Historical Context of Pride and Prejudice

The Georgian Era

Between 1797, when a young Jane Austen began work on what would become Pride and Prejudice, and 1813, when the novel was published, the French Revolution was fought, Marie Antoinette was guillotined and Napoleon rose to power and conquered most of Western Europe. Closer to Austen’s home, Great Britain combined with Ireland to become the United Kingdom, the slave trade was abolished by Parliament throughout the British empire and King George III, driven to apparent madness by what historians now suspect to have been a rare hereditary metabolic disorder, was replaced in his duties by his son, the Prince Regent, later to become King George IV.

The Georgian era into which Jane Austen was born, characterized for Britain by almost constant warfare abroad, was in many ways a transitional period. It saw the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the shift from Enlightenment to Romantic trends in arts and letters, and the first whispers of feminist and abolitionist concerns in Western Europe. A little familiarity with these sweeping historical trends can lend some context to Austen’s domestic fictions, but perhaps more helpful is an understanding of the particular details of daily life during the Regency period; life as faced by Austen and so many of her fictional characters.

10,000 a Year

From the 16th well into the 19th century, respectable wealth in England was accumulated primarily through the ownership of land. The land would be leased to tenants for farming, and the landowning families would live entirely off of the income generated by these leases. The families owning the largest of these hereditary estates, which varied in size but averaged about 10,000 acres, drew incomes sufficient to construct great parks and manors, purchase fashionable goods, retain servants and livery (horses and carriages), and meet other expenses related to keeping a country home. The most prosperous landowners also kept a town home in London, the social and political center of England, and lived there during the social season, January through July. The oldest, though not necessarily the wealthiest, of these families may have had some claim to nobility with inherited titles that gave “precedence,” or a higher rank at social functions in town or country. The term “aristocracy” referred somewhat more ambiguously to any keepers of London town homes whose social and political connections bought them seats in Parliament or influence in the royal court.

In Pride and Prejudice, the Bennets are, like Jane Austen herself, members of an educated upper middle class known as the “gentry” or the “landed gentry.” Considered socially eligible to mix with the landowning aristocracy, but quite a step beneath them in wealth, resources and precedence, the landed gentry included country squires, military officers and many forms of clergy; all acceptable roles for the educated younger sons of the aristocracy and their descendants. Gentry may have owned less than 1,000 acres of land, may have leased to tenants or overseen the farming directly and typically lived in the country year-round, visiting London only to take care of occasional legal matters.

Beneath the gentry were the laboring classes of household servants, tenant farmers, merchants and “tradesmen,” such as smiths and carpenters, village doctors, town lawyers and other professionals. Though lower in social standing because their income bore “the taint of trade”, many merchants and tradesmen might in fact amass considerable wealth and could wind up wealthier than the poorest of the landowners. This was especially true as the Industrial Revolution progressed, pouring more and more wealth into the trade and merchant classes.

For the landowners and the gentry, management of all financial matters was a gentleman’s prerogative. By law and by custom, a woman was granted very little control over money, even money that we would today consider her own. A woman of the upper classes could expect to be granted a “fortune” from her family upon marriage or the death of her father. This lump sum of money would draw interest at a fixed 5 percent from investment in government funds, which would contribute to her husband’s income if she were married or would cover her living expenses if she remained single.

A man’s income, by contrast, was always reported as a number of pounds (£) “per year,” such as Mr. Bingley’s “four or five thousand a year.” About £100 a year was the barest minimum income on which a small household could be kept, retaining only one maid—a servant being necessary to maintain any claim of respectability. On £300 a year, a small family could retain two servants and live somewhat more comfortably, but still could not afford a carriage, which could only be supported on an income of at least £700 a year. Mr. Bennet draws about £2,000 a year, which would be sufficient to keep the appearance of comfort and respectability; but he bears the financial burden of providing dowries for five daughters. However, his estate is “entailed” upon his death away from the family to be given to a distant branch of the family in lieu of a male Bennet heir. But an income of more than £4,000 a year, like Bingley’s, could well-provide for both country and town homes, with all of the modern comforts and latest fashions. Indeed, Mr. Darcy’s £10,000 a year has been calculated in recent decades to be worth between $300,000 and $800,000 in U.S. dollars; while another estimate, comparing Mr. Darcy’s income against the Regency average, gives him the real purchasing power of a modern multimillionaire.

An Accomplished Lady

Some aspects of Regency life that have a strong bearing on the action in Austen’s novels are not necessarily given detailed description, because Austen’s first readers would already have been intimately acquainted with the highly formalized manners of the time. The custom of paying visits and leaving calling cards, for example, could consume the greater portion of a woman’s day, and many breaches of etiquette could spring from unreturned or improperly returned calls.

In addition to beauty, mastery of etiquette, a sharp mind or a pleasant disposition, a lady could show her gentility through the display of her “accomplishments.” Accomplishments were sets of skills encouraged and cultivated in young women, skills which were thought to help make a home more lively, entertaining or beautiful. Common accomplishments included drawing, needlework, playing an instrument or singing well, and mastering languages. A woman with many of these skills was thought to be “highly accomplished,” and, evidently, more marriageable.

Marriage, of course, was just about the only acceptable role for any woman. Women, like Austen herself, who passed beyond their youth without marrying became spinsters. They had no formal role in society and were occasionally a burden to their families. Even worse was the fate of educated young women of good standing whose fortunes were thrown in jeopardy by the sudden loss of their family. With no fortune, these women were nearly unmarriageable and might be required to enter the servant class as a governess of wealthy children in order to provide a living for themselves.

Sources

  • Copeland, Edward. “Money.” The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen. Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  • Gray, Donald. “A Note on Money.” Pride and Prejudice: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Criticism, 3rd ed. Norton, 2001.
  • “Jane Austen.” Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography. Gale Research, 1992.
  • “Jane Austen.” Encyclopedia of World Biography. Gale Research, 1998.
  • “Jane Austen.” World Eras. Gale Group, 2002.
  • Johnson, Diane. “In Love with Jane.” The New York Review of Books, v. 52, n. 11, June 23, 2005.
  • Le Faye, Dierdre. Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels. Harry Abrams, 2002.
  • Pool, Daniel. What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist –The Facts of Daily Life in 19th Century England. Touchstone, 1993.
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