Vous êtes sur la page 1sur 8

Personal Study: Marriage and the importance of social class, wealth and reputation in Pride and Prejudice, by Jane

Austen
Pride and prejudice: as suggested by the title of Jane Austens most popular novel, both pride and prejudice are the main obstacles to love and ultimately marriage between the main characters of the book. The main themes, however, are not exactly those suggested by the title of the book. They are in fact marriage (and love), as well as the importance of social class, wealth and reputation the underlying cause behind Darcy and Elizabeths combined pride and prejudice. Both of these topics were extremely important to the society of Regency England during which Austen lived. The England she depicts is one which social mobility is limited and in which class-consciousness is strong. As for marriage, this is the only means for women to acquire wealth or a higher social status, which is why this theme is so important in all of Jane Austens books and especially Pride and Prejudice. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. The first sentence of Jane Austens novel is characteristic of the rest of the book. The thread that sews together the lives of all the characters is the establishment of marriage. Indeed, this is the ultimate goal for all of the protagonists: the Bennet family, the Lucases, Mr. Collins, Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bingley and his sisters For instance, the business of [Mrs. Bennets] life was to get her daughters married. It was the worry of every girl to die an old maid, as Lydia, careless though she is, expresses in her letter: I was in great hopes that one of you would have got a husband before you came back. Jane will be quite an old maid soon, I declare. She is almost three-and-twenty! Lord, how ashamed I should be of not being married before three-and-twenty! My aunt Phillips wants you so to get husbands, you can't think. She says Lizzy had better have taken Mr. Collins; but I do not think there would have been any fun in it. Lord! how I should like to be married before any of you; and then I would chaperon you about to all the balls. In the time period of this story, there was very little social acceptance of women who remained single their whole lives. They would have to rely financially on their parents or brothers: indeed, failing marriage, inheritance was the only way for women from the middle or upper classes to acquire money. This explains why Charlottes family are so relieved to hear that she is to marry Mr. Collins: The whole family in short were properly overjoyed on the occasion. The younger girls formed hopes of coming out a year or two sooner than they might otherwise have done; and the boys were relieved from their apprehension of Charlottes dying an old maid. She herself, at the age of twenty-seven, without having ever been handsome, considers herself lucky to have found a husband, even such a ridiculous one as Mr. Collins. I am not romantic, you know; I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins's character, connection, 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."

Because of this fear of old maidenhood, each and every single man is seen as a potential husband. As soon as Mrs Bennet hears of the arrival of Mr. Bingley in Netherfield, even before meeting him, she is already determined that he will marry one of her daughters. We may assume that one of the reasons for which she is so anxious to marry them is because of social and financial pressure to do so. Longbourn is entailed to Mr. Collins, upon Mr. Bennets death. This means that both his wife and daughters would have to abandon the estate. If his daughters had already married, however, they would be financially secure and would furthermore be able to lodge their mother. It is thus obvious why marriage is such an important theme in Austens novel. Several married couples or future couples are described in the course of the novel. Some are well-matched like Elizabeth and Darcy, Jane and Bingley or Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner and others are exactly the opposite: Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Wickham and Lydia or Mr. Collins and Charlotte. Let us now see what makes a good couple or a bad one. Perhaps the thing that Austen considers to be most important in a marriage is respect and love: in all the felicity which a marriage of true affection could bestow. The couple should also be somewhat similar in temperament. This is why Jane and Bingley are so well suited, as her father expresses: Your tempers are by no means unlike. You are each of you so complying, that nothing will ever be resolved on; so easy, that every servant will cheat you; and so generous, that you will always exceed your income. They also share the trait of excessive modesty which is the main obstacle to their marrying, apart from the involvement of Mr. Darcy and Bingleys sisters. Bingley has so much humility that he easily imagines Jane does not really love him. As for her, she is also unwilling to believe he could be interested in her and her natural self-effacement prevents her from showing too strong an interest in public. Charlotte remarks on this at the beginning of the book: It may perhaps be pleasant to be able to impose on the public in such a case; but it is sometimes a disadvantage to be so very guarded. If a woman conceals her affection with the same skill from the object of it, she may lose the opportunity of fixing him; and it will then be but poor consolation to believe the world equally in the dark. There is so much of gratitude or vanity in almost every attachment, that it is not safe to leave any to itself. We can all begin freelya slight preference is natural enough; but there are very few of us who have heart enough to be really in love without encouragement. In nine cases out of ten a women had better show more affection than she feels. Bingley likes your sister undoubtedly; but he may never do more than like her, if she does not help him on. This is exactly what Charlotte does to secure the affection of Mr. Collins: she does not love him, but shows interest in him simply to be sure to get married. It sounds remarkable nowadays to imagine that a woman would prefer to marry a man with whom she could never be happy, than to chance remaining single for the rest of her life but this is how life was for many women living during the 18th and 19th century. Charlotte considers that happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. If the dispositions of the parties are ever so well known to each other or ever so similar beforehand, it does not advance their felicity in the least. They always continue to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of vexation; and it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life. It is safe to assume, however, that Jane Austen disagrees with this point of view: she pictures Jane and Bingley as being a perfect match that live

happily ever after, just like Elizabeth and Darcy. It is clear throughout the book that felicity is possible in a marriage, though Charlotte may believe otherwise. The dangers of marrying without any real knowledge of the temperament of ones partner, is clearly shown by the odd couple of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. They are not at all suited to each other: they both have very different temperaments, one a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, the other a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. Their couple is illsuited and not a happy one. How did this come about? Mr Bennet, captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour which youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind had very early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her. Respect, esteem, and confidence had vanished for ever; and all his views of domestic happiness were overthrown. () To his wife he was very little otherwise indebted, than as her ignorance and folly had contributed to his amusement. This is not the sort of happiness which a man would in general wish to owe to his wife; but where other powers of entertainment are wanting, the true philosopher will derive benefit from such as are given. This example shows how, unlike what Charlotte thinks, it is better to get to know someone and their temperament before marrying them. Indeed, it is only when one desires nothing but a husband, no matter whom he is, that a precipitate engagement might be worth it. But Austen shows us through the last example of Lydia and Wickham that felicity does not lie with precipitate engagements. His unsuccessful marriage is also the reason why her father is so concerned when he learns that Elizabeth wants to get married to Darcy: he thinks they are too different to ever be happy together. But though they are somewhat different, they both share the traits of pride and prejudice, and their differences are not so great that they would not suit each other. Lizzy thus understands at the end of the novel that Darcy was exactly the man who, in disposition and talents, would most suit her. His understanding and temper, though unlike her own, would have answered all her wishes. It was a union that must have been to the advantage of both; by her ease and liveliness, his mind might have been softened, his manners improved; and from his judgement, information, and knowledge of the world, she must have received benefit of greater importance. But apart from some similarity and taking the time to know each other, what are the main criteria that people from the middle or upper classes looked for in a future spouse in Jane Austens time? The characters of Pride and Prejudice are mostly interested in five characteristics: class, money, reputation, appearance and, to some extent, accomplishment. They not only dictate whether someone is worth marrying or not, but also the way people interact with each other: neighbours, strangers, guests, or friends. Class is perhaps the most important aspect of all. Austen depicts an England in which it is the aim of every man or woman to rise in social class be it through marriage or, in some cases, the receival of a title from the royal family. This is for instance the case of Charlottes father, Sir William Lucas, who had risen to the honour of knighthood by an address to the king during his mayoralty. The importance of class is one of the reasons why Bingley is so well liked in Longbourn; and though she is very partial to Mr. Collins and his grandiose speeches, Mrs Bennet much favours the idea of Jane and Mr. Bingley marrying soon. Of having another daughter married to Mr. Collins, she thought with equal certainty, and with considerable, though not equal, pleasure. Elizabeth was the least dear to her of all her children; and though the man and the match were quite good enough for her, the

worth of each was eclipsed by Mr. Bingley and Netherfield. After all, Bingley truly is a gentleman of leisure of high rank, whereas Mr. Collins is a simple rector. Although his situation in life, [his] connections with the family of de Bourgh, and [his] relationship to [the Bennet family], are circumstances highly in [his] favour, he is no match for a man of Bingleys stature. Mrs Bennet even expresses the fact that he dearest wish would be to see one of my daughters happily settled at Netherfield () and all the others equally well married. So the dream of any middle-class girl would be to marry a gentleman from the upper class. But this is easier said than done. Most of these men are expected by their friends and family to marry someone from the same class as themselves, if not from the same family. A marriage between Darcy and Anne de Bourgh, daughter of the distinguished Lady Catherine de Bourgh, is hence expected because both parties are of equally notable lineage and hail from the same prestigious family. The union between the two aristocrats was planned while in their cradles, according to Lady de Bourgh. According to her, they are formed for each other. They are descended, on the maternal side, from the same noble line; and, on the father's, from respectable, honourable, and ancientthough untitledfamilies. Their fortune on both sides is splendid. They are destined for each other by the voice of every member of their respective houses; and what is to divide them? The upstart pretensions of a young woman without family, connections, or fortune. She is aghast that the anticipated matrimony may be prevented by a young woman of inferior birth, of no importance in the world, and wholly unallied to the family like Elizabeth. When she comes to Longbourn after hearing rumours of Darcy being engaged to her, she goes on to advise Elizabeth that: If you were sensible of your own good, you would not wish to quit the sphere in which you have been brought up. This is presumably because, according to Lady Catherine, she should not expect to be noticed by his family or friends, if you wilfully act against the inclinations of all. You will be censured, slighted, and despised, by everyone connected with him. Your alliance will be a disgrace; your name will never even be mentioned by any of us. Darcy himself feels the danger of paying Elizabeth too much attention. In spite of her attraction on him, he believes it to be wrong to marry someone from such inferior rank he has extreme class-consciousness. This is the reason why he convinces Bingley to leave Netherfield, so that he might not be in danger of asking for Janes hand. Bingleys sister participates in this scheme for the same reason. As Elisabeth clearly sees, the Bennet family is not rich enough or grand enough for them; and she is the more anxious to get Miss Darcy for her brother, from the notion that when there has been one intermarriage, she may have less trouble in achieving a second. Both of Bingleys sisters, as well as Lady Catherine, are perhaps the most class-conscious characters in the novel. They despise the rural, middle-class villagers of Meryton. You are considering how insupportable it would be to pass many evenings in this mannerin such society; and indeed I am quite of your opinion. () The insipidity, and yet the noisethe nothingness, and yet the selfimportance of all those people! Even Darcy, considered extremely proud by the villagers, seems to share these opinions at first though he repents of his pride and prejudice later on. Wickham thus explains that only among those who are at all his equals in consequence, he is a very different man from what he is to the less prosperous. His pride never deserts him; but with the rich he is liberal-minded, just, sincere, rational, honourable, and perhaps agreeableallowing something for fortune and figure. Of course Wickham is hardly a trustworthy source, but Darcy does consider rank to be extremely important, so much that he seems to despise those lower than him on the social scale.

However one must take into account the way he was raised: as Charlotte expresses, he has a right to be proud. And when one thinks about it, the way the Bennet family behave with their servant is much worse than the way Darcy ignores the Bennet or Lucas family during the first ball he attends at Meryton. Austen criticizes the snobbish ways of the upper class, but does not give a moments thought to the lower class who are not even deemed worthy enough to be mentioned in her novel whereas the middle and upper classes can at least converse and mingle during social events, or even marry. Lydia is deemed to have married underneath her when she takes Wickham as a husband but how much worse would it have been if she had eloped with a lowly servant! The arrogant way with which the aristocracy views the middle class is mirrored in turn by the admiration sometimes attaining idolatry that the latter feel for the former. Although Lady Catherine and her peers are in no ways perfect, they are almost idolized by people such as Mr. Collins, the Lucas family or Mrs. Bennet. Indeed, Mr. Collins high regard is so extreme that it become comical: He had never in his life witnessed such behaviour in a person of ranksuch affability and condescension, as he had himself experienced from Lady Catherine. She had been graciously pleased to approve of both of the discourses which he had already had the honour of preaching before her. She had also asked him twice to dine at Rosings, and had sent for him only the Saturday before, to make up her pool of quadrille in the evening. Lady Catherine was reckoned proud by many people he knew, but he had never seen anything but affability in her. She had always spoken to him as she would to any other gentleman; she made not the smallest objection to his joining in the society of the neighbourhood nor to his leaving the parish occasionally for a week or two, to visit his relations. She had even condescended to advise him to marry as soon as he could, provided he chose with discretion. As for Mrs. Bennet, she takes no account whatsoever of Lady Catherines rudeness and simply admires her aristocratic behaviour. Looking like one is from the upper class is even considered better than having beauty: Miss de Bourgh is far superior to the handsomest of her sex, because there is that in her features which marks the young lady of distinguished birth. To contrast these depreciative examples of the class system, Austen offers more positive examples in Bingley and the Gardiners. Bingley is someone from the upper class who wears his position lightly and gallantly. As for the Gardiners, they represent the honest, generous, and industrious middle class. They offer great contrast to the scheming and shallow Caroline Bingley, the mixture of pride and obsequiousness, self-importance and humility that is Mr. Collins or the arrogant and rude Lady Catherine. A last thing that people from the upper class thought of as extremely important was peoples families and connections. A typical example of this is the importance that Lady Catherine, Darcy and Bingleys sisters attribute to the Bennets lower-class connections: the Gardiners. Mr. Gardiner is an attorney, who works to sustain his family, whereas only idle landowners are considered worthy by these aristocrats. As Caroline Bingley tells Darcy at the beginning of the novel: I have an excessive regard for Miss Jane Bennet, she is really a very sweet girl, and I wish with all my heart she were well settled. But with such a father and mother, and such low connections, I am afraid there is no chance of it. Another big obstacle that Elizabeth and Jane have to overcome is the silly behaviour of their close family: especially that of their mother and younger sisters. Darcy acknowledges this in the letter he gives Elizabeth after she rejected his marriage proposal. My objections to the marriage were not merely () [your] want of connection (). There were other causes of repugnance; causes which, though still existing, and existing to an equal degree in both instances, I had myself endeavoured to forget, because they were not

immediately before me. These causes must be stated, though briefly. The situation of your mother's family, though objectionable, was nothing in comparison to that total want of propriety so frequently, so almost uniformly betrayed by herself, by your three younger sisters, and occasionally even by your father. Perhaps the worst thing that could have happened in such a situation is Lydias elopement with Wickham. The Bennet family already suffered from its want of connections, its belonging to the rural middle class, and the silliness of most of the family members. But such an event is terrible for the reputation of the family. Elizabeth feels that her power [over Darcy] was sinking; everything must sink under such a proof of family weakness, such an assurance of the deepest disgrace. As for Mr. Collins, he goes on to say that the death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison of this. [Lady Catherine agrees] with me in apprehending that this false step in one daughter will be injurious to the fortunes of all the others; for who, as Lady Catherine herself condescendingly says, will connect themselves with such a family? This shows that reputation was also incredibly important in such a society. Just like Darcys regard, once lost, it is lost forever. This is what Mary tells Elizabeth after hearing the terrible news: unhappy as the event must be for Lydia, we may draw from it this useful lesson: that loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable; that one false step involves her in endless ruin; that her reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful; and that she cannot be too much guarded in her behaviour towards the undeserving of the other sex. This loss of reputation involves the whole family. This is the main objection that Lady Catherine has to a marriage between her nephew and Elizabeth, and leads to perhaps the best-known quote from this novel: To all the objections I have already urged, I have still another to add. I am no stranger to the particulars of your youngest sister's infamous elopement. I know it all; that the young man's marrying her was a patched-up business, at the expense of your father and uncles. And is such a girl to be my nephew's sister? Is her husband, is the son of his late father's steward, to be his brother? Heaven and earth!of what are you thinking? Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted? Austen thus describes a world in which choices for individuals are very limited, based almost exclusively on a familys social rank, connections and reputation. But thinks are not quite as desperate as they seem. The final marriage of Darcy and Elizabeth shows that class restrictions, while rigid, do not determine ones character, and that love can overcome all obstacles, including class. The second main criterion that people looked for when marrying someone was money. This is especially true of women, who could only get wealthy by marrying someone rich whereas it was considered all right for upper and middle class men to work to become more prosperous. Bingley is thus seen as a prospective husband by the Bennet women even before having met him: A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!" Mr. Collins is also considered a good match, even though he is far from handsome or even agreeable: Mr. Collins's present circumstances made it a most eligible match for [Charlotte], to whom [her family] could give little fortune; and his prospects of future wealth were exceedingly fair. Even Wickham, though he seems charming, well-bred and very handsome, is not considered as a prospective husband because of his relative poverty. After her aunts intervention ("Do not involve yourself or endeavour to involve him in an affection which the want of fortune would make so very imprudent. I have nothing to say against him; he is a most interesting young man; and if he had the fortune he ought to have, I should think you could not do better. But as it is, you must not let

your fancy run away with you.), Elizabeth stops viewing him as a suitor when she acquires the mortifying conviction that handsome young men must have something to live on as well as the plain." Nevertheless, after her elopement, Lydias wedding to a poor and lowly soldier is strongly desired by her family because anything else would not only destroy Lydias reputation, it would also be extremely harmful to her sisters. Imprudent as the marriage between Mr. Wickham and our poor Lydia would be, expresses Jane Bennet in her letter to Elizabeth, we are now anxious to be assured that it has taken place. As I have said before, men as portrayed in Austens novels generally think of wealth as being less important when looking for a partner than women do. Characteristics like beauty, reputation, accomplishment and of course class are considered more important. Only Wickham, because of his gambling tendencies, is so materialistic that he pursues Mary King as soon as she inherits a large fortune. But the Bennet sisters are still disadvantaged by their lack of fortune in some ways. Mr. Collins, to persuade Elizabeth to marry him, tells her that you should take it into further consideration, that in spite of your manifold attractions, it is by no means certain that another offer of marriage may ever be made you. Your portion is unhappily so small that it will in all likelihood undo the effects of your loveliness and amiable qualifications. She herself realizes that Jane will have difficulties in marrying Bingley though she is the person with whom he will in all likelihood have the best chance at happiness - because of his sisters and friendsmay wish many things besides his happiness; they may wish his increase of wealth and consequence; they may wish him to marry a girl who has all the importance of money, great connections, and pride." All I have mentioned earlier, though they were of course considered important, it would be unfair to say that all that mattered to the characters of Pride and Prejudice was class and wealth. Accomplishment was also considered important, especially be members of the upper class. Indeed, women from the middle or upper classes had very little to do when not out on visits, so they had lots of time available to become more accomplished. But being truly accomplished means a lot of work, according to Caroline Bingley: A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half-deserved." Accomplishment was also a way for women with not many things to recommend them, to become more desirable. This is for instance the case of Mary Bennet, who in consequence of being the only plain one in the family, worked hard for knowledge and accomplishments. Since she is plain, with a small dowry and from a middle-class family with not many connections, accomplishment is the only way for her to improve her odds at finding a husband. In addition to accomplishment, beauty and manners are the last criterion that people considered when looking for a spouse. Darcy, Bingley and Wickham are all handsome and agreeable: [Wickham's] appearance was greatly in his favour; he had all the best part of beauty, a fine countenance, a good figure, and very pleasing address. The introduction was followed up on his side by a happy readiness of conversationa readiness at the same time perfectly correct and unassuming; [Bingley] was quite young, wonderfully handsome, extremely agreeable, and, to crown the whole, he meant to be at the next assembly with a large party. Nothing could be more delightful!; His friend Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien, and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year. Though to be fair, the people of Meryton are not so material that they

appreciate Darcy simply because of his fortune and looks. At the end of the ball during which he stays taciturn and proud, not all his large estate in Derbyshire could save him from having a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance, and being unworthy to be compared with his friend. This is Darcys weakness: he is haughty, reserved, and fastidious, and his manners, though well-bred, were not inviting. In that respect his friend had greatly the advantage. Bingley was sure of being liked wherever he appeared, Darcy was continually giving offense. Although he is in fact not as arrogant or despising as he seems, his lack of ease of address makes the entire population of Meryton despise him. Wickham is quite the opposite: his manners are perfect, but his true character is quite different: he is in fact an avid gambler, deceitful and materialistic. Even Caroline Bingley and Mrs. Hurst are admired and respected because of their appearance of wealth and class: [Bingleys] sisters are charming women. I never in my life saw anything more elegant than their dresses. As for Jane and Elizabeth, they are neither wealthy, nor of the upper class, nor even well-accomplished. Their beauty and good manners (especially compared to that of their mother and sisters) are their only assets in finding a husband: [Mr. Collins] had not been long seated before he complimented Mrs. Bennet on having so fine a family of daughters; said he had heard much of their beauty, but that in this instance fame had fallen short of the truth; and added, that he did not doubt her seeing them all in due time disposed of in marriage. One may add that Janes kindness and generosity, as well as Elizabeths vivacity and intelligence, were not negligible in helping Bingley and Darcy fall in love; but by Austens account, this is a rare occurrence in such a society.

To conclude, all of the main criteria that were considered important in a husband or wife are enumerated by Mrs. Bennet, ecstatic at the interest that Bingley shows for her eldest daughter: His being such a charming young man, and so rich, and living but three miles from them, were the first points of self-gratulation; and then it was such a comfort to think how fond the two sisters were of Jane, and to be certain that they must desire the connection as much as she could do. It was, moreover, such a promising thing for her younger daughters, as Jane's marrying so greatly must throw them in the way of other rich men. These are the main points of importance for people living in Austens time: class, connections and reputation; wealth, beauty and manners; accomplishment. This shows us how materialistic and shallow society was. Everything is about the exterior and about appearances; whereas not many people concentrate on character or even feelings. In this way, though women have more and more freedom in choosing their husbands later on, Austens novel can be compared to The Great Gatsby. Both books criticize superficiality and the importance accorded to wealth and class. However, though the great Gatsby dismisses the possibility of happiness ever being attained, the ending of Pride and Prejudice is much more hopeful. Jane and Bingley as well as Elizabeth and Darcy are considered to be well-matched couples who live happily ever after precisely because