Pride and Prejudice

Category: Writing & Reading | Type: Discussion | Title: Pride and Prejudice (in Context) | Author: Jane Austen

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Austen's opening sentences, like a key signature in music, establish her distinctive voice. It is crisp yet supple to the point of conversational, more the voice of a concise, self-assured speaker in a drawing-room rather than of a remote writer at her desk. She speaks with a light irony that blends amused playfulness with swift judgment. But Mansfield Park's protagonist and subject are more somber, and Austen's voice here drops to a lower register. 

Mansfield Park is Austen's longest and most complex novel. The heroine is unlike any of her others, not least because she suffered a defining childhood trauma that has left her timid physically and socially withdrawn. Frightened of horses (which is like being frightened of bicycles), passive rather than active when it comes to the outdoors, and diffident with people to the point of disappearing, Fanny is nevertheless the most fearless and uncompromising of Austen's heroines when her principles or integrity is challenged. Mansfield Park differs in another respect. While this novel also dwells on marriage, Mansfield Park focuses upon the families out of which emerge the young people who will marry and bear the responsibility for the next generation. The conditions in which the young of marriageable age have matured determine the marriages they'll make, their probable happiness or misery, and to the degree to which a powerful gentry is a metonym for the society, the future of the elite landed gentry. 

The gentry are her novels' focus. They are a thin slice of English society (about one family out of eighty) possessed of political, financial, and, owing to the Englishman's view of land, a mythic power well beyond their numbers. She's not unaware of those below or above the squirearchy (Persuasion, her last completed novel, explores as well a somewhat different world), but this class, ministered to by the Anglican vicars and rectors (Search), most of whom the landowning gentry appointed, are what Austen knows (her father was a rector in Hampshire and her social life was among the gentry). From her perspective, which is shared by many, the gentry embody the values, manner of life, and customs that comprise England's backbone, and do so at a time when the body politic is becoming gangly and somewhat uncontrollable.

Three sub-classes comprise the landed gentry. The peerage, made up of the aristocracy (bishops and archbishops, barons, viscounts, earls, marquesses, and dukes) divides its life between its country manors and London houses. Austen rarely depicts or refers to the aristocracy but when she does it is to suggest its often fatuous, extravagant, and morally dangerous worldliness. Immensely rich, even when in debt, and powerful, their number was small, their ownership huge. In 1803 the 540 baronets (not part of the aristocracy), not including the lower-ranking knights, was almost double the size of the entire peerage (313), including bishops and princes of the blood. The baronets (Sir Thomas Bertram in Mansfield Park, hereafter Mansfield Park; and Sir Walter Elliot of Persuasion) and knights (Sir William Lucas of Pride and Prejudice) constitute the second sub-class.

Finally there are the squires, so-called commoners because they are untitled, yet in Austen's view the most worthy, for they're not so proud, not so worldly (a word Austen generally means critically), and their history of service most unqualified. These range from the immensely wealthy Darcy Fitzwilliam in Pride and Prejudice to the significantly named Knightley in EmmaThe squirarchy, intrinsically conservative, their values associated with the immemorial relations to the land, farming, and tenants spanning generations; their religion is moderate, as comfortable as their hunting clothes, to Austen represented a critical mass that could lend a necessary stability to England just when industrialism and urbanization were producing conditions no other nation in the world's history had faced.         There are various ways to distinguish the classes in 19th-c. England but perhaps the most fundamental is between those who own land and those whose wealth or poverty is in "portable property." Land is the threshold. The first sentences of a definitive work, Mingay's English Landed Society in the Eighteenth Century, are "Landed property was the foundation of eighteenth-century society [and well into the 19th]....the owners of the soil derived from its consequence and wealth the right to govern. Above all, land was immovable and indestructible, and the very permanence of land gave stability to the society that was based upon it." The ownership of land lay with the peers, the gentry, and the freeholders and copyholders. Austen almost exclusively writes about the gentry. Peers and gentry mixed socially, but the former were comparatively few in number, often connected through marriage, tended to hold high positions in the government, and had enormous political power as members of the House of Lords, controlling large estates whose electors voted as the lord wished, and were lord lieutenants of the county, the highest administrative position in the county. The gentry generally had smaller estates and a smaller income than the peers (but Darcy's Pemberley is grand and his income of £10,000 per year exceeds that of the less affluent peers, who may earn £3-4,000). Many gentry, such as Knightley, manage their own estates, and for Austen many others ought to, an issue in Mansfield Park, but what distinguishes them from the freeholders and farmers is a steady stream of supplemental income from tenants, mortgages, and investments.

For the class immediately below the landed gentry (the tradesmen and shopkeepers or "shopocracy," country lawyers, apothecaries, doctors, grain merchants, and so on), ownership of land is the sign of having arrived. And the closer this class comes to owning land or marrying a daughter into the gentry, the more it apes the gentry's dress, manners, politics, and religion. As it approaches the prospect of a connection with the gentry, the middle class tends to migrate in politics to the Tories from the Whigs and to the Church of England from Dissenting chapels (non-Anglican Protestant sects such as Quakers, Baptists, and Methodists).

Yet for all but a fraction of English men, their politics are the stuff simply of talk in pubs or of riots. The right to vote is contingent upon property that yields rents. One paid taxes ("rates") on land and a great deal else from windows to dogs. Only a fraction of the male population in 1811 of just over 14 million is able to vote (about 225,000), and many of those cast their ballots as dictated by the lord or squire, who is then said to possess a "pocket-borough."

Five of Austen's novels center upon a young woman courted by a man whose estate is older and grander than the woman's home. Her choices limited by the prerogatives of paternalism, she will move to his house. She's detached from the home and community she knew as a child (something that was traumatic for Austen in being forced to leave Steventon Rectory at twenty-five), from family and friends. Primogeniture, the passing from father to eldest son nearest male heir of the landed estate, intact and whole, rendered the other sons supernumeraries and the daughters fungible. Their value rests in their use of their dowries, beauty, and charm to to marry up and so secure wealth and "connexions" for her family. Before marriage women have the power that comes with being desired and having the capacity to say "yes" or "no"; after marriage they are legally indistinguishable from property. The Austen protagonists differ in possessing an intellectual or moral power that transcends their being property and survives their marriage. This is especially true of the heroine of Mansfield Park. Though physically slight and somewhat anemic, Fanny's principles are inviolable and resist being subjugated or suborned.

The house will continue to stand, and the land will remain largely intact. But the family's future depends on the squire and his choice of a spouse. Though the land will continue in the family, the family can be unworthy of the guarantees provided by primogeniture and entail, the legal protection that guarantees among other things the estate's remaining intact and its going to the nearest male heir. Though he may have great wealth and power, he has only a "life interest" in the estate. He is a conservator or steward. He can mortgage but he cannot generally sell or divide the estate. Whether an earl or a commoner such as Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, the landed gentry are links in a chain anchored in the land, not in the inhabitant. The gentry's moral and political values are naturally conservative because their obligation is to conserve and preserve the Seat.

Primogeniture preserves estates but at some risk, for the son or other male heir can be simply a fool, a ruinous bit of genealogical bad luck; or, lessd forgivable, he can be unwilling to meet his responsibilities. Yet whatever his capacities and character all of the property and much of the wealth go to him. One or more of the "cadets" (the other sons) may be far superior in all ways but that is irrelevant. Though the society is patriarchal, the cadets are apt to be less important than their well-dowried sisters, whose prospects for a good marriage (wealth, rank, and connections) may likely exceed the cadets'. Elements of this bear directly on Mansfield Park. Austen's fictional families are sensitive organisms, each member having a significant role for the family's future. The grand manor house such as Mansfield Park may be enduring but not necessarily stable. Stability hinges upon the parents' fulfillment of their responsibilities in overseeing and educating their children. Austen is in one sense a profound optimist: she believes in the nearly limitless power of "improvement" (a favorite word of hers) in the form of parents, older siblings, relatives, friends, and schools to shape a child. But in great power begins lasting responsibility. Austen is pitiless in her judgment of those who fail to exercise their power or abuse it.   

The responsibility begins with the quality of the love that first unites the parents and its development over the years. As the reader will see in Mansfield Park,Austen is no prude and is alert to the power of sexual attraction. She's not at all opposed to it—unless it appears to be the exclusive reason for a couple's appeal to one another. Then it has obscured or eliminated considerations, such as the ability of each person to complement rather than duplicate the other's strengths and weaknesses of temperament or, in the union, produce insuperable disparities. Love or at least affection for Austen is essential to a good marriage, and physical attraction may be an expression of that, but to marry without money may promise no better conclusion than marrying without love. The consequences of these marriages for the house (the family, its wealth and respectability, and its legacy in children) will survive long after the attraction moderates into esteem or atrophies into tedium. In marriage at this social level, which is apt to involve considerable property, the practical is nearly synonymous with the emotional. The measure of the union's success is not the parents' happiness but the successful improvement of their children, lovers having in Austen a tendency to soon become parents. 

One further word. Austen has been thought stuffy, a female author quick to sniff and condemn the least breach of decorum. In his Letter to Lord Byron, Auden writes,  

There is one other author in my pack

    For some time I debated which to write to.

Which would least likely send my letter back?

    But I decided I'd give a fright to

    Jane Austen if I wrote when I'd no right to,

And share in her contempt the dreadful fates

Of Crawford, Musgrove, and of Mr. Yates.

But Auden's notion that he'd give a fright to Austen by writing uninvited and that she'd return the letter mistakes the precise manners of the time and class Austen writes about with Austen herself, whose imagination readily crosses all sorts of boundaries in order to test those that ought to be observed and those that are specious.   


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