Money and Social Currency in Pride and Prejudice

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In the society described in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, money was as much a social currency as it was a means of exchange for goods and services. Money was often commensurate with social rank, yet there was a feeling against parvenus who worked for their fortunes. As the mark of an eligible bachelor or an avenue to gentility or a genteel career, money had a great part to play in the society in which Pride and Prejudice, a novel of manners, is set. "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." This sentence, one of the most famous first lines in English literature, begins Pride and Prejudice, stating quite clearly the central position of marriage in the book and the central position of money in marriage. Mrs. Bennet is obsessed with the concern of seeing her five daughters, who will not receive their father's estate, "well married," that is, married to a man of good means. Mrs. Bennet and her neighbors are entranced by Mr. Bingley's "four or five thousand a year," and even more bowled over by Mr. Darcy's income of ten thousand pounds a year. Pride and Prejudice provides examples of purely mercenary matches, and even the happiest marriages in the book have their monetary concerns. Mr. Wickham is not a good mate because of his relative poverty, and is seen as mercenary by the Bennet girls when he tries to marry Ms. King, heiress to a fortune of ten thousand pounds. The Bennets' shame in Wickham's elopement with Lydia is somewhat ameliorated when Darcy buys a respectable commission in the army for Wickham, who was loathe to ally himself with a girl of such small fortune as Lydia. Charlotte Lucas marries the disagreeable Mr. Collins because he has a comfortable living under the patronage of Lady Catherine, and at the age of twenty-seven, Charlotte is in danger of becoming an old maid. Elizabeth puts it well when she remarks to herself on leaving Hunsford, "Poor Charlotte! -- it was melancholy to leave her to such society! -- But she had chosen it with her eyes open; [...] Her home and her housekeeping, her parish and her poultry, and all their dependent concerns, had not yet lost their charms." The two eldest Bennet girls are destined to happier marriages than these, but money still enters into the picture. Even levelheaded Elizabeth, who refuses proposals from Mr. Collins and the immensely rich Mr. Darcy, is only half-joking when she answers Jane's question as to when she started to love Darcy, "I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley." Indeed, when she visits Mr. Darcy's magnificent estate she remarks to herself "that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!" Bingley's sisters bemoan the fact that with Jane's "low connections" she will hardly be able to see herself "well settled." Bingley, in the spirit of love, says in response, "If they had uncles enough to fill all Cheapside [(a less desirable distict)], it would not make them one jot less agreeable." Darcy says to this, "But it must very materially lessen their chance of marrying men of any consideration in the world." This exchange is very telling: Bingley's sisters maneuver Bingley away from Jane with Darcy's help, while Ms. Bingley constantly reminds Darcy of the impropriety of his admiration for Elizabeth and "her fine eyes." When Darcy later overcomes his social restraint in marrying Elizabeth and bringing Bingley and Jane together again, Mrs. Bennet can only excitedly muse on Mr. Darcy's fortune, exclaiming, "Ten thousand a year! 'Tis as good as a Lord!" Although Jane and the book's heroine overcome the winds of Fortune in their marriages, it is in the obstacles to their marriages that the importance of money in marriage before happiness in marriage becomes most painfully apparent. Aside from marriage, money was an avenue to a respectable career and even to a title. A fine example of this is Sir William Lucas, who was a tradesman in Meryton...
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