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English - Pride and Prejudice Social and Historical context of the Novel The social context in which Jane Austen's novel, Pride and Prejudice operates, is one of firm class divisions, formality, and extreme importance placed on knowing what was considered proper behaviour. It reflects many accepted beliefs of the time - in early nineteenth century England. There were very strict distinctions between things which were considered acceptable, and things that were not. A great significance was placed on manners, and the way in which you conducted yourself in public.
These things were common knowledge throughout the community. The society in which the characters of Pride and Prejudice lived, seemed to follow these unwritten rules religiously and it was a great embarrassment to the family if they were not followed in the proper way. This included regulations about the status of women, the way in which men and women interacted, marriage, and strict social class divisions relating to professions, and how wealth was gained. Jane Austen herself never married, but a lot of her views come out in the novel. The position of women in Pride and Prejudice was a difficult one. Women did not have professions, or receive an education.
The only way a woman could get money was to inherit it or through marriage. Therefore, the way in which men and women interacted was affected. It was highly uncommon, for example, for a woman to decline a man's invitation to dance, as Elizabeth did with Mr Darcy at the Lucas' Ball. It was a violation of etiquette if she in any way made it seem as if she didn't want to dance with him personally.
She would have to maintain the pretense that she didn't want to dance with anybody at all at that moment, and then sit down for at least the next few "sets" of two dances each. It was also very uncommon to decline a marriage proposal. Balls like the Meryton Assembly were common in Jane Austin's time, being held usually every one or two months. Dancing was an integral part of social life - it played a crucial role in courtship rituals. So the Balls were as much an occasion on which to meet new people as to dance. While dancing, respectable women, who would otherwise be chaperoned, could talk to a man in privacy.
If a man asked a woman for two dances, as Mr Bingley did with Jane, it was taken as a sign of interest. In Jane Austen's time, middle and upper class girls had to be accomplished. This was mainly so they could secure a suitor, then when they were married they could instruct their children, and since they couldn't have a profession, so they would have something to do. These accomplishments included things like singing, riding, dancing, sewing, playing music and reading, which was a very popular leisure activity as well. Marriage was regarded as very important, as can be seen with Mrs Bennet from the beginning of the novel. It was in a young woman's best interests to marry soon, and marry well.
If there was more than one girl in the family, it was expected that the eldest would marry first, and then her connections, through marriage, would bring desirable husbands for her sisters. Unmarried women had to live with their families or a family-approved protector. If this could not be financed, they stayed with an "employer" as a live-in governess or teacher. Unmarried women were regarded as very low in social standing. A woman who was known to have had sex outside of marriage could be socially ruined or excluded from polite society. This, however, was not the case for men.
People were very class conscious in early nineteenth century England. Rank, title, and wealth mattered a lot, and carried status and power. Judgements about how eligible you were to belong to the gentility were constant. Two major factors on which this was based were profession and wealth. For example, some professions were considered more favourable than others. The upper ranks of the militia and being a clergyman were some very highly regarded professions, however they did need patrons to finance them.
The legal profession, though, was not well respected, as the law was considered something you only had to access when it was absolutely essential. Anyone with any pretensions to gentility could afford to hire servants. It was, however, more "genteel " to be a rural landowner than to be actively involved in commerce, no matter how much money you were making. Therefore, "trade," or business could be a disparaging word.
Wealth was important, but it was not wealth alone that helped you climb the social ladder. How the wealth was gained was also a factor. At the very top of the social order were the landowners, people who had inherited their wealth and did not necessarily need to work, like Mr Darcy. The eldest son would always inherit the land and wealth of his parents, however his siblings would have to find occupations or professions.
Mr Darcy inherited his wealth, and his family home, Pemberley. Mr Bingley's wealth, however, was based only on trade, and he did not have a family home. His wealth and, consequently his rise in social circles was fairly recent, whereas Darcy's had been in his family for generations, making him higher in social standing. The way in which people are judged, socially, are all examples of prejudices held by the characters in the novel.
The language used was very formal. Sentences tended to be long, as this was seen as a sign of sophistication. In public, people would address each other as Mr / Mrs or their title, and their full name. Even in private they would not use the first name, they would refer to the person they were talking about by his / her title, and last name. ~ The historical context in which Pride and Prejudice operates is that of the early nineteenth century - the novel was published in 1813. This introduces various common beliefs of the time, which affected how people formed their views, how things were done, how people conducted themselves, and what was considered important.
These beliefs related to things like the status of women, marriage, entailment, dancing, travelling, The idea for Pride and Prejudice began in the early 1790's, originally called First Impressions. It was, therefore conceived during the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution, when Britain was at war with France and the repressive Pitt government was, with limited success, seeking to abolish revolutionary ideas and activity on Austen's side of the English Channel. This would not have had much effect on the day to day life of the Bennet sisters, except that the militia would be staying in town and may attend some of their Balls. At that time, there was no real way for women of the "genteel" class to earn money or be independent and therefore gain status, except for marriage or inheritance. Professions, education, the universities, and politics were not open to women. Few occupations were open to them, and those that were, for example a governess or a teacher, were not highly respected.
For this reason, great importance was placed on marrying well. Marriage was very important in Jane Austin's time, as it was pretty much the only way to get out from under the "parental roof." If a woman was unmarried, she would have to depend on her father, brother, uncles or any other male relation. A dependent, unmarried woman had a very low position in society. If her family could not support her, she would face the necessity of going to live with employers as a "dependant" governess or teacher, or hired "lady's companion." A woman with no relations or employers faced the danger of "slipping off the scale" of gentility altogether, and, in general, becoming an "old maid" was not considered a desirable fate. Despite this, marriage was not a state to be entered into lightly, neither by men nor women. Marriage was almost always for life, as English divorce law pre 1857 was medieval holdover.
The only grounds for divorce were the sexual infidelity of the man's wife. A husband who wished to divorce his wife for this reason, had to get permission from Parliament to sue for divorce, and the divorce trial was between the husband and the wife's alleged lover, with the wife herself more or less a bystander. All this cost quite a bit of money, so only the rich could afford divorces. There was also the possibility of legal separations on grounds of cruelty, where neither spouse had the right to remarry, but the husband almost always had absolute custody rights over children, and could prevent the wife from seeing them. The property of a woman possessed before her marriage automatically became the property of her husband. After the marriage, the woman and her money were legally in the husbands power, and.
However pre-nuptial legal "settlements" which the wife's family might have insisted on if she had married with their approval, were an option. This would mean that the property that the wife brings into the marriage ultimately belongs to her, and will revert to her children, though she may not necessarily have personal control over it during her marriage. It can also specify a guaranteed minimum that the children of the marriage are to inherit. The other side of the same thing, would be a forced marriage, to ensure that the money passed into an approved family. In Jane Austen's day, the method by which large estates were kept in one family line was by preventing a sale and ensuring that only the eldest male heir succeeded to it. This was called an entailment, and it was a legal provision in a settlement deed which predetermined the succession of the ownership on the death of the head of the family.
An example of this is how the Bennet's estate, Longbourn, will go to Mr Collins when Mr Bennet dies. Mr Bennet cannot do anything to change the entailment. If Mr Bennet dies before Mrs Bennet, she and her five daughters could be turned out immediately by Mr Collins. This is why Mrs Bennet devotes so much time to finding suitable husbands for her daughters. Not only was marriage for life, but there was no social security, old age pensions, unemployment compensation, health insurance etc.
to rely on at the time, so marriage was the only guaranteed income. In the period that the novel is set, travelling was a major event. This is why Jane was so excited to go to Netherfield. Even short distances took a long time. It was not considered proper for genteel, unmarried women to travel on public coaches unescorted. There was no electricity so travel was by foot, on horseback, or, for the rich, by carriage of which there were many varieties.
Visits were rarely taken as they were very expensive and involved a lot of preparation. So when it did happen, the visitor usually stayed for a few weeks. Visitors had to give advance notice before they came like Mr Collins did by writing a letter. In an era before telephones or cheap fast transport, letter-writing was very important in the families of Jane Austen's day. There were no envelopes or postage stamps, though there was another piece of paper folded around the rest. There could be writing on one side, as well as on the part of the other side that didn't end up on the outside of the letter.
At the time, letters were charged according to the number of sheets of paper, so the smaller you could make your writing, the more you could fit in. One important rule of protocol of the period was that correspondence between two unmarried and marriageable unrelated young people of the opposite sex was a sign that the two were engaged. Also, the recipient, rather than the sender, paid the postage. There are many other miscellaneous things in the novel that are typical of the period. The dancing, for example, was often longways, where one couple followed behind the others all the way down a long, narrow room. Dances were in sets, usually two dances.
Another thing is Mr Darcy's name. He is called Fitzwilliam because it was his mother's surname - she would have been known as "Lady Anne Fitzwilliam" before her marriage to Darcy's father and "Lady Anne Darcy" afterwards. At the time it was common to give a son his mother's maiden surname as his own first name, especially if his mother's family was in some way prominent or distinguished. This is why Darcy's first name is the same as his cousin Col.
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