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THE SOCIAL BACKGROUND
A general knowledge of the social and cultural setting in which a novel is written is important, for most novels mirror the customs and values of a particular society, often criticizing it. The Hertfordshire country town where the greater part of the novel is set is Longbourn, only a mile from the market town of Meryton and 24 miles from London. The neighborhood around the Bennets is large, for they dine with twenty-four different families, only three of which are named. The Bennetís society is drawn largely from Meryton (which is the motherís background) rather than from the country (which is the fatherís), for she is more sociable than her husband. Mrs. Bennet, however, is without social ambition except for her desire to have her daughters marry rich men.
Pride and Prejudice is, thus, set among the rural middle and upper classes who are landowners. None of the major characters works, for these moneyed classes live entirely on their income from rents and inheritances. There are, however, petty distinctions among the landed classes, determined by the amount of wealth possessed by the members. For instance, Miss Bengali and her sister look down on the Bennets because they are not as wealthy. Class distinctions in Jane Austenís time were in fact very rigid. The land-owning aristocracy belonged to the highest rung of the social ladder, and all power was in their hands. Next in rank came the gentry. The new, prosperous industrialists and traders (like Mr. Gardiner) were gradually rising as a class, but had still not won the right to vote. The lowest in English society were the workers and laborers.
For the women of the time, life was largely restricted to the home and the family. For the poor and the lower-class women, there was ample work in the home and in the fields to keep them busy. But for the ladies of the landed upper-classes, life was one big round of dances, dinners, cards, and visits to friends and relatives. They were not required to do any household work. "Ladies," thus, lived a life of ease and leisure, mainly concerned with society, children, and marriage. By the nineteenth century, the upper classes no longer arranged marriages. Instead, a girl was introduced to society (and eligible bachelors) at a reception hosted by a married woman who had herself been presented. Generally, a girl "came out" only after her elder sister was married. (No wonder Lady Catherine is shocked when she hears that all of Elizabethís sisters have started dating before she is wed.)
Womenís education in the nineteenth century was restricted to the daughters of a few families of the upper classes. In most cases, it was thought to be a waste of time to educate girls. Rich and noble families (like that of Lady Catherine de Bourgh) engaged governesses for educating their daughters or sent them away to boarding school, but most women were self-educated at home.
Traveling in Jane Austenís time was accomplished in horse- drawn carriages, and a familyís social status was determined by its kind of carriage. Because carriages were slow, travel was limited. Communication of mail and news was also slow, and there were no daily newspapers. As a result, the outside world does not play a part in Austenís novels. Instead, she turns her attention in entirety to the things she knew: family and values.
THE LITERARY BACKGROUND
Jane Austenís Pride and Prejudice appeared on the English literary scene in 1813. The author had worked on its realistic style and content for more than fifteen years, for she was a perfectionist in her approach to writing. Her first novel was unlike any of the hundreds of others written at the time, which were mainly Romantic (filled with emotion and passionate) or Gothic (filled with horror). Austen was the first novelist to portray realistic characters by using the direct method of telling a story in which dialogue and comment take an important place. She used the method to dissect the hypocrisy of individuals and the society in which they played their games of love and courtship.
From the beginning, Austenís literature centered on character studies, where a personís common sense (or lack of it) was developed in detail. The chosen setting was always limited to a small social group of the upper classes and composed of a few families. Family life was always central to her works. Her novels also portrayed traditional values and a belief in rationality, responsibility, and restraint. But she often viewed the human condition, with its many weaknesses, through humor, irony, and sarcasm, with her undesirable characters portrayed as ignorant, proud, or silly human beings, not evil villains.