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Fun Friday–Pride & Prejudice (Part 2)

Friday, February 15, 2008


The second part of the Pride & Prejudice miniseries airs Sunday evening on PBS. This week, I wanted to delve a little further into this book with which I’ve spent so much time. Yes, this will be somewhat academic, as these are excerpts from the paper I wrote my senior year of undergraduate studies entitled, “Wealth and Social Status as a Theme in Pride and Prejudice.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man, in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. 

Thus begins what is considered to be Jane Austen’s ultimate commentary on the social condition of her era, Pride and Prejudice (hereafter, PP). Yet it is not just the “possession of a good fortune” which made a man worthy of an Austenian heroine; in PP, Austen paints a vivid picture of how “connections” or social status had as much, if not more, bearing on a man’s or woman’s eligibility as a marriage partner.

Austen’s stories in general, PP in particular, are often compared to the Cinderella fairytale: the poor young girl must be rescued from deprivation by the handsome and wealthy hero. . . .

“Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor,” Austen wrote in a letter to her niece Fanny Knight (qtd. MacDonagh 49). She could just as easily have written that it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of no fortune must definitely be in want of a wealthy husband.

Austen went from being an Elizabeth Bennet, a young and pretty girl in the middle of the social scene in her small country neighborhood to a Miss Bates (Emma), the spinster daughter of the now-deceased parson, caring for her elderly mother and depending on the charity of family for a place to live and to make ends meet.

Two years after moving into Chawton Cottage, Austen’s first novel, Sense and Sensibility, was published. The publisher, Thomas Egerton of Whitehall, took it “upon commission” for publication, meaning it was to be published at Austen’s expense. Unsure the book would be successful, Austen saved as much as she could from her meager income to cover the losses she expected (LeFaye 34-35).

Sales of the book surpassed expectations and went into a second printing in the summer of 1813. Austen cleared a profit of £140 (or about $7,500–8,000 in today’s currency*) from Sense and Sensibility (Gray 404). After that success, she returned to a manuscript she’d written nearly twenty years before. Since another novel with the title First Impressions had been recently published, Austen changed the name to Pride and Prejudice. This time, Egerton bought the copyright from her for £110 (about $6,000), meaning she would earn no additional profits from the book (LeFaye 35). . . .

Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy
In PP, the main male protagonist, Fitzwilliam Darcy, is descended on his mother’s side of the family from a “noble line; and on the father’s, from respectable, honourable, and ancient, though untitled families” (PP 232). His income is rumored to be approximately £10,000 per year (between $500,000–600,000—an income “in the four percents” or four percent of the value/earnings of his entire estate for the year), and when Elizabeth reports her engagement to Darcy, her mother replies, “What pin-money, what jewels, what carriages you will have…Ten thousand a year, and very likely more! ‘Tis as good as a Lord!” (PP 247). Darcy inherited a magnificent estate, Pemberley, in Derbyshire, and has a home in London, as well. He lacks nothing that money can buy.

Darcy is related to the highest “ranking” character in the book, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Lady Catherine, sister to Darcy’s mother Lady Anne, is the daughter of an Earl. She married a wealthy gentleman of no rank but of good social connections. Edward Ahearn points out the irony of Austen’s choice of last name for Darcy’s aunt: the etymology of the name Bourgh leads to the same root word from which the French term bourgeois is derived. “Her name . . . belies the purity of class hierarchies to which she is devoted” (401). As Lady Catherine’s character is revealed throughout the novel, her bourgeois tendencies toward poor manners, selfishness, and snobbery become clear.

While his grandfather was an Earl, Darcy is himself untitled due to the system of primogeniture. Although not detailed in the novel, it is suspected that much of the Darcy money came from mineral mining, as that was prevalent throughout the area of Derbyshire where the fictional Pemberley is located (Ahearn 401). As a wealthy landowner with aristocratic roots and connections, he is the second-highest ranking member of the cast.

Mr. Charles Bingley
In contrast, Darcy’s good friend, Charles Bingley, is nouveaux riches, as his family’s money was acquired through business rather than legacy, and gained only a generation earlier. While Bingley is reported to have an income of £4,000-5,000 (between $200,000–300,000) a year, he is not yet a landowner, and his sisters, who “had been educated in one of the first private seminaries in town, had a fortune of twenty thousand pounds, were in the habit of spending more than they ought, and of associating with people of rank,” tried to forget that “their brother’s fortune and their own had been acquired by trade” (PP 11). Miss Bingley is determined to marry Mr. Darcy, as she sees him as being of a much higher social status than her own. She discourages her brother from marrying Jane Bennet as she is horrified by Jane’s low family connections and the degradation such a match would bring to her own hopes of attaining a high social rank.

The Bennets
Mr. Bennet is the hereditary owner of Longbourn estate, although with five daughters and no son, the estate is entailed upon a distant cousin, Mr. Collins. Mr. Bennet has an income of approximately £2,000 (just over $100,000) per year, yet because of the entailment, each of his daughters can claim a legacy of only £50 ($2,500) per year which will come from the £4,000 ($250,000) Mrs. Bennet brought to the marriage as her legacy. Mr. Bennet is seen as a gentleman who has not lived up to his responsibility: “Mr. Bennet had very often wished . . . that, instead of spending his whole income, he had laid by an annual sum for the better provision of his children, and of his wife” (PP 200). In contrast, Darcy is portrayed vividly by his housekeeper as being “‘the best landlord, and the best master . . . that ever lived. . . . There is not one of his tenants or servants but what will give him a good name’” (PP 161).

While on her father’s side, Elizabeth Bennet can claim to be “a gentleman’s daughter” (PP 232) when Lady Catherine pays a visit to demand a promise from Elizabeth that she will not accept a proposal of marriage from Darcy, Lady Catherine points out the lowness of the connections on Mrs. Bennet’s side of the family: her brother Mr. Gardiner is in trade in London and lives near “Cheapside,” and her sister, Mrs. Phillips, married a country lawyer. Lady Catherine sees these connections as placing Elizabeth well below Darcy in rank who will ruin the Pemberley family socially. This, however, is not Lady Catherine’s only objection. The “patched-up business” of Elizabeth’s youngest sister’s “infamous elopement” is well known to Lady Catherine. “’And is such a girl to be my nephew’s sister? Is her husband, the son of his late father’s steward, to be his brother?’” Lady Catherine asks (PP 233). It is unclear as to whether Lady Catherine sees the fact that Wickham is the son of a steward as worse than the fact that he is an “infamous” eloper, but in this instance, both cases support her argument that by marrying Elizabeth, “the shades of Pemberley [would] be . . . polluted” (PP 233).

Elizabeth & Miss de Bourgh (& Darcy)
Austen draws a comparison between Elizabeth and Anne de Bourgh, Lady Catherine’s only daughter whom Darcy is expected to marry. “’She looks sickly and cross,’” Elizabeth comments upon first seeing Miss de Bourgh (PP 106). Austen further contrasts the two women: Elizabeth, while claiming not to be accomplished, does play the piano and sing while Miss de Bourgh never had a strong enough constitution to take lessons; Elizabeth is vibrant and enjoys lively conversation while Austen does not record a single word as being spoken by Miss de Bourgh. Austen purposely brings Darcy into this setting where he has the visual contrast of the two women before him – Elizabeth, on the one hand with no wealth to speak of, and of low origins and connections; and Miss de Bourgh on the other, who will inherit Rosings, an estate to rival Pemberley for size and income. With his choices so clearly laid out in front of him, is it any wonder that Darcy proposed to Elizabeth against his will, against his reason, and even against his character? (PP 126)

Works Cited
*Click here for more details on calculating Austenian currency into today’s values.

  1. Friday, February 15, 2008 3:40 am

    Wow, nice write up Kaye! Thanks for your insights. Cheers, Laurel Ann


  2. Friday, February 15, 2008 7:05 am

    Kaye, thank you for linking to my post about the economics of Pride and Prejudice. Lizzy demonstrates her daring and independence by refusing Mr. Darcy with his 10,000 per year. The joke that Grigg makes in The Jane Austen Book Club is that she starts to fall in love with Darcy the moment she sees Pemberley. This is not true, of course, for her eyes had been opened to his character before then. Still, Lizzy’s first refusal has always made her one of my favorite heroines – she held out for love. That it came with a great deal of income is icing on the cake!!

    Wonderful post.


  3. Friday, February 15, 2008 10:16 am

    So Jane Austen had to self-publish? Imagine the frowns she’d get today. Thanks for the insight–these were things implied in the movie that I never quite put my finger on. I really should read the book. I took it out and put it back in my pile.


  4. Friday, February 15, 2008 10:30 pm

    So enjoyed that, Kaye. But Elizabeth married Darcy????

    Just kidding.

    This is my first time to see this version of P&P. I will say I found the first 15 minutes to be very slow, but after that, it really grabbed my attention. I’m eager to see the next segment on Sunday.


  5. Wednesday, February 20, 2008 1:26 am

    Kaye, Thanks for entering my contest! Fantastic post on my favorite novel!



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