Pride & Prejudice
A literary analysis of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice on the gender roles in Regency England.
Gender roles & social life in Pride and Prejudice
“It is very likely that he may fall in love with one of them, and therefore you must visit him as soon as he comes. (…) Indeed you must go, for it will be impossible for us to visit him if you do not. (…) It will be no use to us, if twenty such should come, since you will not visit them.” – Mrs. Bennet, chapter 1
There seems to be no respectable way for the Bennet girls to meet Mr. Bingley until their father makes the first move. In Regency England, there was a strict etiquette to follow when making new acquaintances. When someone new came to live in the neighbourhood, a formal visit must have taken place before members of the families could socialise with one another.19 Women were indeed not allowed to pay these visits, this was done only by men. That is why Mrs. Bennet is almost begging her husband to visit Mr. Bingley because she wants her daughters to be introduced to him.
“At our time of life it is not so pleasant, I can tell you, to be making a new acquaintance every day; but for your sakes, we would do anything.” – Mrs. Bennet, chapter 2
For Mrs. Bennet, the most crucial motive to make new acquaintances is the opportunity to find a husband for her daughters. Having a large social circle was crucial, as this meant you would be invited more often to balls and other social events and have a better chance of finding a husband. Of course, acquaintances and attending social activities weren’t only crucial for marriage; they were, for instance, also a way for men to expand their business network.
Regency England places extreme value on one’s social standing. As finding someone to marry was very important for both men and women, attending balls was pivotal. It was a way to make unmarried daughters ‘seen’ and to get an opportunity to climb higher on the social ladder.
“(…) and the report which was in circulation within five minutes of his entrance, of his having ten thousand a-year.” – chapter 3
Jane Austen made sure that everyone in the neighbourhood of Meryton knew about each other. Mr. Darcy is one of the newcomers, and the fact that the report of his having ten thousand a-year was in circulation within five minutes, shows us that there was a lot of gossip at a ball. Mr. Darcy doesn’t feel like being introduced to ladies because he knows they heard how wealthy he is and he knows their intentions.
“Mr Darcy danced only with Mrs Hurst and once with Miss Bingley, declined being introduced to any other lady, and spent the rest of the evening in walking about the room, speaking occasionally to one of his own party.” – chapter 3
Soon Mr. Darcy got the reputation of being too proud and arrogant. At a ball, people were constantly watching each other, forming their opinions and prejudices about others and gossiping. Everyone in the neighbourhood who was present at the Meryton assembly ball, formed their opinions about Mr. Darcy, just from observing him at a ball.
“… there is one of her sisters sitting down just behind you, who is very pretty, and I dare say very agreeable. Do let me ask my partner to introduce you.” – Mr. Bingley, chapter 3
In Jane Austen’s time, there were strict rules at a ball. If you weren’t acquainted with someone, you had to be introduced by someone else before being able to speak or dance with him or her. Mr. Darcy doesn’t know Elizabeth yet and needs to be introduced to her if he would like to ask her for a dance. The other way around, let’s say you were a woman who lived in Regency England and you saw a very handsome man that you would like to dance with, you could ask someone – who already knows him – to be introduced, or you could ask the Master of Ceremonies to introduce you to him.21
“She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men.” – Mr. Darcy, chapter 3
Here, Mr. Darcy talks about Elizabeth, who was ‘obliged to sit down for two dances by the scarcity of men’. He takes this as if no men want to dance with her, so why would he? Elizabeth overhears this, and it hurts her feelings.
“… and Catherine and Lydia had been fortunate enough to be never without partners, which was all that they had yet learnt to care for at a ball.” – chapter 3
To avoid getting the reputation of being slighted by all men at a ball, it was essential to make sure that you danced as many dances as you could. Of course, it wasn’t a huge disaster if you didn’t have a dance partner for two dances, like Elizabeth. Still, if you are a young, unmarried lady, it was crucial to try to be never without dance partners, which is something that Kitty and Lydia did very well.
“To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love.” – chapter 3
These are Jane Austen’s own words, and it shows us the relation between dancing and love. Even though the dances were choreographed in a way that there was enough distance between the men and women, you were still closer than ever to the other sex while dancing. At a ball, there was room to experiment, make a lot of eye contact and to touch each other. Of course, there were a lot of rules, but dancing really was one of the keys towards falling in love.
“Jane was so admired, every body said how well she looked; and Mr Bingley thought her quite beautiful, and danced with her twice! (…) and she was the only creature in the room that he asked a second time.” – Mrs. Bennet, chapter 3
Even though there was room to have a good time with others at a ball, you were still constantly watched by your parents. Mrs. Bennet saw that Mr. Bingley danced twice with Jane; in Regency England, this meant that Mr. Bingley wanted to get to know Jane better. Two times was the maximum you were allowed to dance with the same partner, so he really liked her.22
Gender roles & marriage and love in 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.” – chapter 1
This is the very first sentence of Pride and Prejudice, and it immediately gives you a very good idea of the most important aspect to marriage: wealth and money. Of course, not only in Regency England it was desirable to marry a rich man: even my father told me multiple times: “If you want to be rich, Marinthe, marry a wealthy man.” However, marrying a rich man isn’t as important in our period as it used to be in Regency England, as most women were dependent of men for their wealth back then.
“A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a-year. What a fine thing for our girls!” – Mrs Bennet, chapter 1
Mrs. Bennet doesn’t even know what this man looks like, whether he is nice or not, and she already thinks that it’s a “fine thing” for her girls. This shows us that, in most cases, marriage wasn’t based on love, it was based on financial needs.
“If I can but see one of my daughters happily settled at Netherfield, and all the others equally well married, I shall have nothing to wish for.” – Mrs Bennet, chapter 3
Netherfield Park was the property of Mr Bingley, the “single man of large fortune” that Mrs. Bennet was talking about. Getting her daughters married is her ultimate goal in life, which is very understandable if you look at the circumstances of the era in which they lived. Most women were dependent of men, including Mrs. Bennet’s daughters, so getting married was essential.
“Has she been presented? I do not remember her name among the ladies at court.” – Mrs Bennet, chapter 14
Mrs. Bennet asks whether Anne de Bourgh has been presented at court. Only daughters from peers of the queen were invited to be presented at court. During the Regency era, she would then “make her curtsy to the Queen”, and be honoured with a large ball given by her family at their London residence. This ball was, of course, for the purpose of finding a wealthy husband.
“Having now a good house and very sufficient income, he intended to marry; and in seeking a reconciliation with the Longbourn family he had a wife in view, as he meant to chuse one of the daughters, if he found them as handsome and amiable as they were represented by common report. This was his plan of amends – of atonement – for inheriting their father’s estate; and he thought it an excellent one, full of eligibility and suitableness, and excessively generous and disinterested on his own part.” – chapter 15 (Mr Collins)
Mr. Collins was planning “to chuse one of the daughters”, to make up for the painful truth that he would inherit Mr. Bennet’s estate away from them. That way, the Longbourn Estate would stay in the family, which was very thoughtful and kind of him. However, none of the girls liked him; he was a bit boring, awkward and old-fashioned. Eventually, Mr. Collins chose Elizabeth to be his future wife, and during his offer of marriage, he “stated his reasons for marrying—and, moreover, for coming into Hertfordshire with the design of selecting a wife, as he certainly did.”:
“My reasons for marrying are, first, that I think it a right thing for every clergyman in easy circumstances (like myself) to set the example of matrimony in his parish; secondly, that I am convinced that it will add very greatly to my happiness; (…).” – Mr. Collins, chapter 19
Mr. Collins doesn’t want to marry with Elizabeth because they have such a good bond or because they love each other, he wants to marry her because that is the right thing to do as a clergyman, to set the example of matrimony in his parish. In this case, marriage is more related to status than to love. Marrying will also add greatly to his happiness, as in this period, a wife was expected to be the angel of the house.
“The fact is, that being, as I am, to inherit this estate after the death of your honoured father (who, however, may live many years longer), I could not satisfy myself without resolving to choose a wife from among his daughters, that the loss to them might be as little as possible, when the melancholy event takes place—which, however, as I have already said, may not be for several years. This has been my motive, my fair cousin, and I flatter myself it will not sink me in your esteem. “ – Mr. Collins, chapter 19
And of course, the other motive for Mr. Collins choosing Elizabeth to be his wife is because he will inherit Longbourn Estate after her father’s death, and by choosing a wife among Mr. Bennet’s daughters, the property would stay in their family. From this marriage proposal, which was one of the funniest parts in this novel, we learn that Mr. Collins (like many people at that time) didn’t intend to marry for love.
However, Elizabeth doesn’t love him and chooses love over the assurance of being well-married. After this rejection, even though she was very clear, Mr. Collins didn’t take no for an answer.
“Upon my word, sir,” cried Elizabeth, “your hope is a rather extraordinary one after my declaration. I do assure you that I am not one of those young ladies (if such young ladies there are) who are so daring as to risk their happiness on the chance of being asked a second time. I am perfectly serious in my refusal. You could not make me happy, and I am convinced that I am the last woman in the world who could make you so. Nay, were your friend Lady Catherine to know me, I am persuaded she would find me in every respect ill qualified for the situation.” – Elizabeth, chapter 19
In this part of the novel, we see that Elizabeth doesn’t want to marry without love. She is very honest to him that she would never be the one who could make him happy. At this time, most people married just to get married, for financial security, or to combine properties from two wealthy families. Jane Austen once had to make the same decision as Elizabeth: Harris Bigg-Whither proposed to her, but she didn’t love him. She had to choose between financial security or love.
Mr. Collins still didn’t take Elizabeth serious though, and then Austen writes this:
“To such perseverance in wilful self-deception Elizabeth would make no reply, and immediately and in silence withdrew; determined, if he persisted in considering her repeated refusals as flattering encouragement, to apply to her father, whose negative might be uttered in such a manner as to be decisive, and whose behaviour at least could not be mistaken for the affectation and coquetry of an elegant female.”- chapter 19
Elizabeth thinks about applying to her father, in the hope that if Mr. Collins hears it from a man, he will finally understand that Elizabeth really doesn’t want to marry him. I believe that in this sentence, we see Jane Austen’s criticism of the fact that men don’t seem to take women seriously.
“When she is secure of him, there will be leisure for falling in love as much as she chooses.” – Charlotte, chapter 6
This is the way Charlotte thinks about marriage. Charlotte is a girl who needs to marry for financial security. For her, to be secure of marriage is more important than to marry for love. Eventually, she marries Mr. Collins. Not because she loves him, just to be financially secured.
That was all for this part of my analysis 🙂 Let me know if you have any thoughts on this and if you also want to write for luvioni.com, you should read this article.