What is a domestic novel? Is Pride and Prejudice a domestic novel?

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A Domestic Novel is a type of fiction that was prevalent in the early-to-mid-nineteenth century, and was primarily read by women. The Domestic Novel has certain defining characteristics, among which are:

  • Time period: domestic novels or domestic fiction generally date from the 1820s to the 1860s;
  • Focusing on a particular type of heroine; specifically, either the angel or the practical woman. This heroine is frequently contrasted with an incompetent or cowardly woman, or with an ignorant beauty;
  • The novel documents the heroine's struggle for self-mastery, particularly in relation to her emotions and desires; the heroine is seen as struggling to control her feelings and her wants;
  • She may undergo religious struggles in the submission of her emotions and wants;
  • She may suffer abuse by persons in positions of power;
  • She will usually be married by the time the story is ended, either to a "bad" man who the heroine's virtue has reformed, or to a paragon to whom she has aspired;
  • These novels are frequently couched in extremely sentimental language designed to wring the heartstrings of a female readership.

Pride and Prejudice does not meet these outlines for a few reasons, which I will elaborate in a moment. Instead, Austen has written Pride and Prejudice as a Novel of Manners. A novel of manners has the following characteristics:

  • Usually a story about social class;
  • A lot of attention is paid to the different ways the characters express themselves, and how their words are indicative of their class and good (or poor) "breeding," or upbringing;
  • The story is concerned with the manners, morals, and customs of various social classes, the conflict between those classes and customs, and the ways in which the characters succeed or fail in living up to their social roles.

In the story, the Bennett sisters are a group of genteel young women by social class, but with no fortune. They are brought into contact with their various social equals and "betters," such as Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and various members of the landed gentry, such as Mr. Darcy and his friend Bingley. As the story progresses, the girls, and Lizzy and Jane in particular, observe and react to the various characters and their successes or failings in the social roles which define them. Charlotte, for instance, is a success in her social role, according to this formula: although she marries the insipid and objectionable Mr. Collins, nevertheless in doing so she cements her social position and obtains a home and livelihood--and financial security. Lydia, on the other hand, fails miserably in her prescribed role and is too brazen to care: she elopes with the scandalous Mr. Wickham, living with him without benefit of marriage until Mr. Darcy steps in and pays Wickham's debts, thus clearing the way for Lydia and Wickham to marry. The mere fact of her marriage doesn't completely rehabilitate Lydia, however; her transgression against her social role is far too serious to be undone. Due to her actions, she is effectively banished, albeit with Wickham and his regiment, to the far north.

Pride and Prejudice was written somewhat earlier than the vogue of the domestic novel, and verges more on satire. While some of its themes blur at the edges, so to speak, with the domestic novel, it is more properly considered a novel of manners. As well, it is less sentimental than humorous, and the language is not couched in effusively emotional terms. The characters have their struggles, but their struggles are social in nature--rather than emotional suffering or a struggle to sublimate the will, for instance.

For an example of a domestic novel, see the works of Harriet Beecher Stowe.

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