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Episode 2, Fourth watch
Mr. Collins writes to announce his imminent visit to Longbourn; Mrs. Bennet has high hopes that Collins will propose to one of her daughters, and also expects that Jane will soon be engaged to Mr. Bingley.
Today, I want to talk about the social hierarchy of the Regency Era, in the hopes that it might shed some light on the more nuanced relationships we see in Austen’s work.
Rank and Class
At that time, wealth and social class separated everyone by birthright — from the royal family on down to the working class.
Most of Austen’s characters are members of the gentry — a social class that Austen’s own family belonged to, albeit on the poorer side.
Above the gentry lay the nobility, and below were the clergy, and Austen’s characters interact with both. In Pride & Prejudice, Mr. Collins is a member of the clergy, and Lady Catherine de Bourgh is a member of the lower rungs of the nobility, as the widow of a baronet.(This is also why Collins makes so many references to LCdB’s “condescension” — he was skipping a whole social class simply by being in her orbit.)
In fact, the social hierarchy looked something like this:
So Austen’s family, and her characters, would have been members of the gentry — without much (or often any) political power but still higher on the social scale than many others, and afforded a degree of respect.
To be a part of the gentry, a family must own at least 300 acres of land. The gentry, by definition, had to hold enough assets to live on the rents paid to them without having to work, and therefore, they could use their leisure time to be well-educated — hence, Mr. Bennet’s love of the library.
If a gentleman worked, it was in law, as a priest, in politics, or in other educated pursuits, but never in manual labour. Many gentry families could trace their lineage to ancient eras, and possessed great wealth and large estates.
This is why Mr. Darcy, the owner of a great estate such as Pemberley, does not have a title. He was a member of the gentry, and Lizzy’s remark to LCdB in Episode 6 reflects this status. (“He is a gentleman, I am a gentleman’s daughter, so far we are equal.”)
From the British Library:
Jane Austen expected her readers to be sensitive to questions of social status, but she remorselessly satirised characters who were obsessed with fine social distinctions. There is certainly no association in her novels between high rank and any great virtue or ability. Aristocrats are at best buffoons, at worst paragons of arrogance. The most famous case is probably Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice, a woman with whom no one before Elizabeth Bennet has ever disagreed.
People of a lower rank were expected to defer to people of a higher rank. This even extended to introductions.
As a fellow gentleman, Mr. Bennet could call upon Mr. Bingley when he came into the neighborhood, but the Bennet girls — and more specifically, their mother — could not converse with Mr. Bingley or his party until they were introduced to him. This is why Mrs. Bennet is so insistent that her husband go to see the new neighbors; she wants a leg up on Lady Lucas in introducing her daughters to Bingley, as she could not introduce herself.
(To distinguish between ladies who married into the title versus those who were born to it, a noble “lady” like Lady Catherine is allowed to use her first name and the title, because she was the daughter of an earl, and born into the nobility. On the other hand, Lady Lucas may use the same title, but she is merely the wife of a knight — hence the use of only her last name.)
Expectations of Women
Women were expected to be obedient to their fathers and husbands, without opinions, and have refined qualities, like dancing, singing and needlework. Formal education was not expected for women.
In Austen’s stories, heroines often buck these expected qualities — remember that conversation in Netherfield where they talk about it what qualities a lady must have to truly deserve the title? Darcy admires Elizabeth Bennet’s desire to “improve her mind by extensive reading” — that would have been a rare find in a woman.
It’s also why Lizzy snorts at the idea that a “lady” must be a great number of things — she’s laughing at the unfair expectations Miss Bingley and Mr. Darcy place on women.
Dances were a popular entertainment, and ranged from being grand affairs (like the Netherfield Ball) to being small family gatherings like Aunt Phillip’s Christmas party. At Netherfiled, professional musicians wood have been hired and supper provided. At Aunt Phillip’s, it was likely only Mary Bennet’s piano skills that would have been on offer. (Note again the embarrassment the Bennet family suffers when Mary breaks these unsaid rules and plays an amateur tune at the far fancier Netherfield Ball.)
Dances in the Regency era were elaborate, with intricate steps, and took practice to learn. All the dancers faced each other in a long line, and the movements involved elaborate patterns. As I noted in an earlier blog, dancers moved up and down the line, pausing at the top or bottom to stand apart if there were an odd number of couples. This is how Sir Lucas manages to have a conversation with Lizzy and Mr. Darcy in the middle of their dance.
Two dances were with the same partner and usually lasted for half an hour, so Mr. Collins requesting Lizzy’s hand for the first two dances meant Lizzy would have had to spend more than an hour of the evening in his company alone!
Marriage and Entailment
“Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor, which is one very strong argument in favour of matrimony.” ~ Jane Austen, letter of March 13, 1816
The Bennet estate is worth £2000 per annum, but with five daughters and no sons, the Bennet family’s estate is entailed to a distant male relative, Mr. Collins.
Upon Mr. Bennet’s death, Longbourn, as well as the £2000/per year estate income will pass immediately to Mr. Collins.
Mrs. Bennet and her five daughters must then be supported solely by the £5000 settled on Mrs. Bennet upon her marriage — this is exactly what happens in Sense & Sensibility, by the way. At 4% interest, Mr. Bennet’s female survivors would only have about £200 pounds per annum.
Further complicating things, Mr. Bennet has never been able to save, the Bennet will eventually only inherit £1000 each upon the death of their mother. That means they can provide an income of only £40 per annum to a prospective marriage — or about $2,000-$3,000 in today’s money.
That makes Lizzy’s refusal of Mr. Collins, and her initial refusal of Darcy, seriously financially dangerous decisions, considering the potential security that was offered to her in both instances.
Also a problem for the Bennet sisters’ marriage prospects is that, while Mr. Bennet is a gentleman, Mrs. Bennet and her siblings are not of the gentry. (Mrs. Philips is married to a Meryton attorney, and Mr. Gardner is a prosperous London tradesman.)
From Columbia College:
As we see in the novel, questions of land ownership and inheritance are closely interlinked with courtship and marriage. In the late eighteenth century, English conceptions of family and the role of women began to change, as British culture became increasingly focused on the accumulation and concentration of wealth within the family.
One way for families to rapidly accumulate capital was through advantageous marriages. As a result, the position of daughters within the family changed, as they became the means through which a family could attain greater wealth. Familial aspirations, coupled with women’s increased dependence on marriage for financial survival, made courtship a central focus of women’s lives.
I hope this helps answer some of your questions about the various nuances in both the miniseries and the novel! It can be hard to place our mindset into a story so rooted in a bygone era — especially one with such strict rules for living and moving through society — but ultimately, I think that speaks to how well-written and how timeless these plots are, that we can still love them 200+ years later, even though we may not understand every move the characters make!
Thanks for reading and don’t forget to share!
My thanks to these excellent sources from which I cribbed heavily!!