As we start reading this excellent novel, it is important to remember that we are entering a world as seen from the perspective of women, and in which women lead extremely limited lives. This is signalled from the beginning in the first chapter by reference to the character of Mrs. Bennet and her reason for living, which is of course to marry her daughters well:
She was a woman of mean understanding, little informatoin, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.
The reality is that for women of this time, if you lacked a rich father, the only option open to you was to marry, and to marry well, preferably, so that you could gain yourself a position of independence and prestige. Of course, for the Bennets, this position is made more perilous by the way in which the property is entailed away from them to the nearest male relative, making the desperation of Mrs. Bennet to marry off her children even more acute.
A good example that could be used to talk about the lack of choices that women faced at this time would be the fate of Mary, the rather stern and studious Bennet sister, whos fate is presented to us in Chapter 61:
Mary was the only daughter who remained at home; and she was necessarily drawn from the pursuit of accomplishments by Mrs. Bennet's being quite unable to sit alone. Mary was obliged to mix more with the world, but she could still moralise over every morning visit; and as she was no longer mortified by comparisons between her sisters' beauty and her own, it was suspected by her father that she submitted to the change without much reluctance.
The fate of Mary highlights the lack of choices that women faced, and also gives us a new understanding of why Charlotte Lucas was so desperate to marry even such a man as Mr. Collins. If you didn't marry as a woman, you lost all chance of gaining indepdence. You would become the carer of your mother and you would be a financial burden on the rest of your family. Freedom and independence, such as these were, could only be experienced through marriage and through the gaining of your own household that you could be responsible for.