Jane Austen's novels at first glance tell a story of romance set primarily within the landowning society amidst country estates, and their cultivation of tea parties, social outings, and extravagant balls; ladies sashaying in flowing gowns through precisely decorated rooms, and men deliberating over their game of whist. The storybook romance usually unfolds in these familiar settings, and inevitably involves the conflict of two lovers separated by differences in social class, and the resulting influence of the diverse societies they revolve in. Although these superficial aspects of Austen's stories are protruding at the seams, underneath the skin of these well-clothed dramas lie serious moral issues afflicting the culture of England during Austen's life. Jane Austen seems to have been disheartened by the decay of England's aristocratic society. The exploration of the innocent protagonist of each novel further into her core ethics, and the relation of these to the imposing culture of her immediate family and surrounding social class gives the reader a fresh taste of the prominence of class distinction and the apparent emptiness of the aristocratic society that in reality existed in Austen's own life. A close examination of the evolution of Austen's ideals through her novels will reveal the essence of the protagonist's relationship to her family, and its direct relationship to the family's moral stance, as well as conclusive evidence regarding Austen's own values.
Austen's first completed novel, and most popular novel to date, Pride and Prejudice, tells the story of Elizabeth Bennett, the daughter of a gentleman who lives in the country with her four sisters. Due to the laws of England, their closest male relative will inherit the Bennett estate therefore the young women are counseled by their parents to make a profitable match to secure their fortune. The protagonist, Elizabeth Bennett, being unlike her sisters, does not entertain the thought of pursuing a gentleman. When the rich bachelor, Mr. Darcy comes to visit his wealthy friend Mr. Bingley, Elizabeth's guarded curiosity is overshadowed by a humiliating comment from the seemingly arrogant Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth overhears him speak of her as not being beautiful enough to tempt him to dance at a party, and in effect, she becomes prejudiced against his character. After further contact with Elizabeth, their families living in neighboring estates, he realizes that she is the most intelligent, discerning, and virtuous woman he has ever met. He begins to fall in love with her, but his pride prevents him, at first, from lowering himself to her social class. Therefore, his admiration of her, stifled by his high-class society grows into an obsession until he can bear it no longer. He proceeds to inform her of his affliction of affection for her, and then somewhat remorsefully proposes marriage. Elizabeth is shocked, and wholeheartedly rejects him where any other woman would jump at the chance to make such a profitable match, thereby securing a very wealthy future. Elizabeth's strong sense of moral integrity and overwhelming sense of self ultimately causes Mr. Darcy after overcoming his wounded pride, to truly love her, and he sets out to prove his love publicly to the dismay of his high society and royal connections.
The "Cinderella" like story shows that at the early age of Austen's writing career-she was 21-22 years old when she wrote the first draft of Pride and Prejudice-she was well able to write from a sense outside the realm of the woman's role in society and the social ladder so eagerly ascended by women wanting to achieve success in the conventional fashion of that era (Lewis 359).
At the publishing of Mansfield Park, however, there is a prominent shift in focus of how the varying classes are viewed. The upper class or landed gentry sustains a more focused attack. The conflict that exists in the novel lies in the condescension of the...