What are the themes about past progress in women's rights, status, and education in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

These are interesting points to consider, especially since there is some disagreement over at least one of the points in the trilogy of rights, status, education. In Austen's Pride and Prejudice, education plays a significant though secondary, subtextual role in the development of the subplots.

Austen presents the subtext of education from several perspectives. Lady de Bourgh emphasizes the importance of tutors, masters, and governesses. Mary dramatizes the folly of neglected of guidance. Lydia demonstrates the grand folly of altogether neglecting education of a higher order. There is also the subtext of the very language and cognition of the characters, the narrator, and, by extension, of Austen herself.

The language of most is elegant, exquisitely constructed (few today can attain such heights in conversation); the logical order of thought--even silly, idle, foolish thought--is complex. It seems logical to agree that there was more to an upper class female’s education, no matter how poorly regulated, than the learning of a few unimpressive needle work stitches--a skill that produced works of such quality that some that remain are displayed at museums like Peabody's in Massachusetts or sold at art galleries.

It is true that upper class females were educated at home instead of being sent to boarding school as their male counterparts were and that young women were denied university education and a pursuit of knowledge taught therein. The theme related to this is two-fold. First, there is serious moral and mental detriment done to women whose educations are neglected; Mrs. Bennet, Lydia, and Mary make this point; Collins shows the limits an unsound male mind imposes on education. Second, Darcy and Elizabeth share the same faults--pride and prejudice--therefore education neither prevented the one nor spared the other from the faults; thus Elizabeth's native mind is no less superior than Darcy's.

Status compares one individual against another and relates to the prestige of one over the other. Rights are historically give to those with prestige. Lady de Bourgh exemplifies status with prestige and rights. She has a high place in society. She has full rights including management her estate and the villagers who comprise the workforce. Also included is full legal and financial autonomy because she is a widow. She becomes Austen’s subtextual illustration that all women are competent to and merit this full status.

Mrs. Bennet represents the opposite. Though she has status, she has no rights of independent action nor understanding of those rights as shown by her confusion over the entail. Elizabeth and Charlotte exhibit a new attitude--they exert their sense of innate status by insisting upon their rights to act according to their rational thought. Charlotte insists upon marrying Collins to attain her desired goal: “marriage had always been [Charlotte's]  object; it was the only provision for well-educated young women of small fortune.” Elizabeth refuses Collins's offer and declines to be intimidated by Lady de Bourgh:

To Collins: “[To] accept [you] is absolutely impossible. My feelings ... forbid it. ... Do not consider me now as an elegant female, ... but as a rational creature.”

To Lady de Bourgh: “I should not consider myself as [being out of my] sphere. He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman's daughter; so far we are equal. ... I am not to be intimidated ....”