She had lived a privileged life and was able to spend much time observing others and using those observations to draw portraits in words of characters for her novels. She had contact directly and indirectly, with mostly upper and middle class people, and these form the majority of her characters. She wrote about the society within her novels, but what parts of that society can we uncover from the very opening chapters of the book?
Within the first sentence of the book, Austen has already deftly established the major theme and tone around which the novel is set. She states:
“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 introduces the theme of marriage and money, which is central to the novel’s plot, as well as the lives of the young unmarried girls of that period. Jane Austen immediately puts her irony to work here, however it is still possible to uncover a lot about society from this quotation. When looking beyond the surface it really has a meaning rather different compared to what it is literally understood to mean and if you read onto the next paragraph you discover that the young men themselves are not even included in this ‘universal truth’. In fact their feelings on the matter are completely unknown. It is therefore ironic and draws the attention of the reader to the motivation of the surrounding families whose ‘universal truth’ depends on their hopes for their own daughters. This shows us that in Austen’s society, parents wanted to find good-looking, rich husbands for their daughters and get them married off so they would be financially secure. We also learn from this that the parents of daughters in Jane Austen’s society saw marriage as the natural consequence of having a good fortune.
There is more evidence of this when in the narrative description it says:
“The business of her life was to get her daughters married”
This portrays to us how important marriage was then, especially to parents like Mrs Bennet. When Jane Austen was writing women legally owned nothing and so could not inherit property. We have not yet met this in the novel but by knowing this it is possible to understand from the above that the only way in which a woman could rise in the world was to get married.
In chapter two we see Elizabeth “employed in trimming a hat” and then her father comments to her that he hopes Mr Bingly will like it. From this we learn about the accomplishment of women. Mr Bennet is hoping for a successful marriage for Lizzie to Mr Bingly. This shows how in 19th century society daughters should be accomplished in ways that will attract a husband such as sewing and singing rather than by having an education; this would be of no use to them, as women weren’t allowed to work.
After the earlier refusal by Mr Bennet to go and visit Mr Bingly, the rest of the family were torn apart- especially Mrs Bennet who recognised the importance of marrying off one of her daughters. However, neither Mrs Bennet nor any of her daughters went to visit him either. This displays to us something more about their society. It would not have been socially acceptable for one of the ladies to visit him; it would therefore have been the duty of the man of the house to call upon potential suitors for his daughters.
Very soon after this a ball is going to be held at Netherfield. It is at this point where we can identify another fact about Jane Austen’s society:
“To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love”
We can recognize from this that ladies did not have much chance to socialise with the opposite sex, and therefore that balls were one of the only opportunities to get close to potential husbands. It therefore implies that a lot of couples became bound by wedlock by dancing together. This was in fact the case in this period as it was the only time when one could actually meet men on their own accord.
Soon after this, in chapter three, we are first introduced to Darcy and it is he whom causes tumultuous uproar at the ball. He is at first admired because he is rumoured to have a fortune of ten thousand pounds a year. This automatically makes him ‘much handsomer than Bingly (who is rather less rich). Again this shows how marriage and money are so closely intertwined in the society of Jane Austen. However, by the end of the paragraph he has a ‘forbidding, disagreeable countenance’ and is unworthy of comparison with his friend because of his bad manners. This introduces another theme; this time about social standing. He is clearly aware that he holds a higher rank in society than most others at the ball and is not afraid to show it. Darcy’s pride at this point represents a perspective on wealth and privilege that was common in nineteenth- century Britain.
An example of Darcy’s pride occurs when he calls Elizabeth Bennet
“..tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me”
As well as showing his pride though, it also shows the importance of beauty in the nineteenth- century. Men were often tempted to marry the best looking women so they had someone who made them look good on their arm. We learn this at this point as Darcy does not seem to want to take the time to acknowledge anything about Elizabeth’s personality or deeper beauty only what is on the surface, and he wants something prettier.
Lastly we learn about the social classes that existed within social classes:
“They were from a respectable family in the North of England; a circumstance more deeply impressed on their memories than that their brother’s fortune and their own had been acquired by trade.”
Here, although both Darcy and Bingly are both very obviously of upper class there is still a level that exists between them. This would have been common of the period Jane Austen was writing in and it teaches us that families who were rich by way of trade were inferior to families whose fortunes had been inherited.
Overall the first four chapters do in fact provide a very good insight into what society was like in the time of Jane Austen. There are a lot of valuable insights into what living in that period was like and I am sure that over the course of the novel there will be a great deal more, which will help us to piece together a more complete picture of society in the 18th and 19th century.