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SOCIAL CLASS AND THE BENNET FAMILY IN “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE”

Considering how long I have been a fan of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel, ”PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” and its numerous television and movie adaptations, I am surprised that I have never considered something about its heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, and her family. Ever since I have been reading numerous articles about the novel and its adaptations, I have noticed that many have labeled the Bennet family as members of the middle-class or the upper middle-class in Regency England. And it finally occurred to me that many of these fans were in error.

I can see the doubt rising in the eyes of those reading this article. The Bennets were not middle-class or upper middle-class? How can that be? After all, Austen’s novel made it clear that Fitzwilliam Darcy had married beneath him when Elizabeth Bennet became his wife. But if one knew the truth about social classes in Great Britain around that time, one would understand that Mr. Darcy actually married a woman from his own class. Elizabeth, her father and her sisters were members of the landed gentry. Members of Regency England’s upper class.

It is quite apparent that Mr. Darcy was a member of the upper class. He was the owner of a vast estate in Derbyshire called Pemberly. His estate earned him £10,000 pounds per year. The Darcy family had been members of the landed gentry for generations. And his mother, Lady Anne Darcy (formerly Anne Fitzwilliam) came from an aristocratic family. In other words, his maternal grandfather was a peer. But what many fans of Austen’s novel failed to realize that aside from her mother’s family connections, Elizabeth also came from the landed gentry.

Landed gentry is a traditional British social class consisting of "gentlemen" in the original sense. In other words, those who owned land in the form of country estates to such an extent that they were not required to work except in an administrative capacity on their own lands. The estates were often, but not always, made up of tenanted farms, in which the gentleman could live entirely off rent income. The landed gentry were among the untitled members of the upper class, not the middle class.

Mr. Bennet, Elizabeth’s father, was an English gentleman who owned the estate, Longbourn. His estate earned him at least £2,000 pounds per year. Many of the novel’s fans tend to assume that because his estate earned this small amount, he was a landowner that happened to be a part of the middle class. What fans have failed to remember is that ”PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” was written and set either during the late 18th century or the early 19th century. Social status was determined by family connections and on a smaller scale, how one earned money. If Mr. Bennet was really a member of the middle class in Regency England, he would be a tenant farmer (one who rented land from landowners) or a yeoman farmer (one who owns land, but has to work the fields himself). Since Mr. Bennet was neither, he was a member of the upper class.

However, Mr. Bennet did marry beneath him. He married a young woman, whose father was an attorney in Meryton. Her brother, Mr. Gardiner was a businessman (or in trade); and her sister, Mrs. Phillips, was married to another attorney. In other words, Mrs. Bennet and her siblings originally came from the middle class. Mr. Darcy and the Bingleys (sans Charles) had been expressing contempt at Mrs. Bennet’s social origins, not Mr. Bennet’s. But Elizabeth and her sisters were not African-American slaves from the Old South. Meaning, they did not inherit their social status from their mother. They inherited their status from their landowning father, also making them members of the landed gentry . . . and the upper class. And as it turned out, Mr. Bennet was not the only member of his immediate family who married someone from what was considered a socially inferior class.

Austen hinted in ”PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” that the Bingley family’s wealth originated in trade. She also hinted that Charles Bingley’s father had intended to purchase an estate for the family before he died, but failed to do so. Which led to Bingley leasing the Hertfordshire estate, Netherfield, around the beginning of the novel. In other words, Bingley was NOT a landowner. Bingley earned at least £4,000 or £5,000 pounds per year from his businesses. But since he did not own an estate and his wealth came from “trade”, he and his sisters were not members of the upper class. Like Mrs. Bennet and her siblings, they were members of the middle class. No amount of money or education would change their status, unless Bingley joined the landed gentry by purchasing an estate . . . and severing all financial ties with the business that had made his family wealthy, in order to cleanse the "taint of trade". It is ironic that Bingley’s sisters spent most of the novel making snide remarks about Mrs. Bennet’s middle class connections, when their own family came from the same class via trade. Even more ironic is the fact that Jane Bennet followed her father’s example by marrying a man who was socially beneath her.

Looking back on Mr. Darcy’s first marriage proposal, I can see why Elizabeth would feel insulted by his words and attitude. Not only did he personally insult her, but made certain comments about her family connections being inferior to hers that now strike me as ironic. Darcy considered Elizabeth inferior to himself, due to her mother’s middle class origins. Yet, he failed to consider that Elizabeth was the daughter of a gentleman and the landed gentry. More importantly, he failed to consider that his closest friend came from “trade”, making their origins the same as Mrs. Bennet. Not only do I find this ironic, but also hypocritical. And what I find even more interesting is that because of the attitudes of Darcy and Bingley’s sisters, many fans of ”PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” seemed to believe that the Bennets were members of Regency England’s middle class, instead of the upper class.

Comments

( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
moxielegal
Sep. 2nd, 2010 09:01 am (UTC)
Very interesting. Your point about the classes seems more pronounced in the books, as the adaptations tend to 'gloss' over the Bingley's trade background - they only appear better because they have oodles more money, but as you state, they are also middle class aspiring to be upper!

nim4
Sep. 2nd, 2010 09:59 am (UTC)
Wow, this is amazing. Really really interesting!
Saving this page, and adding you!!! :D
the_nites_gurl
Sep. 2nd, 2010 03:12 pm (UTC)
Very interesting!! Nice job with this!!
ladywater
Sep. 3rd, 2010 02:05 am (UTC)
Thank you very much for this edifying comment! I've always wondered about the class system in Austen's work, but I never had the motivation to research it...
handlebars19
Sep. 3rd, 2010 02:19 am (UTC)
"Darcy considered Elizabeth inferior to himself, due to her mother’s middle class origins... More importantly, he failed to consider that his closest friend came from “trade”, making their origins the same as Mrs. Bennet."

That brings a whole new twist to the story that I never thought of before. Very interesting!
eskaty
Sep. 7th, 2010 01:08 am (UTC)
Hmmmm
Interesting post…but I wouldn’t presume to think that most people who called the Bennets middle class failed to realize that both Mr. Bennet and Mr. Darcy were gentlemen of property. Austen points that out quite specifically. (“’He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal.’”) I think these fans are recognizing the finer class distinctions that Austen herself so carefully laid out. Even if one concedes that both the Bennets and the Darcys were members of the landed gentry, it's fairly clear that there were sub-strata within that socio-economic group—classes within that class, if you will. Furthermore, after reading much, much 19th century British literature and history, I’ve concluded (and correct me if I’m mistaken) that there were *both* economic classes *and* social classes which didn’t always overlap and which didn’t always correspond to what modern people (especially Americans like me) would think of when they think of lower, middle, and upper classes.

I think these fans you mention were attempting to put modern class labels on the more complex class system of Georgian England. There weren't just 3 classes (upper, middle, lower) or even 5 classes (if you add upper-middle and lower-middle). There were many classes, and classes within those classes. Which class or sub-class one belonged to affected whom one was permitted to marry. A peasant could never have married a peer—but then neither would a peasant have married a pauper. True, the line was a little blurrier the closer people were on the socio-economic ladder--so a landed gentleman of modest income might, say, marry a well-to-do attorney's daughter.

In the scheme of things, the disparities in the wealth and connections of their two families did place Darcy and Lizzy on different levels class-wise. Although Lizzy, when challenged, was quick to say that Darcy and Mr. Bennet were equals because both were gentlemen, everyone, including Darcy, the Bingleys, Lady Catherine, (and, yes, even Lizzy herself) were very aware that they were not truly on the same social or economic level. Darcy was very wealthy, his father's name was an old, respected one, and his mother was a peer's daughter (his uncle was an earl which was and is a HUGE deal). He was expected to marry very well and probably could have married an aristocrat if he'd wanted to—as had his father. Lizzy's father had a much smaller property and income (a fifth of Darcy’s), and he had married the daughter of a small-town lawyer. Mr. Bennet's income and connections limited the circles his family could move in, as well as his daughters’ marital prospects. All of this figures into most peoples’ classification of the Bennets as members of the middle classes (within the landed gentry). On the other hand, Darcy's wealth and family connections would have placed him in the upper class (within the landed gentry).

So, yes, in marrying Lizzy, Darcy was marrying beneath him according to both the social and economic class structure of Georgian Britain. But I think the moral of the story is that regardless of their class, Darcy and Lizzy were equals in everything that truly mattered.
rpowell
Sep. 10th, 2010 05:37 pm (UTC)
Mr. Bennet was part of a lower level within the upper class. But he was still upper class. For Mr. Darcy to view marrying Elizabeth as "beneath him", yet move in the same circles as the Bingleys - who were simply "trade" - is an act of hypocrisy on his part. Despite his marriage to the middle class Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Bennet and his five daughters were members of the upper class. Elizabeth and her sisters had inherited their social status from their father, not their mother.

The Bingleys, despite their wealth, were NOT upper class. As I had earlier pointed out, Charles Bingley and his late father had failed to take the final steps to rise into the upper class - namely purchase an estate and cut off their trade connections that made their wealth. When Jane married Mr. Bingley, she had married beneath her social status.
princessjune
Sep. 23rd, 2010 08:15 pm (UTC)
Well stated!
lucifersam
Sep. 13th, 2010 04:40 am (UTC)
This is a very interesting post.

I've always been very intrigued by the concept of 'social class'.. how it was back then and how it is now.
princessjune
Sep. 23rd, 2010 08:14 pm (UTC)
Finally! Someone else who understands the true social status of the Bennets!

I believe that what happened is this, many people had only seen the 2005 version first before they read the book or saw the 1995 version.

The Bennets could not and would not have been as poor as they showed in the 2005 version which is why many Jane Austen fans who read the book and saw the 1995 version prior to the 2005 version dislike the 2005 version. It was very inaccurate.

One of the biggest mistakes made in 2005 version was the state and type of house they lived in, the clothing, the filth, and the state of their land. What's even more amusing, is when they actually got a part of the story correctly. When Elizabeth states that her Father is a Gentleman. When she says "I am a gentleman's daughter" in the scene where Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy were arguing under the gazebo. Since Mr.Bennet was indeed a Gentleman he would not have lived in such squalor.
Philip Shaw
Feb. 14th, 2011 11:25 am (UTC)
Social class
There is a modern (and to a certain extent, American) tendency to equate social class with money, but this is a mistake. A penniless Duke will always be Upper Class; A rich working class person remains working class. Class is a combination of social expectations and values, bolstered by education. I have a degree from Cambridge and no need to work, but I'm still lower middle class, just like my grandparents.
ext_1635557
Feb. 5th, 2013 07:05 pm (UTC)
thanks!
This is great thanks for explaining!
ext_1688155
Mar. 8th, 2013 08:50 am (UTC)
Apparent anomaly regarding social class of Bennet family and Mr Darcy.
Hello
It is hard to understand the confusion when miss Elizabeth Bennet clearly states to lady Catherine " he is a gentleman and I am the daughter of a gentleman, so far we are the same"
Regards
Edward Rountree
Lauren Kelloff
Sep. 22nd, 2013 01:29 am (UTC)
class system
Darcy is, in fact marrying beneath him. Mr. Bingley isn't simply a tradesman. He's a landed gentleman. He earned his money through trade and then purchased property with it. He's higher in class than the Bennets. I hope this clears some of the strangeness up.
rpowell
Nov. 12th, 2013 11:16 pm (UTC)
Re: class system
Actually, you're wrong.

Elizabeth and the rest of the Bennet family (aside from Mrs. Bennet) were born into the landed gentry and the upper classes. By marrying Elizabeth, Mr. Darcy married a woman from his own class.

On the other hand, Jane Bennet, a member of the upper class, married someone who is socially beneath her - namely Charles Bingley. And the latter is a member of the middle-class, due to the fact that he earned his income from trade. In fact, Mr. Bingley never purchased an estate during the course of the novel, nor broke his ties from trade. Perhaps he finally did after marrying Jane. And even if he did, he would still be considered "new money", in compare to the Bennets, who have been members of the landed gentry for generations.

In the novel, Elizabeth expressed brief confusion over Caroline Bingley and Eliza Hurst' haughty behavior by pointing out the Bingley family's trade connections.

"PRIDE AND PREJUDICE" was written and set during the Georgian Era, not the late 20th or early 21st centuries.

Edited at 2013-11-12 11:19 pm (UTC)
Elle May
Jul. 18th, 2014 06:14 pm (UTC)
Royalty, Nobility, Commoners
These are all really interesting points, but there is another element which could explain all the social class comments and worries from various characters.

There is another class system that works alongside lower, middle and upper. There is also Royalty (which none of the characters in P&P are, Nobility and Commoners.

The Bennet family are Commoners (Sir/Lady or Mister/Mrs). In the Bennet family their titles would have been Mister and Mrs.

Sir is only used to refer to a Knight and a Lady is a woman married to a knight.

In contrast I believe (I could be wrong) Mr Darcy is from nobility.

Noble women also have the title Lady, but when they are addressed their first name is used as well as their last names.

For example a Lady who was a commoner would be 'Lady Lastname'. In contrast a noblewoman would be Lady Firstname Lastname. An example of a noblewoman is Last Catherine De Bourgh.

Interestingly Darcy's mother is referred to as Lady ANNE Darcy, showing that she is from nobility. This would mean (I think this is the part I am unsure on) that Darcy is also classed as nobility, making him a higher social ranking than Elizabeth. This explains why Lady Catherine De Bourgh is so upset about thier marriage- he is marrying a commoner.

For a real life example during the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate it was the first time a royal had married a 'commoner'. Kate was still from a well off family but she wasn't classed as nobility.

To be perfectly honest, I'm not sure where Bingley comes into this system.

I really hope that made sense. :)

Edited at 2014-07-18 06:15 pm (UTC)
rpowell
Jul. 21st, 2014 06:22 pm (UTC)
Re: Royalty, Nobility, Commoners
Mr. Darcy was never a member of the nobility. His mother was. However, Mr. Darcy's father was not a member of the nobility (or aristocracy). None of the Darcys came from the aristocracy. They came from the landed gentry . . . as did the Bennets.

Mr. Bingley was a member of the middle-class, due to the fact that his family earned its income from trade, not from the land. The same could be said for his sisters. Not only had Mr. Bingley failed to break from his trade ties, he also failed to purchase an estate. He merely leased Netherfield on two separate occasions in the novel.


For a real life example during the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate it was the first time a royal had married a 'commoner'. Kate was still from a well off family but she wasn't classed as nobility.

That's not true. Other members of the Royal Family have married those who did not come from the British aristocracy or foreign royalty.
( 17 comments — Leave a comment )

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