The Life and Times of Jane Austen.
realise that Pride and Prejudice is a challenging
book in some respects. Jane Austen's writing style is more wordy
than you'll be used to and sometimes you have to read a sentence
a couple of times to get what she means. Hopefully you are using
my annotated version of the book which will explain the trickier
sections and all those unfamiliar words. And of course you can
always phone me if you are really stuck!
However another challenge is that, as I have just been
describing, Jane Austen lived in times which are very different
to our own. In order to really appreciate and enjoy Pride
and Prejudice it helps to understand something of the
era in which it is set (the historical and social
context, in other words). The good news is that Jane Austen
was more concerned with the day to day lives of her characters
than she was with the wider political and social issues of her
day, so you don't need to read up on lots of social history.
Nevertheless, before you embark on the novel, it will be helpful
to read this section. You'll find it gives you enough background
information to enable you to enjoy the book and you might find
it interesting, too!
Why are there so many soldiers in Pride and Prejudice?
is set in the early 1800s when King George III was on the throne
and England was at war with Napoleon, the emperor of France. In Pride and Prejudice we hear very little about this
war - the authoress is more concerned with the impact of the
presence of soldiers on the fluttering hearts of young women
than on the battlefields in France! However it is important to
be aware that England was at war because this accounts for why
there were so many large groups of militia (or soldiers)
stationed in garrisons across the English countryside: they were
there to protect England from invasion. Regiments of soldiers
were, and indeed still are, named after the counties they
originate from. So there are the Royal Cheshires and the Shropshire Fusiliers, for example. For some reason, Jane
Austen doesn't seem to want to invent the name of regiments in
her novel, so she refers to the various groups of militia as the
Social structure in the early 1800s
social structure in Jane Austen's era was very different from
today's society. In broad terms, society in the late 1700s and
early 1800s consisted of two groups of people: a few fortunate
individuals who owned large estates, which had been in their
families for hundreds of years, and the people who worked for
them. These rich landowners were the aristocrats and were often
titled (Lord and Lady, and so on). These people would have been
immensely wealthy and would have led lives of leisure. They
often had several properties: a large estate, such as the one
pictured above, and a house in London where they would spend
extended periods of time enjoying the social events in town
('town' was how they referred to London).
Needless to say, these grand houses and vast estates needed huge
armies of servants, estate workers and farm labourers, each with
specialist skills, to keep them going. The people who worked on
these estates either lived in servant quarters at the large
houses or (usually in the case of farm workers) in cottages
which belonged to the estate. Life was hard for these workers in
many respects - there was no welfare state to protect them if
they became ill, for example - and their lives were subject to
rules and regulations imposed by the owner of the estate.
many centuries there were very few people who didn't belong to
one of these two social classes. The clergy stood apart, of
course, but most people belonged to one of these two social
groups. However as England extended her Empire and established
trade links with other countries, it was possible for merchants
to become quite wealthy by means of trade, importing goods from
the Far East, for example, and selling them here for a profit.
The picture on the left shows the London docks in the 1800s with
the sailing ships and huge warehouses which would have been used
to store the goods ready for import or export. This increase in
wealth gave rise to what we call the middle classes - a group of
people who did not belong to the aristocracy but who had
independent wealth and did not have to work as labourers or
servants. These intermediate classes were understandably very
proud of their achievements - when you read Pride and
Prejudice you will meet a few of them, such as Sir
William Lucas and Bingley's father - but the aristocracy often
looked down on these newcomers; they felt that their 'old money'
gave them a higher social status.
Austen's father wasn't a merchant, he was a clergyman;
nonetheless, she occupied the middle classes. This picture shows
the parsonage where she was born. It's a big house, but although
her father would had a good 'living' (which is the combination
of living quarters and salary which clergymen earned) the
Parsonage went with the job, and when the job went, so did the
Parsonage. This is the level of society Jane Austen knew and
understood, and this is where she places Elizabeth Bennet, the
heroine of Pride and Prejudice. The family are
reasonably comfortable, but, as in Jane Austen's own life, the
house is not securely owned by the family.
social structure was very rigid in the early 1800s and people
found it hard to rise up the social ladder; it wasn't enough
simply to be rich, you had to come from a wealthy and
aristocratic family ('have connections') and they didn't readily
admit newcomers. One of the ways in which people identified
social status and preserved their place in the hierarchy, was by
means of behaviour and manners. We will talk more about this in
later in the course, and there are extensive notes in the
annotated version of the book itself, but be aware that manners
mattered enormously in Jane Austen's day; as you read the book,
be on the lookout for ways in which people betray their social
roots by means of their behaviour and their manners!
Marriage and the importance of money
you first read the novel you might be puzzled by the attitudes
of some of the characters towards marriage. Why were they so
obsessed with marrying rich men? Why was it so very important?
as we have already discussed, the situation for women in the
early 1800s was very different to what it is today. We have seen
that they could work on farms and in big houses, but these jobs
were exhausting and their lives were subject to rigid control by
the landowner. For women in the upper classes, things were
obviously much easier and their family wealth meant that they
could marry rich (and hopefully attractive) men and continue to
lead leisurely lives. But for women in the middle (or genteel)
classes there were very few opportunities. They could become
governesses, as I have mentioned, but this meant they had to
live with the family and be, in effect, a servant. The only way
of making a life for yourself with any sort of comfort,
independence and freedom was by marrying a rich man!
that this was the case, when you come to read the book you might
find it extraordinary that Elizabeth Bennet turns down marriage
proposals from more than one wealthy man. This is a character
who is clearly determined to marry for love, not for money.
Surely women couldn't afford to be so choosy in real life? But
as I mentioned earlier, Jane Austen herself changed her mind
about at least one engagement, because she wasn't in love with
the man who proposed, and so maybe she was better qualified than
many 19th C women to write about what it meant to
want to marry for love. And in any case, when you consider that,
life offered so few choices for so many 19th C women,
it is perhaps understandable that they should hold out for the
ideal man in their imaginations, even if they could not do so in
life. In all Jane Austen's novels, true love and high principles
triumph in the end.
Why were letters so important?
characters in Pride and Prejudice frequently write
long letters to each other and this reflects the importance of
letter writing in the early part of the 19th Century
(how different the novel would have been if Elizabeth and her
sister could have sent each other a few texts!). Letter writing
was more significant in thse days because most people in England
couldn't read or write. In other words, letter writing was a
sign of an educated and intelligent correspondent. It was very
common for those who could write and had the leisure to do so,
to write at great length. We'll talk a bit more about letters
later, but they were so important that sometimes 18th
and 19th C novels consisted entirely of a series of
letters! (These are called epistolary novels which
literally means novels written in letter form.)
Letters are very important in Pride and
Prejudice, marking crucial turning points and revealing
important information about characters. When you read the book,
you should be on the lookout for these letter; note, too, how
different characters demonstrate different attitudes towards
letter writing. It's also worth remembering that the postal
service was much quicker and more dependable than it is today -
possibly because there were far fewer letters to be delivered!
Letters could be collected directly from people's homes, and it
was not uncommon for them to reach the recipient later the same
day. It's probably also stating the obvious, but as there were
no telephones, letters were the only means by which news could
travel from place to place.
Travel and Transport.
Travel was very difficult in the early part of the 19th
C. There were very few proper roads and the only way of
travelling any distance was by means of a horse-drawn carriage.
Because the roads were bumpy (they didn't have proper surfaces
like today's roads) travel was very uncomfortable.
the same way some people regard cars as a status symbol today,
carriages were a status symbol in the 19th C.
Carriages were very expensive to own and maintain and only very
rich people could afford one. The only alternative to
horse-drawn transport was walking. It is quite interesting that
Elizabeth Bennet enjoys walking so much (be on the lookout for
how those in the upper social classes regard her love of