Before going into the details of Pride and prejudice, it is pertinent to give a historical overview.
Despite the fact that she was born in the 19th century, Jane Austen was far ahead of her time in that she advocated for women at a time when it was expected that they conform to stringent moral codes and when they had no voice in legal, political, economic, or social issues. Women were expected to be modest and subservient. They were expected to keep their critical thinking and intellectual abilities hidden. They were regarded unfit for debating issues related to science, philosophy, politics, and economics. When it was believed that wit is the most hazardous skill a woman can have, Jane Austen raised a voice for women. She broke free from the restrictions that English society had imposed on women and created a series of novels with strong feministic themes.
Pride and Prejudice reflects a patriarchal society
Even though there was a queen in charge of England at the time, the culture there was very patriarchal. Men were heavily and unfairly favoured in this patriarchal society because of their independence in making decisions, their ability to select their careers and jobs, their ability to pursue education and run their own businesses, their ability to own property, and the belief that they were the only gender capable of making scientific discoveries.
Victorian England was a very pretentious society divided into numerous social classes according on the amount of property each individual held. The only class that was considered deserving of respect was the upper class. Wealth dominated society. The passage makes it evident that people’s only concerns were impressing upper-class individuals and moving up the social scale. The wealthy wanted to maintain their position in society.
“Do not make yourself uneasy, my dear cousin, about your apparel. Lady Catherine is far from requiring that elegance of dress in us which becomes herself and her daughter. I could advise you merely to put on whatever of your clothes is superior to the rest—there is no occasion for anything more. Lady Catherine will not think the worse of you for being simply dressed. She likes to have the distinction of rank preserved.”
Mr. Darcy’s initial proposal to Miss Elizabeth was more about his loss of respect for her than it was about his love for her.
“He spoke well; but there were feelings besides those of the heart to be detailed; and he was not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride. His sense of her inferiority—of its being a degradation—of the family obstacles which had always opposed to inclination, were dwelt on with a warmth which seemed due to the consequence he was wounding, but was very unlikely to recommend his suit”.
Due to societal expectations, it was the worst possible era for women to live in. They were supposed to be chaste, modest, and obedient. In terms of law, they were closer to slaves because they lacked independent agency and were unable to vote or possess property. Their only social function was childrearing and household work.
Reflections on marriage
Marriage was only seen as an economic arrangement in which there was no emotional connection between the boy and the girl. Women were actively looking for successful husbands. According to the marriage of Charlotte Lucas and Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice, they intended to wed in order to establish their future and live comfortably. Mr. Collins lacked any redeeming qualities. Still Charlotte Lucas married him because she wanted to secure her future.
“I am not romantic, you know. I never was. I ask only a comfortable home,” Charlotte Lucas says in Pride and Prejudice.
In addition, a woman’s property in Victorian England would transfer to her husband upon marriage. Since women were not allowed to own property, upon a father’s passing, the eldest son would inherit it. If there were no male heirs, a close relative would inherit the property, as is the case with Mr. Bennett’s residence. The entire family may be removed from their own home if there was no male guardian present.
A woman had to present herself as smart and civilised in order to make an impression. No landed gentry male made marriage offers to middle-class or working-class ladies. Women had to seem to be educated and bright in order to appeal to men. This is clear from the way Mrs. Bennet presents herself as sophisticated and well-educated. She was foolish, but she always pretended to be a knowledgeable woman in order to seduce wealthy spouses for her daughters. She once described their new neighbour to Mr. Bennet in a conversation as:
“A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!”
A woman was expected to be pure and virginal until she married in Victorian England. She would be viewed as a fallen and immoral woman if she somehow transgressed this moral code of conduct. To continue having sex outside of marriage was regarded as a serious crime and sin. As a result, when Lydia ran away, the news shocked her family. However, a man may have as many relationships as he wished without being viewed as immoral.
Austen rebelled against social norms in Pride and Prejudice
Through her novels, Jane Austen disregarded long-standing social conventions that dictated how women should act. Her heroines exhibit traits of her own personality. Elizabeth struggles to assert her individuality in a world that values men in Pride and Prejudice. She is a powerful lady who makes decisions without seeking society’s approval. She is not conceited, therefore society cannot force her to dance to its tunes. Independent of her family, friends, and other people, she thinks and acts. Her mother tries her best to get her married to a wealthy spouse despite the fact that she comes from a poor family, has no possessions, and is about to be evicted from her own home. However, she behaves differently and believes that she will marry for true love rather than money. She then refuses to give in to family pressure and refuses to wed Mr. Collins in spite of her mother’s desire.
By doing this, she conveys to the readers that a woman’s life should not be lived for the exclusive goal of pleasing her parents. She sets an example for the readers of a lady who puts her own desires ahead of her family’s approval. Austen thus created a character that women can look up to and emulate.
Elizabeth rejects the notion that marriage provides financial stability. She thinks a marriage should be passionate and loving; a genuine friendship unencumbered by compromise over money. She is therefore astonished to learn of Charlotte Lucas’ marriage.
She chastises Mr. Darcy for his conceit when he first proudly proposes to her and anticipates a favourable response.
There were several courtesy books available at the period that provided guidelines and standards to which young ladies were expected to adhere. The position of women in that society was established by these rules. Charlotte Lucas, who marries Mr. Collins under family and economic duress, embodies the traditional role of a woman in Pride and Prejudice. Charlotte Lucas, a character in Austen’s work, helps to support Elizabeth’s uniqueness. Both are young, single ladies from low-income backgrounds who are being pressured by their parents; one of them submits while the other rebels. Jane Austen revolted against the traditional role of women through her heroines. Elizabeth’s dislike for such standards is evident when Mr. Collins reads James Fordyce’s “Sermons to Young Women” to her young cousins in Pride and Prejudice.
While a girl’s main goal at the time was to locate a good suitor so that she might live a prosperous life, she was unable to accomplish so without a few prerequisites. She was expected to possess particular abilities in order to appeal to a potential spouse. The discussion between Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth Bennet, and Miss Bingley in Pride and Prejudice reflects on the qualities of the ideal woman. A lady must possess a complete understanding of music, singing, sketching, dance, and all modern languages in order to be able to attract a good suitor.
These highly prized abilities, which are actually minor, are mocked by Jane Austen. In that society, women were educated in painting, dance, piano playing, languages, and fundamental grammar. When girls were young, their families gave them an education; but, when they got older, the family would engage a governess to teach their daughters. For girls, there were no suitable schools or institutions. On the other hand, boys used to attend elite institutions of higher learning, like Oxford. Elizabeth used the resources at her disposal to read and educate herself even though she and her sisters were not given a formal education by a governess.
Elizabeth is intended to serve as a role model for women, and Austen encourages them to use the resources at their disposal to educate themselves like Elizabeth did. In order to become sensible beings, Austen advises her readers to read and gain more than just the talents necessary to find a partner.
Austen was an iconoclast who, in addition to challenging the rules that restrict women of their autonomy and turn them into pleasure giving and kid rearing machines, she also reflected on the established goals and values of that society. Through her novels, Austen demonstrated to us the potential of fiction to challenge and upend preexisting but unfair rules. She created female protagonists for her works that dared to defy the norms of their time, giving readers examples to which they can aspire. Austen believed that if women were not subdued, they could accomplish much more. She recognised in women the potential to develop into powerful, intelligent individuals if given the same opportunities as men. Austen introduced us to a new type of woman through the persona of Elizabeth Bennet—a woman who is independent, daring, brilliant, and unconventional.