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Social Status

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Introduction
Pride and Prejudice is the most enduringly popular novel written by Jane Austen. It talks about trivial matters of love, marriage and family life between country squires and fair ladies in Britain in the 18th century. The plot is very simple. That is how the young ladies choose their husbands. Someone said that “Elizabeth Bennet, the protagonist of the novel, flatly rejected William Collins’ proposal, who is the heir of her father’s property and manor, and refused the first proposal from the extremely wealthy nobleman Fitzwilliam Darcy later,”(1) all this makes it clear that Elizabeth “seeks no fame nor fortune, but self-improvement and high mental outlook.”(1) It’s right. From the view point of Austen, Elizabeth’s marriage, who finally marries Darcy, as well as Jane-Bingley’s, composing money and love, is the ideal marriage people should after. But in other marriage cases in this novel, we can see that if money and love can’t be held together in one marriage, love would always make a concession to money because of the special social background. After reading through the whole book, we will find that money acts as the cause of each plot and the clue of its development. It affects everybody’s words and deeds, even Elizabeth Bennet. Tony Tanner once said, “Jane Austen, as well as other authors, is very clear that no feeling could be extremely pure and no motive could be definitely single. But as long as it is possible, we should make it clear that which feeling or motive plays the leading role.” (2)

Social Background
The story of Pride and Prejudice took place in the time of the Regency in Britain. At that time, Britain was at the period of transition from the earlier stage of Capitalism to Capitalist Industrialization. In the countryside, the aristocratic family still held great power and right that country squires were likely to fawn upon them. However, as the development of Capitalism and the expand of the rank of rich people, the distinction between social strata was becoming smaller and smaller, while money was getting more and more important in people’s mind about social value. A western literature critic once said that “ even David Ricardo (a British economist) had a unlikely clearer understanding about the function of money in daily life as Jane Austen had.”(3) It is exactly because of the secure pledge in finance that the country squire society could be existing strongly and solidly. The first sentence of the whole novel proclaims, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”(4) Here, “a good fortune” and “in want of” are two key phrases. “in want of” means it is needed objectively, but not subjectively. Such kind of wording makes the proposition have more objectivity of “truth”. In Pride and Prejudice, the Bennets are taken as the typical to test the “truth universally acknowledged”.
Mr. and Mrs. Bennet have five daughters, living at Longbourn. Mr. Bennet’s property consists almost entirely in an estate of two thousand pounds a year, which, unfortunately for his daughters, is entailed, in default of heirs male, on a distant relation. That means there will be no other guarantee for their daughters’ future lives, but their perspective marriages. Therefore, it is no wonder that Mrs. Bennet takes Mr. Bingley as “the rightful property”(5) for their daughters when she hears about that he has one hundred thousand pounds property, though she has not even seen him – “A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!”(6) That is the beginning of the novel. The implicit marriage mentioned here obviously concerns no feeling but only financial condition and subsistence. To those husband-hunting ladies, Mr. Bingley is an abstract signal. The most important thing is that he has “a good fortune”. So we can say, to opposite with the proclamation at the beginning, so-called “ a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” is not at all “ a truth universally acknowledged”, but only Mrs. Bennet’s own wishful thinking. We can also say that, as Zhu Hong pointed out, in Pride and prejudice, the real “truth universally acknowledged” is “ a woman without property must be in want of a husband with a good fortune.”(7) We first see Mr. Darcy at the ball, “ He soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien, and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a-year.”(8) Next is the introduction about Mr. Bingley and his two sisters.
“They were in fact very fine ladies; not deficient in good humor when they pleased, nor in power of being agreeable when they chose it, but proud and conceited. They were very handsome, had been educated in one of the first private seminaries in town, had a fortune of twenty thousand pounds, were in the habit of spending more than they ought, and of associating with people of rank, and were therefore in every respect entitled to think well of themselves, and meanly of others. They were of a respectable family the north of England; a circumstances more deeply impressed on their memories than that their brother’s fortune and their own had been acquired by trade.
Mr. Bingley inherited property to the amount of nearly an hundred thousand pounds from his father, who had intended to purchase an estate, but did not live to it. Mr. Bingley intended it likewise, and sometimes made choice of his county; but as he was now provided with a good house and the liberty of a manor, it was doubtful to many of those who best knew the easiness of his temper, whether he might not spend the remainder of his days at Netherfield, and leave the next generation to purchase.”(9)
The narration above describes the British country squires’ life-picture from one aspect. They have enough money for loafing, and these loafers can afford big or small residence with servants for ordering about. They take family background seriously, which is the most important factor to earn others’ respect, on the basis of fortune and good-breeding. At the same time, they will not trace to its sources. In short, there does exist strict hierarchy, which is classified according to the family and tradition from the surface, but the financial income actually. Those who have the highest income will be in the highest social position, owning large residence and parks, having the nicest furniture and the most precious paintings, and the best streams for fishing. The money earned by trading is despised, but it will be soon forgotten after generations. However, to avoid being looked down upon, the generation at present will always employ such kind of clever method: giving up business dealing or profession and going to countryside to settle down then nobody will know their past. From a neighbor of the Bennets, we can get to know how such social process begins:
“Sir William Lucas had been formerly in trade in Meryton, where he had made a tolerable fortune, and risen to the honor of knighthood by an address to the king, during his mayoralty. The distinction had perhaps been felt too strongly. It had given him a disgust to his business, and to his residence in a small market town; and, quitting them both, he had removed with his family to a house about a mile from Meryton, denominated from the period Lucas Lodge, where he could think with pleasure of his own importance, and unshackled by business, occupy himself solely in being civil to all the world.”(10) Then what attitude does these rich country squires hold to the low-class people surrounding them? Let’s look at another paragraph of description about Lady Catherine de Bourgh:
“Elizabeth soon perceived, that though this great lady was not in the commission of the peace for the county, she was a most active magistrate in her own parish, the minutest concerns of which were carried to her by Mr. Collins; and whenever any of the cottagers were disposed to be quarrelsome, discontented, or too poor, she sallied forth into the village to settle their differences, silence their complaints, and scold them into harmony and plenty.”(11)
Lady Catherine de Bourgh is a model of her rank, arrogant and conceited. Her manners to the inferiors are dictatorial and insolent. She has the reputation of being remarkably sensible and clever. But all this, together with her ability of administrating the county, derives from her rank and fortune. That is to say, good fame and exceeding power would certainly come to a person as long as he/she has money and is in high social position. The great impact of money on marriage
In Pride and Prejudice, we can always see country squires’ leisurely life with calls, walks, picnics, conversations, parties, balls and marriages. But seeing through the surface, there is a world of struggling for existence determined by economic base. The whole book is filled with digit. Mr. Bennet’s property consists almost entirely in an estate of two thousand pounds a year. Mrs. Bennet’s father ... leaves her four thousand pounds. Each of their five daughters can get one thousand pounds in the 4 per cents after their mother dies. Mr. Bingley inherits property to the amount of nearly an hundred thousands pounds from his father and he has four or five thousand a year. Miss Bingley has a fortune of twenty thousand pounds. Mr. Darcy has ten thousand pounds a year while his sister, Georgiana has a property of thirty thousand pounds. Wickham wants to get ten thousand from Darcy, otherwise he will not marry Lydia even though they are in elopement. Colonel Fitzwilliam, Darcy’s cousin, would like to marry a woman who should have a property of at least fifty thousand pounds, since he has no inheritance as a younger son of an earl. Mr. Collins claims that he must make such an agreement for tithes as may be beneficial to himself and not offensive to his patron. Even the chimney-piece in one of Lady Catherine’s drawing rooms costs eight hundred pounds. Of course, the very one thing that cannot be forgotten to mention is that the estate entail of Mr. Bennet, which makes Mrs. Bennet be extreme obsession. And it is the exact thing that decides the fate of their five daughters and then the story of Pride and prejudice occurs. Upon the whole, no marriage that involves no money. Except the detailed digit of money, there is another factor which has a great influence on marriage. That is social position determined by economic condition. In the story, the Bennets have some low connections. They have one uncle, Mr. Phillips, being an attorney in Meryton, and another one, Mr. Gardiner, settling in London in a respectable line of trade. As for this, Miss Bingley always makes fun of the Bennets, and Mr. Darcy once says frankly that “it must very materially lessen their chance of marrying men of any consideration in the world.”(12) To make it clear that money is very important in the marriage convention of such kind of society, Mr. Collins’ words after Elizabeth refusing his proposal can be taken as proof.
“… It does not appear to me that my hand is unworthy your acceptance, or that establishment I can offer would be any other than highly desirable. My situation in life, my connections with the family of de Bourgh, and my relationship to your own, are circumstances highly in my favor; and you should take it into further consideration, that in spite of your manifold attractions, it is by no means certain that another offer to marriage may ever be made you, your portion is unhappily so small, that it will in all likelihood undo the effects of your loveliness and amiable qualifications.”(13)
Mr. Collins is not a sensible man, and the deficiency of Nature has been but little assisted by education or society. The subjection in which his father brought him up has given him originally great humility of manner; but it is a great deal counteracted by the self-conceit of a weak head, living in retirement, and the consequent feelings of early and unexpected prosperity. The respect which he feels for Lady Catherine’s high rank, and his veneration for her as his patroness, mingling with a very good opinion of himself, of his authority as a clergyman, and his right as a rector, makes him altogether a mixture of pride and obsequiousness, self-importance and humility. His intention of choosing Elizabeth as his wife is his plan of amends -- of atonement – for inheriting their father’s estate; and he thinks it an excellent one, full of eligibility and suitableness, and excessively generous and disinterested on his own part. So he takes it for granted that Elizabeth will accept his proposal cheerfully and readily. Though Elizabeth rejects him for his incomplete character, it still can tell us the low social-status of the British women at that period of time. The only thing a young lady without property could do is to marrying a man with a good fortune. Take the marriage case of Lucas-Collins for another example. Miss Lucas is Elizabeth’s closest friend. She is a sensible, intelligent young woman, knowing it very clearly that “Mr. Collins, to be sure, was neither sensible nor agreeable; his society was irksome, and his attachment to her must be imaginary. But still he would be her husband. Without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only honorable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want.”(14)
Such humorous and piercing description portrays the mentality of Lucas-like women deeply and also their fate that there is no other way that can improve their own position in finance and society except marrying a husband with a good fortune. Elizabeth goes to Parsonage to visit them by the invitation of Miss Lucas after they getting married, and finds:
“Her home and her housekeeping, her parish and her poultry, and all their dependent concerns, had not yet lost their charms.”(15) “When Mr. Collins could be forgotten, there was really a great air of comfort throughout …”(16)
It is interesting that, in such marriage based on sole and naked money-transaction, the woman without property does marry a single man with a good fortune, but the husband himself has nothing to do with the enjoyment the marriage bringing to her. Is not it an excellent irony to the proposition at the beginning of the novel the “truth universally acknowledged”? Wickham-Lydia Scandal can be taken as another instance to illustrate that money is of overwhelming importance in marriage. Wickham is very handsome and charming from his appearance, but actually demoralizes. He is extravagant and always greatly in debts of honor. Lydia, far more different from her two elder sisters, is vain, ignorant, idle and absolutely uncontrolled. Moreover, she indulges herself in flirtation with officers. They elope from Brighton without any engagement and are found out in London finally. Though under such circumstances, Wickham has no intention at all to marry Lydia, but for Darcy’s help in secret:
“Mr. Darcy asked him why he had not married your sister at once? Though Mr. Bennet was not imagined to be very rich, he would have been able to do something for him, and his situation must have been benefited by marriage. But he found, in reply to this question, that Wickham still cherish the hope of more effectually making his fortune by marriage in some other county. Under such circumstances, however, he was not likely to be proof against the temptation of immediate relief.
They met several times, for there was much to be discussed. Wickham, of course, wanted more than he could get, but at length was reduced to be reasonable.”(17)
Wickham’s marrying Lydia finally calms down the dissatisfaction in the society, and for that, Mrs. Bennet is in great joy. In marriage, money is considered as the factor of extreme importance, not only to daughters, but also to younger sons. Let’s have a close look at the conversation between the respectable Colonel Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth:
“… Now, seriously, what have you ever known of self-denial and dependence? When have you been prevented by want of money from going wherever you chose, or procuring anything you had a fancy for?”
“These are home questions — and perhaps I can not say that I have experienced many hardships of that nature. But in matters of greater weight, I may suffer from the want of money. Younger sons can not marry where they like.”
“Unless where they like women of fortune, which I think they very often do.”
“Our habits of expense make us too dependent, and there are not many in my rank of life who can afford to marry without some attention to money.”(18) Now let’s turn to the protagonist of the novel, Elizabeth Bennets. She is intelligent, vivacious, humorous, perceptive and quick-witted, and she has a strong sense of personality and dignity. She despises her mother’s dreadful mentality and unbearably vulgar and also her younger sisters’ flirtatiousness and dissoluteness, but is never ashamed of her amiable uncle and aunt, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner just because of their profession as merchants. She firmly refuses Mr. Collins’ proposal, against her mother’s expectation, because she does not and will never love him, and declines Mr. Darcy resolutely, for his expressing his love to her arrogantly and impertinently. She does not knuckle under the snobbish Miss Bingley, and is neither overbearing nor cringing to Mrs. de Bourgh and her domineeringness. When the latter shows her intention to intervene her freedom of marrying Darcy or not, she takes on diamond-cut-diamond and never compromised. She finally marries Darcy and her marriage is considered as an ideal one, for it consists of money and love. Leaving aside her true love for Darcy, then, what role does money play in her process of chasing after marriage? She once holds good feelings on Wickham, considering him to be the most agreeable man she has ever met. But meanwhile, she thinks it is too imprudent to fall in love with him. She once says to her aunt, Mrs. Gardiner,
“I will take care of myself, and of Mr. Wickham too. He shall not be in love with me, if I can prevent it.”(19)
So when Wickham gets engaged with Miss King for her ten-thousand-pound property, she does not feel a little bit sad but free. Her two younger sisters, Kitty and Lydia are resentful about him, but she thinks
“They are young in the ways of the world, and not yet open to the mortifying conviction that handsome young men must have something to live on as well as the plain.”(20)
When Mrs. Gardiner expresses her idea about Wickham’s desertion later, Elizabeth says,
“Pray, my dear aunt, what is the difference in matrimonial affairs, between the mercenary and the prudent motive? Where does discretion end, and avarice begin?”(21)
Here, Austen brings up a complicated problem for discussion through Elizabeth — How shall we quantify the ratio between money and love in a marriage? Elizabeth could not accept Collins because there could be no possibility of love between them, nor Wickham since he has no property. (Though Wickham is short of not only money but also moral, she does not know it until the latter part of the story.) Darcy’s pride and her prejudice against him makes her refuse his first offer of marriage, but later on, she feels regretful for her own bias and rashness. There is a faint pity in her painful self-condemn and complex feelings. When she sees Darcy’s Pemberley Park, her feeling changes,
“She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste.” And at that moment, “She felt that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!”(22)
Apparently there is sort of pleasant sensation about substance based on money subconsciously. However, such kind of pursuit seems to be natural and reasonable accompanying with her elegant temperament. Elizabeth rejects a pride “Darcy”, but accepts a perfect-going “Darcy”. After she confesses her love for Darcy and their engagement to her elder sister, Jane asks her how long she has loved Mr. Darcy and she answers, “I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley….”(23) Though she is joking, we can see part of her feeling of pursuing money. In Pride and Prejudice, there are also some description about other people’s different opinion on money and marriage. For instance, Lady Catherine wants her daughter Anne to marry her nephew, Mr. Darcy, to make a union of the two estates, and she believes it is Darcy’s duty and responsibility. Miss Bingley, who has a fortune of twenty thousand pounds and is in the habit of spending more than she ought, and of associating with people of rank, shows her great interest to Mr. Darcy, who has ten thousand a year. She also spares no effort to prevent the love affair between Mr. Bingley, her brother and Jane Bennet, Elizabeth’s elder sister, and hopes that her brother can marry Georgiana, Darcy’s sister. Only this can enhance his fortune and social position, and also the possibility of her herself marrying Mr. Darcy. Colonel Fitzwilliam, Darcy’s cousin, is a younger son of an earl, can inherit neither property nor official title. He acknowledges to Elizabeth that his habit of expense makes him too dependent and he cannot afford to marry without some attention to money. He also says that only Darcy can be out of the restraint of money to choose freely on marriage. From the part of Mr. Darcy, though he need not marry a lady with property since he is in great wealth, he does experience long-time and fierce struggle in the process of acceptance of Elizabeth for her social position and low connections.
“He really believed, that were it not for the inferiority of her (Elizabeth) connections, he should be in some danger.”(24)
“He began to feel the danger of paying Elizabeth too much attention.”(25)
“She attracted him more than he liked … He wisely resolved to be particularly careful that no sign of admiration should now escape him, nothing that could elevate her with the hope of influencing his felicity; … though they were at one time left by themselves for half-an-hour, he adhere most conscientiously to his book, and would not even look at her.”(26)
Mr. Darcy grows up in a strong awareness of rank and power from his very childhood, which makes him pride and conceited. When he comes to Longbourn, the persons there and the manners they take are far different from what he is familiar with. Though there are so many pleasant girls, “there is not another woman in the room whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with.”(27) Even when he proposes to Elizabeth for his deep love (“In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feeling will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”(28)), his sense of her inferiority – of its being a degradation – of the family obstacles which judgment has always opposed to inclination, are dwelt on with a warmth which seems due to the consequence he is wounding.
“I was in middle before I knew I had begun.”(29) Obviously, he once tries to take back his feeling when he finds he is in love with Elizabeth and has a strong conflict between sense and sensibility in his heart.
Such sense has a direct responsibility for his putting obstacles in the uneven marriage of Bingley and Jane.
“… he (Darcy) congratulated himself on having lately saved a friend from the inconveniences of a most imprudent marriage ” because “ there were some very strong objections against the lady”(30) and these strong objections are, “her having one uncle who was a country attorney, and another who was in business in London.”(31) Now it comes to the point. The low connections with small fortune and bad manners is the real cause that makes Darcy depress his own love for Elizabeth and thwart the prospective marriage between Bingley and Jane. It seems that only the marriage case of Bingley-Jane involves the purest love but no money at all. Then, why is not Bingley penniless but a “young man of large fortune”? In Pride and prejudice, Austen put marriage into all kinds of social and economic relationship from beginning to end, which makes the whole novel have great practical significance.

Conclusion
There are a lot of novels talking about marriage in Britain, but scarecely an author could be like Austen, exposing the money-essence of capitalism marriage system so deeply. In brief, it is money that determines everybody’s life and fate, especially marriage. As for it’s pragmatic meaning, it could be forceful and penetrating. No wonder that David Dax,a western Marxism critic said, in the aspect of exposing “the economics of human beings’ behavior”, Jane Austen, “to some extent, had been a Marxist before Marx’s being born.”(32)

Notes

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