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The Regency period in England was a time when views of marriage were shifting. Within the middle and upper classes, arranged marriage was gradually being replaced by "companionate" marriage where love was taken into account. The social reality for women during this time was that it was almost impossible to survive without a man's care, so it was typical for a young woman to live in her father's house until she moved into her husband's. Women could not inherit or own property, and had very few opportunities to earn their own money.
Because of this social climate, the reality is that the five Bennet sisters do not have a choice about marriage--they must marry in order to secure their financial future. Their father's estate will be inherited by their male cousin, Mr. Collins. Austen addresses the social realities of the time and also satisfies the reader's desire for romance by having Jane and Elizabeth's suitors be rich but also dashing, attractive, and moral.
One of the social realities explored in this book, beyond the need for a woman to secure financial security through marriage, was the importance of reputation and adhering to social standards. When Lydia runs off with Wickham, the family is distraught not only because Lydia's reputation will be hurt, but also because the entire family will be wrapped up in her disgrace. Mary's comments on the subject adequately explain the feelings of the times:
Unhappy as the event must be for Lydia, we may draw from it this useful lesson: that loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable; that one false step involves her in endless ruin; that her reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful;
Mr. Collins' comments also show the seriousness of this breach of decency:
The death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison of this......had it been otherwise, I must have been involved in all your sorrow and disgrace.
When Lady Catherine comes to Elizabeth to try to scare her away from Darcy, she also uses Lydia's elopement as a serious strike against any alliance:
And is such a girl to be my nephew's sister? .... Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?"
At this time, a family could get by without riches, but it was impossible to get by without reputation.
Though love was certainly important, it was obvious that women were dependent upon men for financial stability and that marriage was often based more on finance and social status then love. Even the marriages that the young girls observed seemed to lack love. It demonstrates a desire for something more versus the realities of the time.
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