Class in Victorian Literature

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The complex issues arising from the developing social hierarchy that existed in Britain at the turn of the 19th century are the subjects of many of the great novels of this era. As the literacy rates in Britain improved in the early 1800s, novels became an important form of social commentary with novelists including Jane Austen and later the Bronte sisters producing works that contained microcosms of Victorian society which explored and challenged the social preconceptions of contemporary culture. Similarly, poetry developed though the works of poets such as husband and wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning as this form of literature also began to provide a source of reflection on society at a time when the rules of race, gender and in particular, class, were changing to keep pace with a developing world.

In Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen provides a satirical commentary on the rigid class boundaries that existed in England at the turn of the 19th century. Whilst fundamentally a love story, it is the examination of the interference with the workings of true love that arise from concerns about social status and connections and the desire of individuals to improve such status and connections that provide the most insight into English society at the time. The novel’s author had grown up in a rigidly patriarchal society, receiving her limited education from her father and brothers. Austen’s writing greatly reflects this upbringing and in particular the dependence of women on marriage to secure economic security and social standing. This theme is prevalent throughout Pride and Prejudice as the Bennet sisters struggle with their prospects for a future with little social standing and no promise of inheritance.

From the beginning of the novel the class structure is set - the Bennets may socialise with the new upper class residents of Netherfield Park but they are clearly socially inferior and bound to be treated that way for the entire novel. As the...
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