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The 18th century women of Jane Austen’s pages and of her times lived a gentle, sheltered and delicate life. The rules of conduct especially in relation to women were defined and strict. All women were expected to be courteous, decent, fragile, polite, refined, modest and respectable, have “good breeding”, impeccable manners and perfect social etiquette. Women were limited to very few activities- mainly drawing, singing and dancing. They had to be accomplished in every sense of the word. An accomplished “woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing and the modern languages to deserve the word: and besides all this she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be half deserved.” Such were the requirements that society asked of every woman if she wanted to hold a place of her own in the marriage rat race.
Elizabeth Bennet, the twenty-year-old heroine of the novel ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and the second oldest of the Bennet sisters, has all these qualities in her. However she is superior to all the other women that are presented to us in the novel. She is ‘accomplished’ and beautiful but unlike other women, she does not show-off at every opportunity. She is not a hypocrite or a snob like Caroline Bingley, or “ignorant, idle and vain” like her youngest sister Lydia or tactless and insensitive like her own mother, who is the butt of her husband’s sarcasm. Elizabeth is the fast favourite of her father and has inherited his wit, intelligence and independence. Through Elizabeth, Jane Austen mocks the snobbery, hypocrisy and materialism of many people like Caroline Bingley, Lady Catherine, Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins.
Elizabeth is fully aware of the shortcomings of her mother and her younger sisters. She is ashamed at her mother’s embarrassing lack of refinement and discretion, which are demonstrated firstly at the Netherfield ball when she makes a premature public announcement that Jane Bennet is to marry Mr. Charles Bingley, and secondly, by her disdainful treatment of Mr. Darcy, her social superior. Mrs. Bennet’s lack of good breeding, intelligence and sense of humour is very evident. “The solace” of her life was “visiting and news”. She loved a good gossip, which is rather typical of a woman- 18th century or otherwise.
Gossiping was a major pastime for women and we can see how fast information gets around town. Mrs. Philips, the sister of Mrs. Bennet, provides her with the gossip around Meryton. It was Mrs. Philips who informed Mrs. Bennet about Mr. Bingley buying Netherfield, the talk around Meryton about Lydia’s scandal and Mr. Bingley’s return to Netherfield. However not all women indulged in gossip. We do not see Jane or Elizabeth interfering with other people’s business. “If it was to be a secret, say not another word on the subject. You may depend on my seeking no further.” Their attitude differs from their mother. Then again, it was a ‘necessity’ for Mrs. Bennet to keep tabs on everything going around because any information might help in race to get her five daughters married off.
We can see the importance of marriage in the 18th century clearly through Mrs. Bennet and Mrs. Lucas. Their main occupation is arranging for their daughters to be married to rich husbands. This desire governs Mrs. Bennet’s life. “The business of her life was to get her daughters married.” The immoral behaviour of her youngest daughter Lydia is of no importance to her once the wedding had been announced. Instead Mrs. Bennet’s immediate concern is the wedding clothes which Lydia may buy after she is married. However Mrs. Bennet’s desire to get her daughters married off as soon as possible are based on economic facts since they would not inherit any money after their father’s death.
Wealth was the main criteria for a ‘successful’ and ‘secure’ marriage and that was what Mrs. Bennet, like all other mothers, looked for in prospective grooms. Love and happiness did not matter much or in fact, at all. As Elizabeth’s best friend Charlotte Lucas put it “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance.” This was a very common attitude in the 18th century. Charlotte accepts the proposal of Mr. Collins, a pompous and foolish man even though she knows that the two of them are incompatible. However she is a practical and sensible person and she is aware of her poor financial state and of her age, at twenty-seven she was considered to be an “old maid”, and thus was prepared to marry solely for the sake of money.
This shows us that very few options were open to a woman in Charlotte’s position. She could either become a governess or a companion to a lady or just remain at home, reducing her younger sisters chances of being married. Jane Austen uses the theme of “Love and Marriage” to show us how the whole of a woman’s life revolved around marriage. From the time she is born, she is trained and tutored to be a “perfect wife”. She is thought how to sit, stand, walk, talk, eat, drink, dance, sing, draw, and sew in the hope of securing a good, wealthy husband. Elizabeth Bennet is perfect in her manners, her expressions and her “civility”. But I find her very different from the conventional 18th century woman because of her ideals on love and marriage. She has all the necessary ‘qualifications’ of an eligible spinster but chooses not to marry for the sake of it.
Elizabeth remarks, “One has got all the goodness, the other all the appearance of it”, referring to Wickham and Darcy. Here the difference between appearance and reality is highlighted. The ease with which even sharp people like Elizabeth could be deceived by appearance was a real danger in Jane Austen’s society, with all its emphasis on manners and breeding, and with its strict code of public behaviour. People like Wickham who could “perform” well in public were judged on that rather than on their true characters. Elizabeth’s pride and her prejudice blind her to Wickham’s faults and lead her to accept his slanderous portrayal of Darcy..
“She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me;” is what Darcy said of Elizabeth at their first meeting. This hurt combined with the knowledge of Darcy’s hand in separating Jane and Bingley leaves Elizabeth with a strong dislike for Darcy. Therefore when Darcy proposes to her she is thunderstruck and dismisses him to be “the last man in the world I could be prevailed upon to marry”. I think Elizabeth’s rejection of Darcy’s proposal a very brave thing to do because it would have been considered sacrilege, keeping in mind the importance given to money in the 18th century. She impresses both Darcy and the readers with her wit and liveliness. Darcy, while maintaining that Elizabeth’s manners are “not those of the fashionable world”, is nevertheless attracted to her spirit and an independence of mind.
However by the end of the novel Elizabeth accepts that not all “first impressions” can be taken at face value. We can see the themes of “Appearance versus Reality” and “Self-realization” being brought out.
Elizabeth’s independence of spirit is show by her decision to walk to Netherfield in order to visit her sister. It is looked upon as a monstrous thing that Elizabeth Bennet should walk three miles on a country road, and Miss Bingley criticizes her exclaiming “to walk three miles, or whatever it is, above her ankles in dirt, and alone, quite alone! It seems to me to show an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country-town indifference to decorum. She looked almost wild!” This sneering remark of Caroline Bingley shows us the typical 18th century woman mentality. Elizabeth’s behaviour is considered to be “unorthodox” and very “unladylike” since she walked, unescorted all the way from Meryton to Netherfield just to see her sick sister. This shows us that Elizabeth places her sister before any social rules of etiquette.
Elizabeth’s affectionate nature is demonstrated by her close relationship with her elder sister Jane, whose sensitive and compassionate nature she admires. It has been suggested that Elizabeth and Jane’s relationship mirrors the close relationship the author had with her own sister Cassandra. However Jane is different from Elizabeth in her gentle nature, which is so pleasant and amiable that it is almost a failing due to her unquestioning acceptance of others. Elizabeth is more outspoken and prides herself to be a good judge of character.
Her perception does not allow her to be taken in by the superficial and two- faced Caroline Bingley and Mrs. Hurst who are proud and rich and make their superior social rank known. They are introduced as “fine women with a decided air of fashion.” To belong to a family whose fortune was made in trade was to belong to an inferior class. It is ironic to see Miss Bingley and her sister criticizing Jane for having an uncle with trade connections, when their own fortune was gained through trade. In the 18th century society, Miss Bingley and her sister are called ‘ladies’ as they fulfill all the requirements: they have money, beauty and are accomplished. But as Elizabeth notes, with irony, that they were: “in every respect entitled to think well of themselves…” their subsequent behaviour, particularly with regard to the Bennets is far from ‘ladylike’. Jane Austen here reveals the theme of “Appearance versus Reality” again and also shows us, through Miss Bingley behaviour, that ‘manners’ are a better indication of ‘breeding’ than birth into an upper-class family.
The character of Lady Catherine de Bourgh proves this point again. She is an overbearing, self-important, and controlling aristocrat who has a narrow-minded, unpleasant and selfish manner. She feels that her rank as a ‘Lady’ gives her a right to meddle in other people’s affairs. Everyone is in awe of her except for Elizabeth, since she attaches little importance to rank for its own sake. Elizabeth stands up to her and senses that she must be the first person to ever have done so. This shows us that Elizabeth is not afraid to stand up for herself especially when Lady Catherine attempts to persuade her not to marry Darcy. Elizabeth’s defiance shocks Lady Catherine who makes her reasons for objecting to their marriage very clear. She says “honour, decorum, prudence, nay, interest, forbid it”- all reasons which Darcy had declared that he had overcome when he proposed to Elizabeth at Hunsford.
Elizabeth’s choice of love reflects her desire to find a husband who matches her in terms of character and taste. Elizabeth’s relationship with Darcy is beyond what any other couples share in the novel “Pride and Prejudice”. The bond between Elizabeth and Darcy is “rationally founded”, based on “excellent understanding” and “general similarity of feeling and taste.” Elizabeth likes Darcy for the fact that he has no airs about him and he is honest, frank and very similar to her in character. Darcy in return is impressed by Elizabeth physical and mental energy and by her sharp wit and her ability to laugh at misfortune and her optimism.
Jane Austen uses Elizabeth as her mouthpiece when she says, “I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.” Elizabeth is like Jane Austen in that she is shown to be interested in the human character. Unlike other women of her times, Elizabeth has a good sense of humour and possesses the ability to laugh at herself. Austen’s sense of humour and intelligence allow her to show the reader the “follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies,” of her characters. The way Austen presents Lydia and Mrs. Bennet are a good example of this. She does this without being unfair, as she laughs not at them but at what they do. Her use of irony and satire are more serious; she uses them to show meaning without telling the reader directly and to make fun of things, especially those with social importance and meaning. The tone of “Pride and Prejudice” is light, satirical and vivid.
We can still, despite the vast differences between her 18th century society and our own 21st century society, recognize ourselves in the way her characters think and behave. We all know people as cleverly manipulative and outwardly affectionate as Miss Bingley; as self-involved as Lady Catherine de Bourgh; and as charming but as lacking in principles as Wickham. We conceal ourselves with arrogance like Darcy; assume we understand more than we do like Elizabeth and revel in gossip Like Mrs. Bennet. And the very fact that Jane Austen’s characters are so relatable to makes the novel all the more readable. Her writing also appealed to me because of its simplicity. I do not mean to say that her work is easy to understand, but that she uses ‘simple’ English.
I found the character of Elizabeth to be very intricately designed for she has timeless appeal. She is by no means perfect but is by far the closest to perfection among all the other women in the novel. Elizabeth is vivacious, teasing, sensitive, perceptive and filled with sparkling beauty and wit. Her dialogues are full of intelligence and precisely crafted often to convey subtle meanings. Elizabeth is Jane Austen’s best, most loved and certainly most popular creation. “I must confess I think her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print”, wrote Austen of Elizabeth; few readers have ever disagreed.
Elizabeth Bennet contradicts the image of the typical 18th century woman who is born and brought up only with marriage in mind. She has a mind of her own and quite a sharp one at that. She captures and captivates not only Darcy but the readers as well. She has all the qualities in her that were desired in a ‘perfect’ wife. But besides these she has a certain ‘something’ in her that no other woman has. She is a woman far beyond her time and would not seem out of place in today’s world, two centuries later. I think Jane Austen has really created a marvelous masterpiece, which will always survive the changing demands of literature.