According to social historian Raymond Williams, Pride and Prejudice takes place during a historical/cultural period of transition--one might say of debate--from a cultural ideology of community to an ideology of independent individuals. In the former (community), duty to a community was the driving motivation and paramount determination of a man's or woman's worth and value. In the latter (individualism), individual happiness was the driving motivation even if worth is sacrificed (thus Elizabeth's censure of Charlotte's choice). This transition is most shown through Dary and de Bourgh on the side of community duty and through Wickham, the Bingley sisters, and Elizabeth on the side of individualistic happiness, though Elizabeth insures Aunt Gardiner she will pursue happiness with a reasonable restraint in regards to marriage and love.
"I will not be in a hurry to believe myself his first object. When I am in company with him, I will not be wishing." (Ch. 26)
Marriage and love were significant in Austen's world. Men's and women's lives of independence and power began with marriage: for men, that they might have enough status and wealth through a woman's family connections and private wealth; for women, that they might have their own lives outside their father's homes and their own social power, status and wealth. De Bourgh had this power as would the mistress of Pemberley.
When Austen was writing [which significantly was the late 1700s (18th century) though she first published in 1812 (19th century)], government was centered in agrarian communities. As Raymond explains, local government of aristocracy (gentry: Darcy; nobles: Lady de Bourgh) held governing power. "Parliaments composed of men and elected by men" did not develop until the full sway of the "commercial and political revolutions" (Raymond) permanently changed the cultural and social landscape as communities and aristocratic families were both broken up.
During this period, power still lay with the agrarian structure of a governing aristocracy: status and reputation were acquired through governance. Women also had agrarian governing power like de Bourgh's: her position of wealth and local power had been protected by laws of settlement so she was the sole family representative of aristocratic governance. Elizabeth, as the wife of Darcy and mistress of Pemberley would come to equal de Bourgh for local power on her estate.
Elizabeth was delighted. She [...] felt that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!
In this period, the issue of the era was not personal relationships but personal conduct, as Raymond states. Elizabeth, while in pursuit of personal happiness, is continually commenting on individuals' personal conduct. Personal conduct has a direct relationship to status and reputation and can be significantly influenced by wealth and money though they certainly are not the sole province of wealth and money (poorer individuals were equally concerned with reputation and status among their own classes).
Darcy and Wickham are good illustrations of this. Wealthy Darcy is scrupulous in his preservation of his reputation and keenly aware of his status, thus he both cares for inhabitants of Pemberley and honors his father's wishes regarding Wickham. In a moment of speculation, it may possibly said that Wickham would have maintained his reputation had he had enough wealth to cover his debts!
on his quitting Derbyshire, [Wickham] had left many debts behind him ....