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Austen presents many layers of social status in each of her novels, and Emma and Pride and Prejudice are no exceptions. One of the most memorable representations of social status in Emma is where the newly wed Mrs. Elton declares that she will have precedence over Emma at dinner parties because she is a married woman and married women always take precedence. Precedence is the concept of giving social privilege to persons of higher social status. It literally refers to who precedes (goes in front of) whom at social functions or social ceremonies.
When Mrs. Elton refers to the fact that she, as a married woman, now has precedence, she is indicating that she has more privilege--and goes in to dinner first or opens the dancing at a ball--than Emma has and that Emma has to walk behind her at social events. This signifies that social status has such importance and runs so deeply that it even governs who gets to be seated or dance first ahead of whom:
A bride, you know, my dear, is always the first in company, let the others be who they may (Mr. Woodhouse).
Mrs. Elton, before she could be spoken to, was ready; and before Mr. Woodhouse had reached her with his request to be allowed to hand her into the dining-parlour, was saying—
"Must I go first? I really am ashamed of always leading the way." (Mrs. Elton)
Some other characters who show representations of social status are the Churchills at the highest end and the gypsies at the lowest end. Also represented is the social status of working people from Miss Taylor (Mrs. Weston) to Harriet and the Mrs. Goddard and farmer Robert Martin, with Jane Fairfax on the cusp between the world of privilege and work.
In Pride and Prejudice, one of the most distinct representations of social status is through the minor character Colonel Fitzwilliam. His remarks to Elizabeth about his social status are very telling (informative) of the the realities of the power and constraints of social status. Though the son of an earl, Fitzwilliam is forced by the realities of social status to look for a woman of high social class and wealth to marry.
Since, as a second son, he has no independent wealth of his own, he will fall from social status if he marries a woman who is similarly without wealth and independence. He is unwilling to even think of giving up his social status and therefore declines to even contemplate falling in love with the basically penniless Elizabeth, how ever great her charms may be.
"A younger son, you know, must ... in matters of greater weight ... suffer from want of money. Younger sons cannot marry where they like. ... Our habits of expense make us too dependent ... to marry without some attention to money." (Colonel Fitzwilliam)
Some other characters who show social status are Catherine de Bourgh and Darcy at the highest level and Collins, Charlotte Lucas, and Wickham at the lowest levels. The Bennets represent how social status can be lost by expending one's capital (the money in one's fortune that earns interest to be used for annual expenditures). The Bingleys represent how social status can climb to the heights through extremely successful working class successes, while the Gardiners represent how social status can be transcended through success combined with reasonableness and a rational turn of mind.
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