What was the Social Status at the time of Pride and Prejudice?
The Victorian age was a period of time that was confined by the constraints of society that was determined by social status and gender. The constraints were so intense that people, like the characters in the book, could not see things as they really are because of the restrictions of the society. The society thinks of everyone’s worth being measured by class and gender. “Here there are several daughters, essentially transferable commodities if they cannot be married off. The pivotal decisions people make, based on the societal constraints are what cause us to feel inhibited in a way.”
Women’s wealth and status at the time was “essentially determined by who they are married to”. Mrs Benett’s only desire is for her daughter’s to get married to the right suitor so she is blinded to her daughters’ unhappiness. That is because her worst fear is that her daughters would become spinsters, and essentially poor without any futures.
Because social status was so important at that time it caused people to act and react in certain ways that they thought were important to maintaining or gaining social status. Social status is determined by wealth and position so people do not want to marry beneath themselves.
The Georgian era was characterized for Britain by almost constant warfare abroad It 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. This is the time Jane Austen was born.
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.
Aristocracy - 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.
Gentry (or landed Gentry) (like the Bennets in P&P are members of an educated upper middle class. 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.
Laboring classes - 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.
Men - 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 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.
Wealthy women - 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.
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 – 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.
What was the Georgian Era and how does it effect Pride and Prejudice?
How was marriage at the time and what social rules came with it?
How did men’s income effect the lifestyle of a family at the time?
What was expected of women who were successful?
How was marriage at the time and what social rules came with it?