Jane Austen And Women's Roles In 18th Century England: "Pride And Prejudice"

1180 words - 5 pages

The place of unmarried women in British society was determined by their social status and the size of their dowries. Married women had more freedom and influence than unmarried women, and their positions were defined by the rank and wealth of their husbands. Unmarried women could be respected and influential, only if they were of high birth and had a great deal of money. Women of the low gentry, who were unlucky enough to have small dowries (or no dowries at all), were relegated to borderline poverty and being recipients of charity.The heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, is the second of five daughters. Her father is a member of the low gentry; he inherited an entailment of money, house, and land, but he is not wealthy. Mr. Bennet receives a limited income from a farm that he owns, but does not work himself. Since he has no son, (and only males can inherit entailments), all that he owns will be inherited by a distant male relative (Mr. Collins). Mrs. Bennet has very little money, leaving Elizabeth and her four sisters with small dowries, and little chance of making good marriages. A young woman of poor means had a chance to marry only if she was striking in appearance and wit, and if she was lucky enough to attract a wealthy man who did not need to marry for money. Elizabeth Bennet was just such a young woman."Pride and Prejudice", written by Jane Austen, gives its readers a glimpse of the world of women of the gentry in eighteenth century England. Jane Austen wrote about what she knew. As a daughter of the low gentry--a cleric, Austen moved in circles much like those she described in her books. Austen had five brothers. Edward was adopted by wealthy, childless relatives, inherited their wealth, and spent his life raising children. James became a rector. Henry married a wealthy French aristocrat (who met with the guillotine), had an uncertain career, and finally became a cleric. Francis and Charles both joined the British navy and became admirals. In contrast to men of little fortune, who could raise themselves through careers in the military or the church, women of little fortune (short of a miracle) were just unfortunate women. Neither Jane Austen nor her sister Cassandra ever married. They had no dowries, and were forced to live meager lives as spinsters, on the charity of their father and (after his death in 1805) their brother Edward, until they died. Austen had the quick mind and wit of Elizabeth Bennet, but was unfortunate enough to have the plain looks of Charlotte Lucas. When writing of Charlotte, Austen states that Charlotte sensibly marries the buffoon Mr. Collins, because she knows the importance of having her own home. Charlotte's brothers are relieved, because they will not be burdened with providing for a spinster sister. Austen was well acquainted with the role of being a burden--a spinster (Austen was lucky in that she earned a very little pocket money by writing). Having brothers, Austen knew how important it was for men to marry women...

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