Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen was first published in 1813 and set in the last decade of the 18th Century. The novel is focused around the life of the Bennet family, in particular the second eldest daughter Elizabeth (Lizzy). Throughout the 19th century there were many different events that influenced England, as well as the views and values of the time. Some major events that occurred at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century include; the Industrial Revolution, the French Revolution, and this was also a time that England as a nation was aggressively expanding its empire and establishing colonies. These events played an important role on the writing of the novel, however there were also many other values, ideas and attitudes of the time that were influential on the novel and its characters.
At the close of the 18th century Jane Austen wrote a novel titled Pride and Prejudice, this novel would be read by millions and become one of the 'must read' books all the way though to the 21st century. When this novel was written England was expanding its empire, the French Revolution was coming to a close and Mary Wollstonecraft was publishing books on the equality of the sexes. These events are not necessarily mentioned in the novel as such, however they would have certainty influenced Jane Austen and her views, attitudes and ideas. These historical events changed people's views and attitudes towards certain parts of their life, this included marriage, love, social class and women in general.
In the 19th century marriage for women was based on wealth and social status as well as pressure from family to wed, women were also a sort of 'legal slave', they did whatever their husbands told them to do, all of their assets were given to them directly after marriage (they had no independent wealth) and their main role was to bear children. This specific value was not necessarily rejected or supported in the novel, however it is definitely challenged. Jane Austen used her novel to share her views on marriage, specifically that it should not be based on artificial feelings, wealth/social status of pressure to wed, she believed in the importance of marrying for love and nothing else. Given the time period that the book is based in these were very extreme views, especially for a woman.
The novel highlights the idea that once a girl is of age, she should be married into a wealthy family that will be respected by the community and support the girl and provide her with a 'comfortable' life. This idea is shown through Pride and Prejudice through the character Mrs. Bennet as her main goal is to marry all of her daughters before her husband dies. Mrs. Bennet says to her husband in chapter one, page 52, But consider your daughters. Only think what an establishment it would be for one of them1. by this it becomes apparent that she sees her daughters as bargaining chips in a sense, she simply wants to ensure that they are married to the highest bidder. Jane Austen's view on marriage is extreme and challenges the value of marriage during the 19th century.
Attitudes of the 19th century that influenced Pride and Prejudice were mostly in regards to social class, wealth, patriarchy and marriage. The novel allows the reader an insight into the goings of the Bennet family and its interaction with other families and characters. Pride and Prejudice highlights the attitude on marriage in 19th century England. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. (Chapter 1, page 51) is the opening line for the novel, this quote gives the reader not only a good idea of what the plot of the book is, but also how marriage is a true focal point of life in the 19th century, especially for women. This gives the impression that the attitude towards marriage is very commonly known and shared, and that it is a very serious matter for both men and women. Men do not want an unattractive, poor or untalented wife, and women do not want an unattractive or poor husband. The attitude towards marriage in the 19th century was to marry 'up' or to marry into money, as the daughters family saw it as a sort of achievement, it would open up new social circles and opportunities.
The attitudes that were highlighted in the novel are reinforced and, to an extent, challenged. Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. (Chapter 6 page 69) Is said in a conversation between Charlotte and Lizzy. This quote allows the reader to understand how structured society and marriage was, often being forced into a marriage were there was no love or attraction. The novel uses speech and narrative point of view to support the author's attitudes, especially on marriage, and challenge the common attitude towards marriage. Jane Austen uses juxtaposition of the relationships of people who have married for love (Mr. Bingley and Jane) and those who have married for artificial reasons such as wealth (Mr. Wickham and Lydia).
In the 19th century the idea of social class was very important to the majority of the population, however due to the industrial revolution it was slowly being demolished. This was because of the development of a new class, the mercantilist class; this class was specific to merchants and traders. Due to this class they were making more money and the higher classes were making less, by doing so it was also causing a decrease in the number of local priests, this was due a decrease in the amount of funding to the local churches. In the novel Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen challenges the idea of social class through the use of characterization in regards to Mr. Darcy and Lizzy. Austen describes Mr. Darcy as a man who would not lower himself to marry a woman of lower social class or dramatic wealth, however as the novel progresses Mr. Darcy eventually realizes how in love with Lizzy he truly is, thus causing him to propose to her. However, even though Jane Austen challenges social class she does not challenge female etiquette and reputation, she reinforces the idea. She uses Lydia and Mr. Wickham running off together to convey the message that it is very important to remain in good light to the rest of the community. By eloping it would have caused herself and her sisters to form a poor reputation, therefore decreasing their chances of being able to marry in future. By reinforcing these ideas Jane Austen conforms to the standards of the 19th century.
The ideas, values and attitudes of the time period are employed by Jane Austen to position the reader to share her views on specific topics, such as marriage and social class. By using characterization and juxtaposition, Jane Austen allows the reader to understand how the time period was constructed, and also how the author wants the reader to interpret the time period. The reader is compelled to accept Jane Austen's view on the attitudes and ideas of the 19th century, they feel compelled to sympathise with Lizzy, to hate Mr. Darcy and to be frustrated with the simplicity of the lifestyle.