“A woman cannot be herself in the society of the present day, which is an exclusively masculine society,…that judges feminine conduct from a masculine point of view.” -Henrik Ibsen, From Ibsen’s Workshop
In your novel, is this quote an accurate assessment of the female protagonist’s life?
From Susan B. Anthony to Eleanor Roosevelt, Sandra Day O’Connor to Clara Barton, our world has progressed into a more equal and just place for women since the dark days of the 1800s. Each decade has experienced a new breakthrough, whether it was watching Amelia Earhart fly across the Atlantic or Queen Elizabeth I take over the English monarchy. With each new record we break or prize we win, the women of the twenty first century are shattering the idea of the masculine society, and modernizing our customs to fit the ideals of the present day. Jane Austen, an activist herself, lived deep within the rules of a masculine society. With the gender rules clearly defined, women lived with less rights they could count on one hand, causing the viscous cycle of the reliance on men for money, social acceptance, and family relations to persist for many generations. Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813 and set in this time, expresses the hardships of a masculine society for women like Elizabeth Bennet, who were not blind to the wrongdoings of society. While many women of the day chose to conform to social norms, Elizabeth lived her life independently in an effort to achieve true happiness. Although ultimately did marry, a custom of the 1800s, she did so on her own terms, only after potentially jeopardizing a life of security along the way. In the patriarchal society present in Pride and Prejudice, a system of entailment backed each marital contract, which stated inherited property must only go to male heirs. This legal system perpetuated the masculine society, as women were pressured to search for a husband to attain financial security. Charlotte Lucas, Elizabeth’s best acquaintance, is a classic example of a woman conforming to these societal standards. In the middle of the novel, after Elizabeth turns Mr. Collins’ proposal down, Charlotte accepts the invitation of marriage, and the narrator remarks, “Without thinking highly of either men or matrimony, marriage had always been [Charlotte’s] object; it was the only honorable provision for well-educated woman of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want” (93). In other words, Charlotte did not fancy Mr. Collins, but because marrying him was the only socially accepted route for middle-class woman to make, she was going to make it work and put her happiness aside. Many of the elder women in the story strongly support this way of life, and the most approving among them is Mrs. Bennet. Mrs. Bennet, the mother of five girls, was obsessed with the prospect of her children marrying wealthy, prominent young men, because the system of entailment provided no other acceptable fate. The first chapter ends with the quote, “The business of [Mrs. Bennet’s] life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news” (3). Mrs. Bennet represents the quintessential mother of the early 1800s, one who tirelessly worked to raise beautiful, moral, and charming young women. In turn, the children were expected to grow up and marry, guaranteeing a life of financial security for themselves and their family. Elizabeth did not follow this same path, but instead paved a new one to fit her own terms. The reader senses this individualistic quality in the beginning of the novel, when Mr. Collins proposes to Elizabeth and she surely turns him down. “I am perfectly serious in my refusal,” she says,“—You could not make me happy, and I am convinced I am the last human in the world to make you so…I wish you very happy and very rich, and by refusing your hand, do all in my power to prevent your being otherwise” (82). Elizabeth did not turn down Mr. Collins because she was not in need of the financial advantages, she denied him because she knew they were not capable of making each other happy. Happiness, not financial security, was Elizabeth’s drive throughout the novel, and her endless attempts to achieve true happiness resulted in her continued independence and individuality to live in a masculine society on her own terms. Just as Elizabeth dodged Mr. Collins’ marriage proposal because she did not love him, she also denied Mr. Darcy the first time, in spite of the advantageous social connections he would have brought to herself and her family if they married. From the moment she met Darcy she was unlike other girls, as she deprived him of the satisfaction of her praise, denying to flatter or fawn over him. Darcy was taken aback by this strange rejection, and at the end of the novel Elizabeth explains why that is: “You [Darcy] were disgusted with women who were always speaking and looking and thinking of your approbation alone. I roused and interested you, because I was so unlike them” (285). Elizabeth did not play into social games or amusements such as acting obsequious towards a prominent, wealthy, and handsome member of society. Instead, she acted cordial to those who interested her, and cold to those she did not like. In a masculine society, it is rare for a woman to ignore the status of an individual and justly treat them as they should be treated, however, Elizabeth does just that and disregards these titles and reacts only to how she is regarded. A prime example of this behavior was seen as Elizabeth repudiates Mr. Darcy’s initial proposal because she claimed, “From the very beginning, from the first moment…your manners impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feeling of others, were such as to form that groundwork of disapprobation on which succeeding events have built so immovable a dislike” (145). As women, given his fortune and looks, have only ever treated Mr. Darcy with the upmost respect, this marks the first time a woman was honest and frank with him. Elizabeth acted with the courtesy she believed Mr. Darcy deserved, and did not spare him anything in her refusal. This shows that Elizabeth was not concerned about the material gain and social acknowledgment she would gain from Mr. Darcy, should they have married, and once again she was responding in terms of her happiness in this stringent masculine society.
Her disregard for social status extended beyond Mr. Darcy and his professed love, Elizabeth also voiced her opinion when interacting with the distinguished women in society. Lady Catherine de Bough, the aunt of Mr. Darcy, was a very highly regarded woman in Pride and Prejudice and was accustomed to being respected behind her eminent façade. After plans of Mr. Darcy’s second proposal were unveiled, Lady Catherine quickly traveled to Longbourn to visit the Bennet residence, and speak with Elizabeth about her own intentions regarding her nephew. When asked to reject Mr. Darcy’s invitation of marriage once again, after Elizabeth’s true feelings had surfaced for Darcy, she told Lady Catherine, “I am only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected to me” (260). This quote, arguably the most important in the novel, demonstrates Elizabeth’s genuine goal in life—to get married for love, whether or not she had to take risks to get there.
Many may argue that Elizabeth Bennet simply went along with the masculine societal ways, choosing not to rebel and in the end gaining all of the benefits. I argue, however, that Elizabeth adjusted the society to her own terms time and time again throughout the novel, and along the way risked not gaining anything in the end. Yes, she did marry a wealthy, renowned, handsome man, but she defied society by not initially accepting his, or others, invitations of marriage because she was not truly happy. Elizabeth did acquire a life for others to seek after, but throughout the journey she developed many unconventional habits as she adapted her ways to be herself in a masculine society, always on her own terms.