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What is interesting about literary criticism is that while her contemporaries criticized Austen for not raising social or class issues, we look back through the folds of time and discover in her minutely detailed depictions issues of upper class life and determine this was her intent in writing. None of her extant letters indicate that Austen's concern as a novelist was to do more than tell a good story about the lives of good characters in the social sphere(s) that she was part of. Nonetheless, it is a benefit to us that we can learn so much about English upper class society through her images painted, as it were, with "so fine a brush" on a piece of ivory:
the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces so little effect after so much labour (Jane Austen, Letters)
Make no mistake, the Bennet family is upper class. They are not middle class. Their class is part of the reason that the Bingley ladies (Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst) make such a fuss about Mrs. Bennet's brother who is a tradesman and part of the middle class. Mr. Bennet himself is upper class. He married Mrs. Bennet nee Gardiner and thus elevated her to the upper class with him: he married beneath his own class. Thus anyone who marries the Bennet girls has a middle class connection to contend with through Mrs. Bennet, although the connection to Mr. Gardiner and wife is not so much of a contention (although sister Phelps of Meryton might still a bit of a problem ...).
In Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England, author Kristine Hughes offers a document from England 1814-15 (122) that delineates the classes as contemporaneous persons knew them. According to this document, there were two upper classes recognized. The uppermost consisted of nobility from royals to "peers above a baronet" ("Map of English Society" 122). The second tier upper class consists of "baronets, knights [Sir Lucas], country gentlemen [Bennet, Darcy], others with large income [Darcy, Bingley]." The Gardiners are third class, "merchants on a large scale," and Collins is fourth class, "lesser clergy," but rising to third class "clergy" through de Bourgh's patronage (thus Charlotte did not marry too far beneath her level).
One way Austen's novel raises class issues is by creating characters that represent these various connections, such as the Gardiner/Bennet connection. Another way is by creating characters that rise to classes above their own through monetary gain. One such is the Bingleys' father. He was, like Gardiner, a tradesman. He made a fortune in trade and thus, by virtue of great wealth, left the middle class (with its income related component) and entered the upper class (with its income related component): "others with large income."
Another way is through the loss of wealth caused by Mr. and Mrs. Bennet's misspent fortune while they expected in vain the birth of a son who would break the entail and preserve the Bennet estate to their own line. This lost wealth threatens to force their daughters to marry beneath their upper class level, an option Elizabeth soundly rejects along with Mr. Collins.
When first Mr. Bennet had married, economy was held to be perfectly useless, for, of course, they were to have a son. The son was to join in cutting off the entail, ... and the widow and younger children would by that means be provided for.
Since they have lost wealth, Lady de Bourgh is inclined to think even less of Elizabeth than otherwise (even if Miss de Bourgh weren't a rival), while Elizabeth unhesitatingly reminds Lady de Bourgh that she and Darcy are the daughter and son of gentlemen and equals in the upper class. Collins, when he inherits the Bennet estate through the entail, will himself rise to the upper class by virtue of an estate property and the wealth he can accrue from it. These are some ways that Austen cleverly intertwines class realities into her novel (drawn, of course, from her own experience) through which we can discover and understand class issues.
"For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?” Jane Austen writes in her classic novel Pride and Prejudice. The issue of social class is a major theme and fundamental underpinning of virtually everything else in this novel, set as it is in England during what is sometimes called the Regency period. This was a time characterized by rigid, unyielding lines drawn between social classes and a general disrespect for classes below,. This social construct will become particularly noteworthy when examined in light of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth's interactions. Closely tied to the boundaries separating the English upper class from everyone else is the issue of a woman's reputation, which is more than a little important to one's social standing. Although reputation will not catapult one from the middle class into the upper, a lapse in judgement or perceived error in behavior can certainly send one spiraling out of the upper class into the lowest echelons of British society. This is exactly what nearly happens to Elizabeth's flighty sister, who runs off with Wickham, compromising the family's reputation even as she cements her own. While something so simple as arriving at Netherfield with muddy skirts results in raised eyebrows and derisive comments directed toward Elizabeth, who had the audacity to walk there.
Austen develops characters in a way that allows exploring these restrictions. For example, Darcy, who will turn out to be a nice guy, makes no secret of his pride in his family line. Mr. Collins is a bit of comic relief as he runs circles around his patron, Mrs. De Bourgh, and Wickham, who turns out to be a miserable wretch, would likely sell his soul to the devil if it would bring him social advancement. Even the issue of marriage does not escape the confines of the social hierarchy, as a woman's chief need in life was to convince a man of means that she is worthy to be his "good match."
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