Pride & Prejudice
A literary analysis of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice on the gender roles in Regency England.
I will now make an analysis of this novel by examining several subjects that are both directly and indirectly associated with gender roles in early nineteenth-century England.
Gender roles & men’s and women’s rights in Pride and Prejudice
In most cases, when it comes to inheritance laws, women had fewer rights on a property than men. This inheritance law caused a lot of stress in families who didn’t have a son/brother, such as the Bennet’s.
“Mr Bennet’s property consisted almost entirely in an estate of two thousand a-year, which, unfortunately for his daughters, was entailed, in default of heirs male, on a distant relation; and their mother’s fortune, though ample for her situation in life, could but ill supply the deficiency of his.” – chapter 7
The Longbourn estate is entailed, meaning that in law, Mr. Bennet was a ‘tenant in tail’: he could make use of the estate while he was alive but wasn’t allowed to sell it. The property was “entailed in default of heirs male,” meaning that his five daughters would not be able to inherit the estate. The “distant relation” Jane Austen talks about is Mr. Collins, a nephew of Mr. Bennet that the Bennet’s have never met before.
Jane Austen also tells us about Mrs. Bennet’s fortune, which “could but ill supply the deficiency of his.” When Mr. Bennet dies, then the Longbourn estate will be inherited by Mr. Collins, leaving Mrs. Bennet and her five daughters with 4% of Mrs. Bennet’s £5000 marriage portion per year: an annual income of only £200. In our time, this would be a yearly income of around £6792. As you can probably imagine, this not enough money to provide for five daughters, which is why Mrs. Bennet is so anxious to see her girls well-married.
“I do think it is the hardest thing in the world, that your estate should be entailed away from your own children; and I am sure if I had been you, I should have tried long ago to do something or other about it.” – Mrs. Bennet, chapter 19
Mrs. Bennet finds it hard that just because of this inheritance law, the Longbourn estate will be entailed away from their children. She also says, “If I had been you, I should have tried long ago to do something or other about it.”. But what could Mr. Bennet have done according to her? I believe Mrs. Bennet implies that he could’ve started long ago saving money for his wife and daughters. If he had done so, they wouldn’t have as much to worry about after his death.
“After amusing himself some time with their curiosity, he thus explained. ‘About a month ago I received this letter, and about a fortnight ago I answered it, for I thought it a case of some delicacy, and requiring early attention. It is from my cousin, Mr Collins, who, when I am dead, may turn you all out of this house as soon as he pleases.” – Mr. Bennet, chapter 13
Mr. Bennet seems to think it quite funny that his wife and daughters will be turned out of his house when he’s dead. With his indifferent character, Austen defines the fact that some men cared little about the rights and future of women.
However, this doesn’t mean that women were absolutely excluded by law to inherit anything: we must also consider Anne de Bourgh’s aspect of inheritance, Lady Catherine’s only daughter, who is said to be the heiress of Rosings.
“She (lady Catherine de Bourgh) has only one daughter, the heiress of Rosings, and of very extensive property.” – Mr. Collins, chapter 14
Why is Anne de Bourgh able to inherit Rosings Park, even though she is a lady, when the Bennet sisters can not inherit Longbourn Estate? They are all ladies, daughters of gentlemen, then what is the difference? We know that Anne de Bourgh is the only daughter of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and lady Catherine is a widow. We have the knowledge that Longbourn estate is entailed, and Rosings Park is not. And that is precisely the reason why Anne and Lady Catherine the Bourgh didn’t have to leave Rosings Park when Lady Catherine’s husband died and why Anne de Bourgh will inherit Rosings Park. Rosings Park is not entailed, meaning that Lady Catherine’s husband could give it to her in his last will. Mr. Bennet wouldn’t be able to do this, as his estate is entailed.
Gender roles & accomplishments & separate spheres in Pride and Prejudice
Accomplishments were significant for women in Regency England. Families invested in all kinds of things like expensive schools for girls, governesses, piano lessons, singing lessons and dancing lessons to give their daughters a better chance of marriage. In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen mentions it a lot, which emphasises the importance of these accomplishments in Regency England.
The wealthier you were, the more servants you could afford. And more servants meant the fewer ladies had to do in the house. Working on your accomplishments was an excellent way to spend time during the day in the private sphere.
“Mary heard herself mentioned to Miss Bingley as the most accomplished girl in the neighbourhood, (…).” – chapter 3
If people mention you to be the most accomplished girl in the neighbourhood, this is a very commendable thing. If you were very accomplished as a girl, then this often meant that you come from a wealthy family. It meant that your parents had the money to pay for expensive pianoforte lessons, for a governess or maybe even a costly girls school. However, this was not the case for Mary.
“Has your governess left you?” – Lady Catherine
“We never had any governess.” – Elizabeth
“No governess! How was that possible? Five daughters brought up at home without a governess! I never heard of such a thing. Your mother must have been quite a slave to your education.”
As we can read here, the Bennets didn’t have a governess. They had a comfortable income but no governess, which might be a little bit weird in this period. But how did Mary got as accomplished as she was?
“Then, who taught you? Who attended to you? Without a governess, you must have been neglected.” – Lady Catherine de Bourgh
“Compared with some families, I believe we were; but such of us as wished to learn never wanted the means. We were always encouraged to read, and had all the masters that were necessary. Those who chose to be idle, certainly might.” – Elizabeth, chapter 29
We know that Mary loves to read, and she also practised a lot on the piano. So, the Bennet sisters used the things they had at home to acquire some of the accomplishments. Elizabeth also says that they didn’t want to have a governess.
“… her sister Mary, who, in consequence of being the only plain one in the family, worked hard for knowledge and accomplishments, was always impatient for display.” – chapter 6
In Regency England, if you were a bit of a plain girl or not good looking at all, you could compensate that by working very hard on your accomplishments. That way, you would still be able to attract a good husband. Mary is said to be “the only plain one in the family”, so to be attractive for marriage she had to work hard for her accomplishments and knowledge. Now, Mrs. Bingley has got a very clear idea of when a lady is allowed to call herself accomplished:
“A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the world; 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.” – Miss Bingley, chapter 8
Of course, we must keep in mind that Mrs. Bingley has got a very extravagant personality, so her conception of an accomplished lady might be exaggerated. These accomplishments were not acquired by all women, though, as Elizabeth mentions that she has “never saw such a woman”. She “never saw such capacity, and taste, and application, and elegance, united”.
In Regency England, women were there to make the busy lives of their husbands pleasant: to be the angle of the house. If you were accomplished, you were very attractive to a husband, as you would be able to play or sing for him and be intelligent enough to keep up with his conversations.
Austen also mentions a book called Fordyce’s Sermons.
“Other books were produced, and after some deliberation he (Mr. Collins) chose Fordyce’s Sermons. Lydia gaped as he opened the volume, and before he had, with very monotonous solemnity, read three pages, she interrupted him with (…).” – chapter 14
This book, James Fordyce’s Sermons for Young Women, is not fiction. This was a book from 1766 that was given to young women by fathers or husbands, for the express purpose of moderating their behaviour.23 Lydia clearly found this book boring, and with her, a lot of young women did: the views of Fordyce on the ideal woman were very old-fashioned, even at the time Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice.
The female characters in Pride and Prejudice have a completely different role in life than men. While men were in the public sphere, the place of women was in the private sphere. As Jane Austen lived in the period in which these separate spheres were the norm, we can learn a lot from reading how she describes the domestic gender roles.
“An invitation to dinner was soon afterwards dispatched; and already had Mrs Bennet planned the courses that were to do credit to her housekeeping.” – chapter 3
Mrs. Bennet planned the courses, meaning that she didn’t have to cook for herself. The Bennet’s were from the upper class and they were not overly wealthy, though wealthy enough to afford a butler, a housekeeper, a cook and two housemaids. In Regency England, the number of servants your family could employ reflected your financial status. Also, the whole point of being a lady in this era was to do nothing in the household, except for telling the servants what to do.
“Mr Bingley was obliged to be in town the following day, (…).” – chapter 3
While women stayed at home, their husbands or fathers would live in the public spheres: whether in business, politics, or social and cultural activities.
“No, she would go home. I fancy she (Charlotte) was wanted about the mince-pies. For my part, Mr Bingley, I always keep servants that can do their own work; my daughters are brought up differently.” – Mrs. Bennet, chapter 9
Here we see the connection between servants and financial status. Mrs. Bennet always wants to make her daughters more attractive to rich men, and by telling him about their servants, she lets Mr. Bingley know that they are a wealthy family who can afford servants. Charlotte comes from a family which is not as wealthy as the Bennets. They can’t provide a lot of servants, which is why Charlotte needs to help them in the household.
“Miss Bingley is to live with her brother and keep his house, (…)” – chapter 3
Mr. Bingley is still single, so he doesn’t have a wife to keep his house for him. As this was not the job of men at that time, he brought his sister with him so she can keep the house instead.
“How many letters you must have occasion to write in the course of a year! Letters of business, too! How odious I should think them!” – Miss Bingley, chapter 10
Mr. Darcy writes a lot of letters, including letters of business, which was a typical occupation for men at that time: keeping contact with business relations. Also, when we look at Jane Austen’s own life, before her brother Henry got sick, it wasn’t Jane who dealt with the correspondence with her publisher, it was her brother. As well as in Pride and Prejudice and as in Jane Austen’s own life, we can see the sharply defined gender roles.
“I hope, my dear, that you have ordered a good dinner today, because I have reason to expect an addition to our family party.” – Mr. Bennet, chapter 13
Mr. Bennet himself could also tell the servants to prepare a good dinner, but as the gender roles were so strictly defined at this time, he asks his wife to do this.
“The dinner too in its turn was highly admired; and he begged to know to which of his fair cousins the excellence of its cooking was owing. But here he was set right by Mrs Bennet, who assured him with some asperity that they were very well able to keep a good cook, and that her daughters had nothing to do in the kitchen.” – chapter 13