Pride and Prejudice - Context and Background - Austen #
Jane Austen is an accomplished writer who polarises her audience; they either passionately adore or absolutely abhor her.
Regardless of your tastes, she is a writer of merit and maintains a tremendous influence on the development of the English Novel.
Her Novels deal with the lower nobility, a leisured class but without the ostentatious wealth and position of the landed Dukes and Earls of the higher nobility.
Perhaps most intriguing is that, though her novels are set in the turbulent times of the Napoleonic wars and a period of great social unrest in rural England, her characters appear entirely concerned only with their parochial affairs and to be totally and blissfully oblivious of anything happening in the national or international fields.
The closest we get is in Sense and Sensibility:
“When the ladies withdrew to the drawing-room after dinner, this poverty of conversation was particularly evident, for the gentlemen had supplied the discourse with some variety – the variety of politics, enclosing land, and breaking horses…
Her disillusion, detachment and near cynicism of politics is expressed in Northanger Abbey:
“History, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in…. I read it a little as a duty; but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars and pestilences in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all.”
Her critics decry this narrowness and insularity while her fans celebrate the niche portraits she draws.
Many claim that she is the first modern novelist for focussing on character development through action, interactions and conflict. It is through the development of her characters, her experimental narrative techniques and the design of her novels that we can discover her main concerns.
Historical background #
The period is known as Regency England because the King George III suffered a mental derangement and his son, Prince George IV became his Regent in 1811. Though his immorality lead to financial problems, he was a keen patron of the arts and a keen reader of Austen novels keeping copies of her novels at his bedside. In 1815, the Prince Regent, later King William IV’s, librarian, James Stainer Clarke, gave her the consent to “dedicate any future work to His Royal Highness, without the necessity of any solicitation on her part”.
Her novels were written between 1797 – 1817, with Pride and Prejudice written first, but not published until 1813 and Emma one of the last. Her novels depict the commonplace, the mundane detailed and ordinary lives of a narrow band of genteel classes; privileged but not too extravagantly rich and powerful. They knew their place and accepted it with dignity and grace.
Perhaps most intriguing is that, though her novels are set in the turbulent times of the Napoleonic wars and a period of great social unrest in rural England, her characters appear entirely concerned only with their parochial affairs and to be totally oblivious of anything happening in the national or international fields. Her critics decry this narrowness and insularity while her fans celebrate the niche portraits she draws.
Life is slow paced, genial, relaxed with no major pressures, despite the Napoleonic threats, dislocation caused by the Industrial Revolution and peasant discontent surrounding them. Their major obsession is who is going to marry whom.
Life is essentially mono-cultured with a dominant exclusive value system. The only non-conformists we hear about are the disparaged gypsies.
Yet the upper classes continued to expect deference. As Swift saw it, a principal point of good manners, of making people feel at ease, “is to suit our behaviour to the three several degrees of men: our superiors, our equals, and those below us.”* The upper ranks should be affable and condescending (not a pejorative term)—practical virtues that would win the loyalty of subordinates, tenants, and voters. The gentlefolk and inhabitants of country towns were acknowledged to be moderately cultivated, since they had assembly rooms, coffeehouses, clubs, and societies. Here politeness proved a useful means for small tradesmen to ingratiate themselves with wealthy customers, and the division was between the “genteel” and the “vulgar,” though one had to avoid overgentility, which could topple into affectation and invite ridicule.
At the bottom of the social scale, however, people had little interest in or time for “civility,” which required leisure, money, education, houses, and servants.
In the late seventeenth century Edward Chamberlayne’s annual handbook, Angliae Notitia, described the nobility, gentry, and leading tradesmen as “well-polished,” but the “common sort” as “rude and even barbarous.” Country folk were referred to as “Indians,” farm laborers as “‘barn-door savages,’ ‘country hawbucks,’ mannerless ‘gubbins’”; and Highlanders or Cornish peasants were regarded as near savages. More barbarous still were the squatters in fens and forests, the wandering poor, and the miners, uniformly written off as brutal. Upper-class families were advised to avoid clownish rustics at all cost.
*“Peasantry,”*warned one eighteenth-century writer, was “a disease like the plague, easily caught by conversation.” Keith Thomas, In Pursuit of Civility: Manners and Civilization in Early Modern England NYT Book Review – Jenny Uglow 2019
Codes of behaviour #
Life is governed by an assumed and tacitly accepted code of behaviour;
Gentlemen owned property, showed respect for women, and were only portrayed in her novels in the presence of women.
only paid polite attention to ladies for whom they had honourable intentions
were careful not to compromise a lady’s reputation.
Genuine geniality an important trait.
Your position in society static; based on birth, income, property and reputation.
Formal modes of address; Miss Woodhouse, Mr Knightley, Mr Elton….
Visiting cards – conscious of who you grant the courtesy of a visit. Emma finally condescends to visit the Coles for dinner.
Individuals should not address superiors until formally introduced.
Life was slow-paced: letters, balls and piano playing were the major highlights in the society.
Sexuality not discussed openly; but tension is obvious - discretion the norm.
Marriage paramount especially for improvident women.
Note Miss Bates is considered worthy of sympathy. “enjoying an uncommon degree of popularity for a woman neither young, handsome, rich, nor married”.
Austen chronicles the transition between courtly and romantic love; the change from arranged contractual marriages to free mutually attracted matrimonial unions.
Family alliances and consolidation of property becoming less of a major consideration.
Courtship full of conventions.
Manners and dignity are all important.
This contrasts with the lack of civility today. There isn’t much dignity left today, a point beautifully made in an essay by David Brooks in The New York Times.
The “dignity code”, as Brooks calls it, has been “completely obliterated” by the pressures of modern life.
Austen’s heroines: #
“What makes Austen great is her awareness of the minefield that is ordinary life. At any point the Austen heroine can be brought low. Even as we applaud the achievement of the sexual relationship at the end of any Austen novel, we should be aware not only that the heroine has had a tough time but that she could be facing an even tougher one. If to be a spinster in Austen’s world is to be exploited by one’s family whenever the need arises and otherwise completely overlooked and ignored, the role of wife-and-mother is so difficult that most of Austen’s wives-and- mothers are hopeless at it. The best mothers are the dead ones, like Emma’s mother or Anne Elliot’s mother.”
Germaine Greer - The Getting of Wisdom