Literature and Society

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SOCIAL AND CULTURAL BACKGROUND 
A general knowledge of the social and cultural setting in which a novel is written is important, for most novels mirror the customs and values of a particular society, often criticizing it. The Hertfordshire country town where the greater part of the novel is set is Longbourn, only a mile from the market town of Meryton and 24 miles from London. The neighborhood around the Bennets is large, for they dine with twenty-four different families, only three of which are named. The Bennet’s society is drawn largely from Meryton (which is the mother’s background) rather than from the country (which is the father’s), for she is more sociable than her husband. Mrs. Bennet, however, is without social ambition except for her desire to have her daughters marry rich men. Pride and Prejudice is, thus, set among the rural middle and upper classes who are landowners. None of the major characters works, for these moneyed classes live entirely on their income from rents and inheritances. There are, however, petty distinctions among the landed classes, determined by the amount of wealth possessed by the members. For instance, Miss Bengali and her sister look down on the Bennets because they are not as wealthy. Class distinctions in Jane Austen’s time were in fact very rigid. The land-owning aristocracy belonged to the highest rung of the social ladder, and all power was in their hands. Next in rank came the gentry. The new, prosperous industrialists and traders (like Mr. Gardiner) were gradually rising as a class, but had still not won the right to vote. The lowest in English society were the workers and laborers. For the women of the time, life was largely restricted to the home and the family. For the poor and the lower-class women, there was ample work in the home and in the fields to keep them busy. But for the ladies of the landed upper-classes, life was one big round of dances, dinners, cards, and visits to friends and relatives. They were not...
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