Class and gender expectations in the Victorian and Regency 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 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.
The characters in Pride and Prejudice are represented to 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 ones 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, through the use of her courageous and independent heroine, Elizabeth Bennet in order 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 in 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 thees 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. Mr. Bennet, born into a reasonably wealthy family, married Mrs. Bennet, of the low middle class, due to his attraction to her, and in turn 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 a representation of 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 an 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.