Historical Context

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Last Reviewed on June 3, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 335

Publication History, Reception, and Legacy

Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice was first published in 1813. It was Austen’s second published novel, following the success of her debut novel, Sense and Sensibility. Pride and Prejudice was well received by the public, receiving three positive reviews within its first month in circulation. It became a fashionable novel amongst the public and cemented Austen’s reputation as a writer, though none of her novels were initially published directly under her name. Writing was not considered a suitable profession for a woman, so Austen’s first novel was published “by a Lady.” Each subsequent novel obliquely credited Austen in reference to her other texts. Pride and Prejudice was published by “the author of Sense and Sensibility.”

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Pride and Prejudice has gone on to become one of the most popular and beloved English-language novels of all time. It remains a topic of literary criticism, and it is a mainstay in English curricula. While some critics feel that the fairytale-like quality of the ending lacks realism, others praise the novel’s proto-feminist discourse around women’s education and financial dependence. Austen’s writing style has been frequently and widely emulated. She is often credited with the popularization of free indirect discourse, a literary technique that is ubiquitous in today’s fiction.

First Draft and Title

Though the exact dates are unknown, Austen began work on the manuscript that would later become Pride and Prejudice in the 1790s. It was originally titled First Impressions but was later renamed to reduce potential confusion with other works of the same name. The title is most likely an allusion to Frances Burney’s novel of manners, Cecilia, which Austen referenced in other works as well. It is commonly speculated that the initial draft of First Impressions was an epistolary novel, or a novel comprised of letters and documents rather than exposition. Scholars cite the number of letters that appear in Pride and Prejudice—as well as their bearing on the plot—as evidence of this theory.

Background

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Jane Austen's England

Jane Austen's major novels, including Pride and Prejudice, were all composed within a short period of about twenty years. Those twenty years (1795-1815) also mark a period in history when England was at the height of its power. England stood as the bulwark against French revolutionary extremism and against Napoleonic imperialism. The dates Austen was writing almost exactly coincide with the great English military victories over Napoleon and the French: the Battle of the Nile, in which Admiral Nelson crippled the French Mediterranean fleet, and the battle of Waterloo, in which Lord Wellington and his German allies defeated Napoleon decisively and sent him into exile. However, so secure in their righteousness were the English middle and upper classes—the "landed gentry" featured in Austen's works—that these historical events impact Pride and Prejudice very little.

The French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars

The period from 1789 to 1799 marks the time of the French Revolution, while the period from 1799 to 1815 marks the ascendancy of Napoleon— periods of almost constant social change and upheaval. In England, the same periods were times of conservative reaction, in which society changed very little. The British government, led by Prime Minister William Pitt, maintained a strict control over any ideas or opinions that seemed to support the revolution in France. Pitt's government suspended the right of habeas corpus, giving themselves the power to imprison people for an indefinite time without trial. It also passed laws against public criticism of government policies, and suppressed working-class trade unions. At the same time, the Industrial Revolution permanently changed the British economy. It provided the money Pitt's government needed to oppose Napoleon. At the same time, it also created a large wealthy class and an even larger middle class. These are the people that Jane Austen depicts in Pride and Prejudice, the "landed gentry" who have earned their property, not by inheriting it from their aristocratic ancestors, but by purchasing it with their new wealth. They have few of the manners and graces of the aristocracy and, like the Collinses in Pride and Prejudice, are primarily concerned with their own futures in their own little worlds.

Unlike other Romantic-era writers, such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge Austen's works are very little impacted by the French Revolution and revolutionary rhetoric. Members of Austen's own family served in the war against Bonaparte and the French; two of her brothers became admirals in the Royal Navy. The only hint of war and military behavior in Pride and Prejudice, however, lies in the continued presence of the British soldiers in Meryton, near the Bennet estate at Longbourn. The soldiers include George Wickham, who later elopes with Lydia Bennet, disgracing the family. In the world of Pride and Prejudice, the soldiers are present only to give the younger Bennet daughters men in uniforms to chase after. Their world is limited to their own home, those of their friends and neighbors, a few major resort towns, and, far off, the city of London. There is no hint of the revolutionary affairs going on just across the English Channel in France.

English Regency Society

On the other hand, contemporary English society is a preoccupation of Pride and Prejudice. At the time the novel was published, King George III had been struck down by the periodic madness (now suspected to be caused by the metabolic disease porphyria) that plagued his final years. The powers he was no longer capable of using were placed in the hands of his son the Prince Regent, later George IV. The Prince Regent was widely known as a man of dissolute morals, and his example was followed by many of society's leading figures. Young men regularly went to universities not to learn, but to see and be seen, to drink, gamble, race horses, and spend money. Perhaps the greatest example of this type in Pride and Prejudice is the unprincipled George Wickham, who seduces sixteen-year-old Lydia Bennet. Lydia for her part also participates willingly in Regency culture; her thoughts are not for her family's disgrace, but about the handsomeness of her husband and the jealousy of her sisters.

Most "respectable" middle- and upper-class figures, such as Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, strongly disapproved of the immorality of Regency culture. But they did participate in the fashions of the time, influenced by French styles (even though France was at war with England). During the period of the Directory and the Consulate in France (from 1794-1804), styles were influenced by the costumes of the Roman Republic. The elaborate hairstyles and dresses that had characterized the French aristocracy before the Revolution were discarded for simpler costumes. Women, including Elizabeth Bennet, would have worn a simple dress that resembled a modern nightgown. Loose and flowing, it was secured by a ribbon tied just below the breasts. Darcy for his part would have worn a civilian costume of tight breeches, a ruffled shirt with a carefully folded neckcloth, and a high-collared jacket. Even though these costumes were in part a reaction to the excesses of early eighteenth-century dress, they became themselves quite elaborate as the century progressed, sparked by the Prince Regent himself and his friend, the impeccable dresser Beau Brummel. Brummel's mystique, known as "dandyism," expressed in clothing the same idleness and effortless command of a situation that characterizes many of Austen's heroes and heroines.

Social Concerns

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The famous first sentence of this novel, "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife," announces immediately that this, like other novels of Jane Austen, centers on marriage for its value as plot and as a central, civilizing social institution—whatever the limitations it suffers in the hands of the vulnerable, the superficial, or the incurably selfish. The most important marriage effected in the course of the book is that between Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, but other marriages are measured against this one to show that not all of them are made in heaven, and many are market driven. There are those between: Elizabeth's sister Jane Bennet and Charles Bingley (cordial but between simpler personalities); Charlotte Lucas and Mr. William Collins (classifiable as grim compromise); and Lydia Bennet and the gold-digging George Wickham (wholly exploitive and granted a veneer of social acceptability only because it is subsidized by Darcy; the fact that Wickham has severely damaged Darcy's sister Georgiana in an attempt to gain a financial foothold through marriage further undercuts our sense of this already tenuous union). These lesser marriages define by contrast what the ideal marital relationship should be: a union between equals whose characters grow and develop as they overcome human problems, roughly designated in the case of Darcy and Elizabeth as his pride and her prejudice.

Even in this quasi-ideal marriage, however, economic reality and social snobbism play a large role. Darcy's awareness of the modest income of the Bennets and their lack of urbane polish (especially Mrs. Bennet's gauche manners) checks his natural affection for Elizabeth at the beginning, and lurking in the background are Lady Catherine De Bourgh's reservations about the entire family, and her designs on Darcy as a husband for her own sickly daughter. Such obstacles test the mettle of Darcy's and Elizabeth's commitment to each other and underscore the necessity of basing human relationships on something beyond social mechanisms and raw greed. Here, as in Austen's other novels, we measure the characters by the degree to which they subdue mere self-interest with courage and love.

That the characters' quest for happiness and place occurs in an imperfect world is a fact perpetually kept in view by Austen's ironic view of her own society. Money is usually unfairly distributed and unearned; only "the little people" work for a living. In the milieu of Jane Austen's novels, the busiest chief characters are those involved as clergy or military personnel. The only women who work—at anything other than volunteer jobs—are servants. However, while men can better their social positions through a clerical or military career, marriage is the only way for a woman to do so. That reality softens our view of Charlotte Lucas's unromantic pursuit of the unattractive and sanctimonious Mr. Collins. While the social system is unfair, it nevertheless presents opportunities for the magnanimous to override the mechanism of class distinction; Darcy does this by buttressing the Lydia Wickham union with money, and by being kind to his own servants. Wickham himself is an example of the backfiring of the trust and solicitude that the Darcy family has had for his own father, the Darcys' steward.

The Bennet family's immediate economic plight is that their estate, Longbourn, with its income of two thousand pounds per year is entailed to Mr. Collins, and if their daughters (for they have only daughters) do not marry well, upon Mr. Bennet's death, the woman stand a good chance of becoming homeless, or at least made uncomfortable. Although we may cringe at Mrs. Bennet's blatant husband hunting, she is at least engaged in some effort on behalf of her family. Her effort must be measured against the behavior of those like Wickham, who even when given a chance by a beneficent employer, squanders the money and the opportunity, and finally exploits women to see that his supply of money is not cut off.

Furthermore, in Austen's social world, not all money is the same. Lady Catherine and Darcy are landed gentry, the most socially acceptable of the wealthy characters. The Bingleys use old family roots to disguise the origin of their income of twenty thousand pounds from trade, and Lady Catherine De Bourgh stigmatizes the Bennet's in-laws, the Gardiners, for having amassed their considerable wealth through trade. Edward Gardiner is Mrs. Bennet's brother, but his manners are superior to hers, and Darcy grows to appreciate the Gardiners; cultivated behavior goes a long way toward softening the attitude of even the snobbiest characters toward the stigma of possessing earned rather than bestowed income.

Additional Commentary

Pride and Prejudice contains no violent or explicit scenes and adults should feel comfortable that it is appropriate for young readers. Nevertheless, the novel does present as "normal" certain attitudes that few readers share today. The class system imposes unwritten rules on who may marry or socialize with whom. Young readers may profit from learning about other manifestations of class discrimination: injustice, social unrest, and the levelling of aspirations.

Also, the novel does not question or challenge the inferior position allotted to women in early nineteenth-century country life. Mr. Bennet's daughters cannot inherit his property, and they receive less schooling than do males of the landed gentry. Twenty-seven-year-olds such as Charlotte Lucas marry lesser men for fear of wearing the label "spinster" at thirty. Women cannot work and thus are economically dependent upon men. For women, "success" is defined solely in terms of marriage and domestic affairs—in short, in terms of what they provide for men. But even in the home—Mr. Bennet's weakness notwithstanding—the father controls the money and holds ultimate authority. That Elizabeth is even considered "rebellious" is one measure of the restriction of women; her actions surely would not earn her that label today.

Teachers and other adults may find it helpful to discuss gender roles and sex discrimination with young readers. While Elizabeth has been called a pioneer for sexual equality (she tells Mrs. Gardiner that she will marry Wickham or whomever else she pleases), she does in fact take rather nicely to her appointed role in the end.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 1810s: Europe is submerged in warfare throughout most of the decade by the struggle against the ambitions of Napoleon Bonaparte to unite the continent under French rule. Two of Austen's brothers, Frank and Charles, entered the British Navy and fought in the Napoleonic Wars.

    Today: For the first time since the Napoleonic Wars, Europe considers a single multinational government in the European Union.

  • 1810s: In the early nineteenth century, a woman's education differed greatly from that of a man. While boys attended boarding schools and studied Latin, mathematics, and science, girls were schooled at home by governesses, focusing on the fine arts, writing, reading, and sewing.

    Today: Over one hundred twenty-five million women graduated from high school in 1994 alone, while around eight hundred thousand females were enrolled in colleges and universities. Not limited to a specific gender, most American high schools and universities are open to both sexes, and course offerings are not exclusive to men or women.

  • 1810s: Because of a lack of professions for women to enter and become self-supporting, few women could afford to remain single in early 1800s. Most women elected to marry rather than depend on other family members for financial support.

    Today: Many women in America have increasingly decided to remain single. By 1994, only fifty-nine percent of women in America were married. In addition, almost sixty percent of American women over the age of sixteen were employed in the labor force, either part-time or full-time.

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