IGCSE English Courses

for home educators by Catherine Mooney

 
 

 

IGCSE English Literature Course Sample

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The Life and Times of Jane Austen.

I 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?

 

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 ---shires.

 

Social structure in the early 1800s

The 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.

For 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.

Jane 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. 

 The 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

When 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?

Well, 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!

Given 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?

The 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.

In 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 walking!)...

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