For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn? • Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
Romanticism and The Rise of the Novel • 1800–1855
The novel of manners
1740 English author Samuel Richardson’s Pamela is a story about a servant girl climbing the social ranks; it is considered to be an early novel of manners.
1847 Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë, critiques Victorian class divisions and prejudice, as well as the constricting expectations faced by women.
1847—48 The duplicity and dishonesty of society life are satirized via the exploits of Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair, by English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray.
1905 An American novel of manners, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth reflects the social, economic, and moral constraints that are placed on women.
The early to mid-18th century saw the rise of the novel and, a little later, the development of Romanticism in literature. By the close of the 18th century, however, a new genre had emerged in England — the novel of manners, which moved away from the excesses of emotion and flights of fancy common to Romanticism. Instead, it placed emphasis on the beliefs, manners, and social structures of particular groups of people. These novels were often dominated by women — both as authors and as protagonists — and for this reason were sometimes wrongly dismissed as trivial.
Jane Austen’s novels are the prime examples of such literature, gently satirizing the social mores of the English country gentry, as well as poking fun at the overindulgent drama of Gothic Romanticism. Austen highlights the vulgarities and follies of the English upper classes: the importance of rank, the stigma of social inferiority, and the system of patronage are played out via balls, visits, and society gossip.
"A lady’s imagination is very rapid; it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment."
Pride and Prejudice
Social ups and downs
In Pride and Prejudice, the reader follows the Bennet sisters in their quest for an eligible bachelor. For women, a good marriage was key to maintaining or improving one’s social status. The novel is told mainly through the eyes of its principal character, Elizabeth Bennet (Austen’s own favourite among her heroines), a good and well-intentioned young woman. She is one of the five daughters of the intelligent but put-upon Mr Bennet, a country gentleman, and his pushy, vulgar wife; their own marriage being a perfect example of how not to do it.
Elizabeth meets the aristocratic Fitzwilliam Darcy, who is drawn to her despite himself; however, she finds his haughty pride and his supercilious behaviour offensive. He is contrasted with his equally wealthy but unaffected friend, Bingley, who takes a liking to Elizabeth’s older sister, Jane. Yet when the flighty younger sister, Lydia, scandalously elopes with the dashing officer George Wickham, threatening to disgrace the entire family, it is Darcy who unexpectedly steps in to help. Elizabeth’s pride, prejudice, and inexperience lead her to make errors of judgement (concerning both Wickham and Darcy) that she must pay for, but through these trials, she grows into a mature adult. Darcy, similarly, has to grow out of his own pride to prove he is a worthy match for her, in spite of his higher social class.
Indeed, through the use of subtle wit and irony, Austen makes clear that good breeding does not necessarily equate with good manners (although good manners may well be indicative of good morals). While the landscape of Pride and Prejudice might appear to be narrow, it nevertheless keenly probes the manners and morals of its day.
The daughter of a relatively prosperous country parson, Jane Austen was born in Steventon rectory, Hampshire, England, in 1775, the seventh of eight children. As a child she read voraciously, having access to her father’s library, which was uncommon for girls at the time. She started writing in her early teens, producing an embryonic version of Pride and Prejudice, entitled First Impressions, between 1796 and 1797. In 1800 her father decided to retire and the family moved to Bath; Jane was unhappy there. In 1809 she moved to Chawton, Hampshire, with her mother and sister, where she wrote daily. It was her observations of genteel life in Hampshire that furnished her novels. Despite writing a great deal about marriage, she never married herself, although she did receive a proposal. She died in 1817, at the age of 41.
Other key works
1811 Sense and Sensibility
1814 Mansfield Park
1818 Northanger Abbey
See also: Jane Eyre • Vanity Fair • North and South • Middlemarch