In nineteenth century Britain, what people did and their behaviour was very much governed by the social class they were born into. Class distinction in Jane Austen's time was in fact very rigid. The land-owning aristocracy belonged to the highest rank of the social ladder. The class immediately below them was the gentry who had inherited their fortunes, usually in the form of land. Though the gentry may have been associated with the aristocracy, they were definitely inferior.
Young women of Austen's time had limited socially prescribed options open to them regarding their future. The importance of marriage for a young woman and her family in the nineteenth century may be difficult for modern readers to understand. Although the daughters of the middle and upper class could be sent to school, their education consisted more of becoming accomplished. Society could not conceive of a woman entering a profession such as medicine or law and therefore did not offer her a chance to do so. Because of the extremely limited options a woman had in order to earn a living, marriage was essential for financial and social well-being. Therefore, if a woman remained unmarried for the rest of her life, she would remain dependent on her relatives, living with or receiving a small income from her father, brothers or any other relative that could afford to support her.
The central theme of the novel concerns itself with marriage, as indicated in the ironic opening line of the book. Throughout the novel, it is not the man seeking the wife but more so Mrs. Bennet seeking a husband for her older daughters. Mr. Bingley is already being considered by the ladies present. The novel vividly looks at different types of love and marriage. One of the many different types of marriages that Jane Austen explores is one of economic necessity, the one, which Mr. Collins offers Elizabeth, and the one, which Charlotte Lucas falls into.
Mr. Collins' primary objective for attending at Longbourn was to find a woman suitable for marriage and, when hearing that the eldest daughter of the Bennet family, Jane, is being courted by Mr. Bingley, he turns his attention to Elizabeth. Pompous, ignorant Mr. Collins, in terms of his financial position and Elizabeth's prospects is a "good catch". Mr. Collins sees matrimony as solely a business transaction. Austen states that, as he prepares for the proposal,
"He set about it in an orderly manner, with all the observances which he supposed a regular part of the business."
He lists all the economic and social considerations that lead him to disbelieve Elizabeth's rejection of his proposal. Elizabeth wants to marry for love, not convenience, and Mr. Collins' proposal to Elizabeth is certainly not a culmination of love for her.
One of the sadder aspects of the novel is the case of Elizabeth's best friend and neighbour, Charlotte Lucas. Charlotte is twenty-seven and is quite intelligent, but not very pretty or lively. Since she is without a husband, she necessarily sees marriage as a matter of tactic and manoeuvring. In chapter six of the novel, Charlotte states her view to Elizabeth on the subject of marriage:
"Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. If the dispositions of the parties are ever so well known to each other, or ever so similar before-hand, it does not advance their felicity in the least. They always continue to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of vexation; and it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are...