In "Pride and Prejudice," how does the owning of an estate affect the moral status of the owners?
"Pride and Prejudice" faithfully reflects the social realities of the Regency Period (1811-20) when ownership of land conferred high social prestige and status. In Ch.3 the hero of the novel, Darcy is introduced as a man with a large estate with an annual income of 10,000 pounds a year. However, in the next chapter we read that Bingley his closest friend, has
"inherited property to the amount of nearly an hundred thousand pounds from his father, who had intended to purchase an estate, but did not live to do it. --Bingley intended it likewise, and sometimes made choice of his county; but as he was now provided with a good house and the liberty of a manor, it was doubtful to many of those who best knew the easiness of his temper, whether he might not spend the remainder of his days at Netherfield and leave the next generation to purchase."
From the above quoted passage we realize the importance of ownership of land as an indicator of social status and prestige. Bingley's father who had become rich and wealthy by trade wished to move up the social ladder by purchasing a large estate and becoming a member of the landed gentry, but unfortunately he died before he could purchase an estate. Bingley himself was too easy going to take the trouble of purchasing an estate. However, most significantly at the end of the novel in Ch.61 we read that Bingley has finally bought an estate and is now a member of the landed gentry:
"The darling wish of his sisters was then gratified; he [Bingley] bought an estate in a neighbouring county to Derbyshire and Jane and Elizabeth in addition to every other source of happiness, were within thirty miles of each other."
The contrasting lifestyle of different social groups is structurally central to a Jane Austen novel. In "Pride and Prejudice" the landed gentry represented by Darcy is contrasted with the newly rich trading class represented by Bingley.
In Ch.33 Col Fitzwilliam Darcy the younger son of an earl and obviously a very rich man hints to Elizabeth that he can't marry her: "Our habits of expense make us too dependent, and there are not many in my rank of life who can afford to marrywithout some attention to money." Was he being prudent or avaricious in not marrying Elizabeth? Jane Austen leaves it to the readers to decide. Col.Fitzwilliam Darcy will not inherit the estate of his father because he is only the second son of an earl. His father's estate will be inherited by his elder brother. So although he does not own an estate we tend to think negatively of him as being selfish in not proposing marriage to Elizabeth.
On the contrary, Darcy also a very rich man overlooks Elizabeth's impoverished financial status and goes out of the way to ensure that Wickham marries Lydia so that the Bennet's family honour is intact. His love for her compels him to virtually bribe Wickham his worst enemy into doing so. This clearly establishes that he is a noble and generous person and Elizabeth readily accepts his second marriage proposal in Ch.58.
Darcy who is the owner of a large estate and a distinguished member of the landed gentry first strikes us a very proud and arrogant manner. But Jane Austen makes it clear to us that he has a right to be proud. In the course of the novel especially after Elizabeth's rejection of his marriage proposal in Ch.34 he is gradually cured of his pride is rehabilitated enough to be accepted by her when he proposes to her the second time. So the moral status of the character is independent of his owning an estate.