Illustration of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy with neutral expressions on their faces

Pride and Prejudice

by Jane Austen

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What is the importance of social class in Pride and Prejudice? Are there types of social class?

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Class is a persistent subtext in the novel, and Austen is keen on linking money and marriage in the many relationships. Class in England is far more than wealth, and the markers of class suggest power and privilege. Indeed, Elizabeth's claim that she is of equal class to Darcy is a point she insists on in her argument with Lady Catherine. Her unwillingness to be intimidated by Darcy or Lady Catherine does speak to her sense of social value, despite her relative poverty. The perceived slight Darcy makes toward her both at the dance and in his proposal is wounding because it speaks to the limitations a perceived member outside the gentry would face as a marriage prospect. Even Mr. Collins cushions his proposal in terms of Elizabeth's assumed desire to make a match that allows her to maintain or improve her class.

A word on how readers of the day might parse out the different types of class is as follows:

Lady Catherine holds a title, as the daughter of an Earl. Darcy's mother would also then have been daughter to this same Earl, making his maternal grandfather among the peers of England, or the upper class. His father, however, was not so titled but belonged to the landed gentry. Darcy's father "married up" in class, but Darcy does not inherit his mother's title. Elizabeth's father "married down" in class, but while there is a difference in wealth between Mr. Bennet and Mr. Darcy, they belong to the same class.

Mr. Collins, while seemingly of the same status as Mr. Bennet, will become landed gentry when he inherits Longbourn, though his status as a vicar puts himself among those who practice a gentlemanly profession, of which the law, the clergy, medicine, and the military were the four allowed.

Charlotte's father, however, is a knight, though his title is not one of inheritance, even if he had a son to give it to. Because Sir William made his money in trade but was rewarded his knighthood for service as a mayor, Charlotte is marrying up in accepting Mr. Collins. She gains not only the security of avoiding spinsterhood and financial comfort but also a status upgrade. Mr. Gardiner also works for his living as a lawyer. In Regency England, working for a living is not something the upper or noble class would do. Mr. Darcy's deference to him at the end of the novel is meant to show his appreciation of character more than class.

Mr Bingley and his sisters are wealthy but the children of a man in trade. Caroline's eagerness for Charles to buy an estate is based on her desire to slough off her family's status as people of trade and to join the landed gentry. Technically, that suggests that he will become a social equal to Jane Bennet, though her poverty and her inability to inherit land would never place her above the Bingleys.

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Society in Regency England was very hierarchical, divided up into discrete classes...

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where everyone was expected to know their place. Status was all-important, especially in those rural parts of the country depicted inPride and Prejudice. Although England was going through a process of rapid industrialization at the time, landed wealth was still considered more respectable than that derived from commerce or industry. That explains why Caroline Bingley, for example, is so snobbish about Elizabeth Bennet's uncle who lives in Cheapside, an unfashionable part of London.

Initially, Darcy is also infected with the virus of social snobbery. He openly admits to his deep regard for "sweet" Lizzie, yet feels unable to act on his emotions due to the Bennets' social status and "low connections." To be sure, the Bennets are perfectly respectable, and Mr. Bennet would certainly be described as a gentleman. But they are still some way beneath the Darcys and Bingleys of this world in the social pecking order. The Bennets' relative, the oily Mr. Collins, understands this all too well, which is why he's forever trying to ingratiate himself with Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

Yet it is ultimately love that prevails over the inherited prejudices of social class. In that sense, Lady Catherine and her fawning acolyte Mr. Collins are out of step. Though there's little doubt that Jane Austen believes quite firmly in the values of a hierarchical society, she also recognizes that the boundaries between the classes shouldn't be drawn quite so rigidly.

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Social class is highly important in Pride and Prejudice, as it was in the society Austen was depicting. English society in the early 19th century was hierarchical, rather than equalitarian, meaning people's place in society was determined by who their parents were. Strict rules of etiquette governed interactions between individuals of different social classes. For example, nobody of a lower social class was supposed to introduce themselves to someone of a higher class unless spoken to first, which is why it is embarrassing when Mr. Collins introduces himself to Mr. Darcy.

At the top of the hierarchy were royalty and below them the landed aristocrats. Mr. Darcy was a landed aristocrat: he had inherited a vast estate from his father and rented out most of the land, then lived on the rents. The chief mark of a gentleman was not having to work for a living. Mr. Darcy was at the top of the social hierarchy in Pride and Prejudice. Lady Catherine, Mr. Collins's patroness, was also a landed aristocrat.

The Bingleys represented a new kind of wealth rising in England. We are told Mr. Bingley's father was a tradesman who made a fortune in the north. Most likely, he owned a cotton mill and was part of the industrial revolution that was rapidly raising England to the premier world power. But because he worked for a living, no matter how wealthy he was, he ranked below a leisured gentleman like Darcy. However, he had the money to set up his son, Mr. Bingley, as a gentleman of leisure with a large allowance, and his daughters as ladies. We can understand some of Miss Bingley's urgent desire to marry Mr. Darcy if we see it as a way of helping her family climb into the aristocracy: no matter how wealthy they were, they were stained by coming from trade. 

The Bennets were landed gentry: they had an estate big enough to take guests hunting, and they derived a comfortable living from the rents on the estate, but they were not wealthy aristocrats with titles: they were not lords and ladies. Therefore, they ranked below people like Darcy and Lady Catherine on the social scale.

Clergymen like Mr. Collins were considered gentlemen and included in the upper classes: as we see, Mr. Collins spends much time visiting Lady Catherine. But because they did not have landed wealth, they were lower on the social scale than a lord or lady.

We see much jockeying for social position in Pride andPrejudice. Lady Catherine, for example, is furious at the idea that Elizabeth would dare to think she could marry Mr. Darcy.

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