What is the historical and/or cultural value of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice with respect to the time period in which it was written?

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Jane Austen was born and raised during the Industrial Revolution, which began in England between 1760 and 1785. Austen herself was born in 1775 and died during the Regency period, which spanned from 1811 to 1820. The Industrial Revolution refers to the time in which England transitioned from a mostly agricultural economy to a mostly manufacturing economy, a transition that created many social changes. One of those social changes was the emergence of the middle class. The new mass production methods of the Industrial Revolution allowed many of the merchants and shopkeepers, who prior to the Industrial Revolution were part of the poor lower class, to increase in wealth and rise in social class. Suddenly, many merchants and shopkeepers had as much money as the landed gentry, enough to purchase their own estates and rub shoulders with the landed gentry, thereby creating a brand new social class--the middle class. Austen witnessed that the rise in the middle class created brand new prejudices and brand new social problems. Austen uses her novel Pride and Prejudice to satirize these prejudices and social changes, showing us the historical and cultural value of the novel in the period in which it was written.

Austen uses such characters as the Bingleys and Bennets, as well as others, to reflect the social changes brought on by the Industrial Revolution. Early on in the novel, Austen makes a point of informing the readers that Mr. Bingley's fortune "had been acquired by trade," specifically through the business of his late father (Ch. 4). She further notes that Mr. Bingley's sisters have conveniently forgotten their fortune was earned by trade in favor of remembering that they are only very handsome women and of a "respectable family in the north," which makes them feel they have the right to look down their noses at others, even if other people are technically speaking of higher social rank than they are. For example, they snub the Bennets because, even though Mr. Bennet is a member of the landed gentry, a higher social class than the Bingleys are in, Mr. Bennet married a tradesman's daughter. Hence, Bingley's sisters conveniently forget that they are also daughters of a tradesman in order to snub Elizabeth and Jane, daughters of a gentleman. The Bingley sisters' treatment of others shows us the extent to which members of the new middle class developed their own ridiculous prejudices, all on account of their newly acquired wealth.

Not only did members of the new middle class develop their own prejudices, members of the landed gentry and aristocracy acted upon prejudices against the middle class. As members of the middle class acquired new wealth, they also began marrying members of the landed gentry and aristocracy, an act some in England's aristocracy found to be repulsive. Austen uses Lady Catherine de Bourgh to illustrate the aristocracy's reaction against members of the middle class and higher classes marrying, a reaction that was due to the aristocracy's prejudices.

When Lady Catherine finds out there is a possibility that her nephew, Mr. Darcy, will propose to Elizabeth, a gentleman's daughter with tradespeople connections, she promptly pays Elizabeth a visit to attempt to force Elizabeth to promise not to marry Mr Darcy should he ask. Austen satirizes the ridiculousness of Lady Catherine's prejudices against Elizabeth, as well as the prejudices of all the aristocracy, in Elizabeth's following response:

In marrying your nephew, I should not consider myself as quitting that sphere. He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman's daughter; so far we are equal. (Ch. 56)

Hence, all in all, Austen's novel is much more than just a love story. It's a social satire that draws moral conclusions about Austen's society relevant to Austen's historical culture and even still relevant today.