Why is Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice considered the best example of the novels of manners?
England has a history of extreme class consciousness that permeates its society. Not a caste system like that in the former British colony of India, but social segregation of the masses has a long and undistinguished tradition that provided the basis for much great English-language literature, including Charles Dickens, E.M. Forster, and the subject of this particular essay, Jane Austen. The latter’s Pride and Prejudice is considered the seminal dissection of social customs and prejudices born of this culture of class consciousness and of the rigidness that characterized the Victorian era. George Bernard Shaw would earn a living satirizing it, as would Oscar Wilde, but the so-called “novel of manners” emerged as a genre for its astute depiction of these upper-class societies and their condescending attitudes towards the lower echelons of society. Pride and Prejudice, as the title and theme suggest, is both well-written and scathingly accurate in its depiction of the social dynamics that define a novel of manner.
Proper social etiquette and manners were integral components of the aristocratic culture Austen depicts in Pride and Prejudice. Much of the dialogue revolves around issues of social etiquette and class distinctions. In Chapter 5, Mrs. Bennett and Charlotte Lucas discuss the previous evening’s formal ball, at which introductions are officially made and individuals are provided the opportunity to observe each other in a proper social setting. As much of Austen’s plot revolves around discussions regarding arranged marriages and machinations designed to affect optimal marital outcomes, Mrs. Bennett’s obsession with seeing her daughters married-off to proper gentlemen of means provides the basis for much of her interaction with others, as in the following passage:
"You began the evening well, Charlotte," said Mrs. Bennet with civil self-command to Miss Lucas. "You were Mr. Bingley's first choice."
"Yes; but he seemed to like his second better."
"Oh! You mean Jane, I suppose, because he danced with her twice. To be sure that did seem as if he admired her—indeed I rather believe he did—I heard something about it—but I hardly know what—something about Mr. Robinson."
The women in Austen’s novel view human interactions among social sets the way intelligence analysts view bits of information carefully, even surreptitiously gleaned about foreign governments. Every detail is scrutinized for meaning, and social etiquette is a vital indicator of an individual’s suitableness for marriage. In Chapter 11, Miss Bingley and Elizabeth are similarly engaged in a conversation the nature of which could just as easily be applied to planning of a covert operation. Miss Bingley is determined to engage Darcy’s attentions towards Elizabeth, towards which end she suggests Elizabeth stroll across the room. Darcy does, indeed, look up, but soon returns to his book and his air of disinterest regarding the environment around him, prompting Bingley to inquire as to his motives in ignoring the women:
"I have not the smallest objection to explaining them," said he, as soon as she allowed him to speak. "You either choose this method of passing the evening because you are in each other's confidence, and have secret affairs to discuss, or because you are conscious that your figures appear to the greatest advantage in walking; if the first, I would be completely in your way, and if the second, I can admire you much better as I sit by the fire." "Oh! shocking!" cried Miss Bingley. "I never heard anything so abominable. How shall we punish him for such a speech?"
"Nothing so easy, if you have but the inclination," said Elizabeth. "We can all plague and punish one another. Tease him—laugh at him. Intimate as you are, you must know how it is to be done."
"But upon my honour, I do not. I do assure you that my intimacy has not yet taught me that.”
Darcy’s comments provide the textbook explanation for how one properly conducts oneself within the context of this specific situation. It is, as Austen no doubt intended, the definitive example of manners and the stultifying effect they can have on even the most mundane of social interactions. That Austen has shaped her entire novel around this phenomenon, and done so brilliantly, is what makes Pride and Prejudice the enduring example of a novel of manners.