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 story unfolds Austen suggests that true love can overcome even the most rigid of class boundaries and shows that the prejudices created by these boundaries are shallow and meaningless. The most effective way of conveying this theme is through the diverse range of characters that move in and out of the main story. This acceptance of class structure is best found in the cloying character of Mr Collins. Any positive attributes he may possess are hidden by his over enthusiastic devotion to securing the favours of his patron Lady Catherine De Bourgh. However, whilst he is the most obvious in his class consciousness he is not alone. Miss Bingley is instantly dismissive of those she considers below her socially (she is instantly dismissive of the entire Bennet family). Mr Wickham will go to any ends to improve his social situation and lives a life of lies and deceit as a result. Austen subtly mocks these characters as much as she does the poorly mannered and ridiculous Mrs Bennet whose behaviour is an affront to the more genteel Bingleys and Darcys.

The personal restraints imposed on those in Victorian England by the social hierarchy can most clearly be seen by Darcy’s internal struggle to conquer and dismiss his love for Elizabeth. In his proposal to Elizabeth, Darcy is at odds with himself “His sense of her inferiority- of it being a degradation- of the family obstacles which judgement had always opposed to inclination…” Darcy’s pride about his high social standing greatly impedes his first real attempt to express his feelings to Elizabeth as he learns to prioritise love over his sense of superiority before he is worthy of Elizabeth’s hand.

The trifles of the younger Bennet sisters and the silliness of their mother provide a light and often comedic landscape for Austen’s commentary on the issue of inter-class relationships. Her message that “first impressions” and preconceived ideas as to people’s status can be over come by the power of love is an...
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