempt of the world.’ ‘Do you not
consider that a connection with you, must disgrace him in the eyes
of everybody?’ Austen’s satirical tone ridicules the beliefs and
values of her time, but she emphasises the significance of them
during the Regency period, and Lady Catherine’s judgemental and
discriminatory attitude towards Elizabeth reflects her belief that the
marriage of Darcy to a woman of such lower class will taint the
purity of her family’s aristocratic heritage.

The characters within the fixed social structure that Austen depicts
are bound as much by the expectations of their class, 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 illustrates the typical aristocrat of the era in which


Pride and Prejudice is set. Although more of a caricature than an
actual character, she acts as the most superior of the fixed social
structure that Austen is accessible to. Lady Catherine is shaped by
the expectations of aristocracy and of women, however she has
many more rights than any other female character that Austen
writes about and is one of the few characters that Mr. Collins pays
respect to. This depicts the expectation of classes according to
superiority and inferiority. Collins is disrespectful towards the Bennet
family as he will inherit their wealth, but acts in a servile manner
towards Lady Catherine as she is of much higher class than him and
he is expected to act in such a way towards his superiors.

Pride and Prejudice is based solely within a fixed social structure


that affects both Austen and her characters. The Regency Period
was a time for limited social mobility, where the upper classes
showed reluctance in dispersing their wealth among those who were
not born into privilege. Austen’s own experiences of family
interference and class discrimination are reflected in Elizabeth and
Darcy’s relationship through the use of the meddling, aristocratic
Lady Catherine. The characters exist under a distinctive hierarchal
class system and are governed by a set of values and expectation
that are placed upon conduct and mannerisms, challenged by
Elizabeth and by Austen. Austen writes Pride and Prejudice with and
awareness of the social issues that affect her society. Her
commentary on the fixed social structure provides a solution for the
social problems of the time; that even the restrictions and
distinctions of class can be negotiated when one rejects false first
impressions.