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It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
- the first sentence of Chapter 1 of 'Pride and Prejudice'
At the end of the 18th Century, the attitudes towards women in Britain had not evolved much since the 16th Century. They were unable to vote and were seen as silly gossiping goody-goody housewives whose only purpose in life was to have children and take care of the household. The only ways in which a woman could climb up the social ladder were to have good connections and to marry into the rich and wealthy families.
One woman in particular took it upon herself to become an author and write about the situations of marriage with characters based upon her provincial life, and at first, her first book wasn't accepted to be published because the publishers thought it to be completely absurd.
Jane Austen was born in 1775, the daughter of a well-off Hampshire clergyman - Rev George Austen - in Steventon, near Basingstoke. There is great debate over whether Austen was the youngest or the sixth child of seven, but it is generally accepted that she had five brothers and one sister. At an early age she was encouraged to read and write by her father and great-uncle1, and was well-acquainted with the novels of Fanny Burney, Ann Radcliffe, Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne, Samuel Richardson, and the poetry of George Crabbe and William Cowper.
Austen put ink to paper at the young age of 14 with Love and Friendship. This was never published2. However, in her early 20s, Austen wrote the novel First Impressions. Her father offered First Impressions to a publisher in 1797, but it was rejected immediately without even being read. However, First Impressions would be renamed to the book with a more familiar name - Pride and Prejudice (1813).
Other novels by Jane Austen include Sense and Sensibility (1811), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1816) and Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, the last two were published posthumously in 1818. Her work was received with high praise by well-known literary figures such as Sir Walter Scott and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, as her wit and satirical humour show in the ironically amusing character sketches of her stories, taking snobbery, bourgeois, morality and hypocrisy to pieces.
Unfortunately, all of Jane Austen's work was published anonymously, the authorship only known by her family. Her novels made more that £700, a reasonable total of that period, but she never profited from her writing. From 1816, she was struck down with an illness known as Addison's Disease, and was tended to by her sister Cassandra and two of her clerical brothers.
The date of Jane Austen's death is also debatable, but it is generally accepted that she died in 1817 and was buried at Winchester Cathedral. Her novels are still some of the most widely-read literature in the world today.
Pride and Prejudice
This is a story about marriage. Depending on who you took down the marriage aisle in Jane Austen's day, there was really only one thing that mattered - a large estate and lots of money. Love didn't really enter the equation.
The story begins in a sleepy village called Longbourn in Hertfordshire, with Mr and Mrs Bennet, the heads of the main family of the village. They have five daughters - Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Catherine and Lydia; each with their own character and charm.
Unfortunately, the Longbourn estate is entailed strictly upon male heirs, and so Longbourn would in fact be passed to a distant cousin of Mr Bennet, and not any of his children. Therefore, the only way out for the daughters if they don't want a life on the streets is to marry. Marry high.
So when the rich Mr Bingley arrives on the scene with a view to moving in to a nearby property, Mrs Bennet is ready to do anything to make sure that he also has a view to marriage, meaning marrying one of the Bennet girls.
On the other hand, he is accompanied by his two sisters and his wealthier and very proud friend, Mr Darcy, who abhors socialising and is soon credited by the Longbourn crowd as arrogant and incredibly rude.
However, though Mrs Bennet has her eye on making a match between Jane and Mr Bingley, what of her second daughter, Elizabeth, and her increasing prejudices against a man whose outward appearances are an oxymoron to the character hiding inside him?
Elizabeth Bennet is drawn into the intricate world of 18th Century matchmaking, and the only way to survive is to have an open mind and draw out the real character.
With many twists and character plots, Pride and Prejudice is not a book where everything flows gently like a brook.
All the characters in Austen's novel are based upon her own class but each have very distinct personalities that separate them from one another.
A dark-eyed beauty of not quite 21 years, Elizabeth Bennet is the second daughter of five, and the female protagonist of this story. She is called affectionately 'Lizzy' by her family and friends, and is her father's favourite child. Elizabeth is incredibly headstrong, and not afraid to say what she thinks as long as it is not offensive. However, even though she is a very pleasant and friendly woman, she will add the odd cutting remark here and there if the person she is talking to is getting a bit too uppity for her liking.
In the story, Elizabeth is constantly badgered by her mother to get married. Although she generally gets on extremely well with the opposite sex3, Elizabeth is very strong in her belief that she should only marry for love, and hope for a good life afterwards.
She is an excellent singer, and has been commended for her skills as a pianist. She enjoys meeting Mr and Mrs Gardiner, her uncle and aunt, and is often called upon to keep her two youngest sisters in check.
Tall, good-looking, extremely rich but incredibly proud and arrogant. Mr Darcy is a wealthy landowner from Pemberley, Derbyshire, and the male protagonist. His late father was very rich, and his mother, Lady Anne Darcy, was a noblewoman. Hated by everyone in Longbourn but Bingley, his sisters and those who know him deeply back in Derbyshire, Darcy is not a popular man on first impressions. He dislikes dancing and socialising with strangers and is not afraid to voice his opinion on something he does not like, even if someone is offended by his comments.
Darcy's outward manners seem to be quite unpleasant, and even Mrs Bennet goes as far to say that 'he is a most disagreeable, horrid man', and is not willing to sacrifice any of her daughters to such a brute. However, he is under great pressure to marry someone with good connections, and his aunt, the respected and again, very wealthy, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, is adamant that he should not marry someone lower than him, but someone, say, like her own daughter, Anne de Bourgh. Also, he has to look out for his only sister, the 16-year-old Georgiana, and is put under great stresses to keep a strong mind and not get distracted.
Darcy could be said to be misunderstood by his fellow characters, but he has his own inner opinions. On the other hand, these opinions and admissions are the ones that he finds most difficult to express, and so several people are prejudiced against him.
The eldest of the Bennet sisters at 22 years, Jane is of a quiet and reserved character. Like Elizabeth, she is renowned for her beauty, and she immediately catches Bingley's eye on their first meeting.
Jane has had a few admirers in the past, but none like Bingley. He seems to be 'the one' for her, and she hopes that this is true. She is very close to her sister Elizabeth, and will always go to her for advice, and vice-versa.
Mary, Catherine 'Kitty' and Lydia Bennet
Mary Bennet is a bookworm, and not interested in balls, men, dancing or marriage. She is an 18-year old who gains knowledge from her books, but as she has opposite tastes to her younger sisters, she gains little knowledge of meeting new acquaintances. She is the odd child in the middle, often depicted as alone as Jane and Elizabeth are very close, and Catherine and Lydia are practically joined at the hip. However, she is an accomplished pianist, but not an accomplished singer at all.
Catherine Bennet is 16 years old and affectionately known as 'Kitty' by her family. Although older than Lydia, she allows herself to be dragged around on her younger sister's whims, and is quite weak-willed in these situations. She is an excellent dancer and enjoys flirting with any young man that she sees.
Lydia Bennet begins as a high-spirited girl of 14, and carries on to be a very gullible and headstrong girl of 15. It seems that her primary point of being on this earth is to flirt with as many men as possible and dance. She carries out her exploits with her sister Catherine, but her distance from the reservedness of her elder sisters might get her into a spot of bother.
Mr and Mrs Bennet
When they were married, it was mainly on the grounds of physical attraction that drew them together. Now, Mr Bennet is stuck with putting up with a gossip for a wife who takes the merest little dig at her with great contempt. Mr Bennet's Longbourn estate is worth £2,000, but none will pass to his daughters.
Mrs Bennet, on the other hand, is said to have been an attractive woman in her youth, and very bubbly, but now it is just plain annoying, even to her husband. She strikes up rivalries between her family and others, is intent on getting her daughters married off, and is quick to judge someone. Her father was a lawyer, and left her £4,000, but that will not be enough to support her and her daughters when Mr Bennet dies.
Mr Bingley, Miss Bingley and Mrs Hurst
A young cheeky chappie, Mr Bingley is young, rich, and looking to invest his money in something. Little does he know that somewhere in Longbourn, he will find a wife as well if Mrs Bennet has anything to do with it. He is described as having 'easy, unaffected manners', and somehow manages to be best friends with Darcy.
His sisters, Miss Caroline Bingley and Mrs Hurst, could be described as the 18th Century version of being 'bitchy'. They dress themselves in the highest fashion, and are outwardly pleasant when talking to people. However, when they are talking about people, their opinions of them are quite the opposite of compliments. Elizabeth Bennet is not one of Caroline Bingley's favourite people, for example, as she sees her as a threat to preventing her own way to marrying Darcy.
Charlotte Lucas is the daughter of Sir William Lucas and Lady Lucas, and best friends with Elizabeth Bennet. She is 27 years old, and could be described as a realist. Her views on marriage are very realistic indeed, as she believes that happiness in marriage comes purely by chance, whether the couple are in love or not. She herself admits to not being a romantic. Charlotte would prefer to marry for a comfortable life in the future rather than for love.
Mr Collins is the distant cousin who will eventually inherit Longbourn when the time comes. He is a clergyman of 26 years of age, and intent on rising up the social ladder. He already has the patronage of one Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and frequently namedrops so people will look at him in a higher light. To please his patron, he does everything she suggests, including looking for a wife. Unfortunately, he is looking for a wife from one of the Bennet sisters, and has his eye particularly on Elizabeth. Mr Collins will try anything to please Lady Catherine, and his manner of courting is more business-like rather than romantic.
Mr Wickham is the godson of Darcy's father, and was greatly loved by him. His father was the late Mr Darcy's steward, and he himself was playmates with Darcy in their childhood. Now, Wickham is in the army, and he and Darcy have a rift between them as large as the San Andreas fault. Darcy abhors the man for reasons known only by the Darcy family, and Wickham does his best to stay out of his way. He is a pleasant individual, and quite the charmer, but his situation in life is not good, and he needs money to keep afloat. The only way to do that is to marry a rich heiress, and that's what he intends to do.
Lady Catherine de Bourgh
As well as being Darcy's aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh was married to the late Sir Lewis de Bourgh, an eminent and incredibly rich nobleman. She is the utmost pinnacle of snobbery, and immediately looks down on anyone who isn't as rich as her. She resides in Rosings Park, a magnificently ostentatious estate. Lady Catherine is also the patron of Mr Collins, and rewards him greatly for his loyalty to her. However, any prospective wives must be approved by her, and she has quite a strict code for them. She is the only noble in the novel and has one sickly daughter called Anne.
Pride and Prejudice has become a very successful novel, with even a BBC production made of it and other popular novels based upon it, such as Bridget Jones' Diary. It is a witty yet telling reflection on the state of 18th Century marriage, and how women can be more than gossipy good little housewives, but strong and thoughtful thinkers.