A contemporary portrait of Jane Austen based on an original drawing by Jane's sister Cassandra.
I am amusing myself with Miss Austin's [sic] novels. She has great power and discrimination in delineating common-place people; and her writings are a capital picture of real life, with all the little wheels and machinery laid bare like a patent clock.
—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Journal entry, May 23, 1839
Using a novel as a "primary" source—a way to learn about social history, students can gain valuable insights. Fictional accounts, particularly those judged "realistic" by contemporary observers, can tell us things that are not typically explored in supposedly more reliable, factual accounts. Fiction can be a useful source for learning about the past; however, it is important to teach students what kinds of information can legitimately be gleaned from novels and how to evaluate and analyze that information. This lesson examines two themes—the status of women and the nature of class—in Jane Austen's masterpiece Pride and Prejudice.
At the end of this lesson students will be able to
Austen's reputation rests in large part on her realistic depiction of English society in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In important respects this was a transitional period in English history. The industrial revolution had "taken off" in the late eighteenth century, producing far-reaching social and demographic as well as economic changes. The French Revolution caused a conservative backlash, led by Edmund Burke, that was reinforced by France's declaration of war against Britain in 1793. A reform movement was led by Jeremy Bentham, whose Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789) assumed the essentially conservative position that reform was better than revolution. While Bentham and his followers focused attention on criminal law and prison conditions, Evangelicals addressed social injustice, including slavery.
A few radicals protested. Thomas Paine, who had returned to England after the American Revolution, published The Rights of Man (1791). William Godwin, author of Political Justice (1793), argued that reason and education, rather than tradition and ignorance, would bring about human progress.
In 1792 Mary Wollstonecraft, Godwin's wife, published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Often described as the first great feminist treatise, the Vindication sought "to persuade women to endeavor to acquire strength, both of mind and body, and to convince them that the soft phrases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and refinement of taste are almost synonimous [sic] with epithets of weakness." Wollstonecraft's radical claim that women should be judged by their virtue rather than their elegance, their intellect rather than their beauty, caused a furor when it was published. It captured the attention of those, who like Wollstonecraft, rebelled against the social and economic constraints that subjected women to marriages that held no promise of personal fulfillment. The Vindication, however, had little immediate impact on the status of English women.
Claire Tomalin, who has written biographies of both Austen and Wollstonecraft, observes, "Wollstonecraft's central arguments for the better education and status of women must at the very least have caught [Austen's] attention. … Her formal silence on the position of women is qualified by the way in which her books insist on the moral and intellectual parity of the sexes …"1
The industrial revolution and the opportunities afforded by business and trade led to the creation of an influential middle class. In the early years of the nineteenth century, actual numbers of those who had achieved the rank of middle class—bankers, merchants, ship-owners, factory owners, mine owners, and some professionals—were remarkably small. Denied a formal voice in the political process (middle-class men would not gain the vote until in 1832), successful business and tradesmen had already achieved considerable economic influence by the time Austen succeeded in publishing her novels.
The traditional class system, based on family connections and inherited wealth, grudgingly made room for the nouveaux riches, whose financial standing resulted from ability and hard work. Austen was well aware of the privileges afforded to those at the top of the hierarchy and the burdens placed on those further down the social ladder. Her mother had distant aristocratic relations as well as an uncle who was Master of Balliol College, Oxford, for fifty years. Her father, born into far more modest circumstances, achieved success as a minister and school master through intelligence and industry.
Austen's interest in class may well have been influenced by her own family connections, but it extended well beyond the confines of her immediate relations. Juliet McMaster, a recognized Austen scholar, explains:
The novelist, and especially Jane Austen, always cares [about social class] because it is the business of the novel to represent people – not exclusively, but prominently – in their social roles, and to be precise about the differences between them. … Austen … goes in for fine distinctions, whether between degrees of quality of mind in her characters or the fine shades of difference in their social standing. But to say so much is not to contend that she approved of the bastions of privilege in her very hierarchical society, or resisted the changes towards freer movement between the classes that she saw happening around her. … Austen was no snob, though she knew all about snobbery.
In Jane Austen's world, human worth is to be judged by standards better and more enduring than social status; but social status is always relevant. With amused detachment, she registers exactly the social provenance of each of her characters, and judges them for the ways in which they judge each other. The importance assigned to class distinction is the source of much of the comedy and her irony, as of her social satire.2
1 Claire Tomalin, Jane Austen: A Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998), p. 139.
2 Juliet McMaster, "Class," in The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, ed. Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster (Cambridge: University Press, 1995), pp. 128–29.
This lesson presents two suggested activities and four lesson extensions. Each of the activities may be taught independently of the others. The first activity will require two class periods: one for the first two steps (including the optional "side step," and one for the third step. The second will also require two class periods, one for each step. Depending on time available and themes you wish to emphasize, you may choose the activities most appropriate for your class.
Jane Austen was a close observer of her society, and one of the features that distinguished English society at the time she was writing was the structure of social classes. Students, in the process of completing this activity, will recognize the importance of the class system as presented by Austen in Pride and Prejudice. They will organize evidence gathered from the novel to evaluate, analyze, and draw conclusions about the social order of England in the early nineteenth century.
Class is a concept that is alien to most Americans, even though the term is used in a general way to refer to social distinctions relating to social, educational, and economic status and the opportunities (or lack thereof) resulting from that status. What distinguishes the United States from countries having a true class system is the relative fluidity of American society. From the earliest years, Americans enjoyed far greater social mobility than their European counterparts—though that has changed in recent years. As a result, the rigid lines separating one class from another never really formed on this side of the Atlantic.
In England, individuals were traditionally defined by their class. Movement from one class to another, though not impossible, was difficult. Interaction between individuals of different classes was governed by unwritten rules requiring deference by the party from the lower class. Using Austen's Pride and Prejudice, students will explore the class system and how it affected individuals and their relationships. The following quotations and discussion questions are available on the EDSITEment Student LaunchPad.
Step 1. Begin by reviewing a couple of terms important to this exercise.
Class is a complex term, in use since the late eighteenth century, and employed in many different ways. In our context classes are the more or less distinct social groupings which at any given historical period, taken as a whole, constituted British Society. Different social classes can be (and were by the classes themselves) distinguished by inequalities in such areas as power, authority, wealth, working and living conditions, life-styles, life-span, education, religion, and culture.
Members of the British aristocracy were gentlemen by right of birth (although it was also emphasized, paradoxically enough, that birth alone could not make a man a gentleman), while the new industrial and mercantile elites, in the face of opposition from the aristocracy, inevitably attempted to have themselves designated as gentlemen as a natural consequence of their growing wealth and influence. Other Victorians [as well as those who lived earlier in the nineteenth century]—clergy belonging to the Church of England, army officers, members of Parliament—were recognized as gentlemen by virtue of their occupations, while members of numerous other eminently respectable professions—engineers, for example—were not.
Step 2. Austen wrote primarily about the upper-middle class. She was not, however, interested only in the lives of her middle-class characters but also in their interactions with members of other classes. She was keenly aware of the tensions created by the industrial revolution, in particular the emergence of a class of businessmen with substantial resources and economic influence.
Optional side-step: If your students need practice doing a close reading of a primary source, you might start by "walking" them through the following excerpt from Chapter 5, available as a hypertext document on the EDSITEment-reviewed British Academy Portal:
WITHIN a short walk of Longbourn lived a family with whom the Bennets were particularly intimate. Sir William Lucas had been formerly in trade in Meryton, where he had made a tolerable fortune and risen to the honour 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 that 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. For though elated by his rank, it did not render him supercilious; on the contrary, he was all attention to every body. By nature inoffensive, friendly and obliging, his presentation at St. James's had made him courteous.
Step 3. Before your students begin to read Pride and Prejudice, assign each to a group, with 3–4 students in each group. Assign each group one of the following relationships to track throughout the novel, paying particular attention to the class issues that define the nature of the relationship and influence the way in which the relationship develops. Using post-it notes or flags, students should mark key passages that reflect the importance of class and how it plays out in the lives of the characters.
Jane Bennet and Charles Bingley
Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy
Fitzwilliam Darcy and the Gardiners
Lydia Bennet and Lt.Wickham
Mr. Collins and Charlotte Lucas
Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine
Elizabeth Bennet and Lady Catherine
When the students have finished reading the book, the groups should meet to compare their findings, identify four or five passages that best show how class considerations shaped the relationship (preferably showing how the relationship changed over time and why), and prepare a brief presentation for the rest of the class.
Following the presentations, the class as a whole should construct a social ladder. They should place the characters from the novel on the ladder and identify each by his/her social position.
When completed, the students should discuss Austen's own attitudes toward class, as revealed in Pride and Prejudice. Possible questions to focus on in the discussion follow:
Jane Austen, a well-educated and exceptionally gifted writer, had a unique perspective on the challenges faced by women in her society, the limits imposed by social constraints, and the consequences resulting from choices made when opportunities presented themselves. Her talent for creating fictional characters to illustrate the complexities of women's lives has earned her the respect of social historians and serves as the starting point for this activity.
As homework students may wish to read background articles relating to the place of women in English society. These can be found at on Pemberley.com, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed British Academy Portal. The following student activities and quotations from Wollstonecraft's Introduction to A Vindication of the Rights of Women are also available via the EDSITEment Student LaunchPad.
Step 1. In Pride and Prejudice, Austen offers her readers a close look at the status of women in the early nineteenth century—in particular, the role of marriage in shaping a woman's identity. The topic of marriage is introduced in the first sentence and weaves its way throughout the novel. While both male and female characters display serious interest in the subject, virtually every person is influenced by her/his own view of woman's place in English society and the role she is expected to assume. As a result, readers soon realize that in novels, as in real life, an individual's perspective is critical.
Students—individually, in groups, or as a class—should construct a chart that will allow them to compare and contrast the attitudes of the female (and male) characters toward marriage.
When the chart is complete, discuss the results. The following questions can be used to guide the discussion:
Step 2. One way of evaluating whether a novelist's treatment of an issue is realistic is to compare the novel and a historical document. In this case, Mary Wollstonecraft's treatise, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, is a logical choice:
AFTER considering the historic page, and viewing the living world with anxious solicitude, the most melancholy emotions of sorrowful indignation have depressed my spirits, and I have sighed when obliged to confess, that either nature has made a great difference between man and man, or that the civilization which has hitherto taken place in the world has been very partial. I have turned over various books written on the subject of education, and patiently observed the conduct of parents and the management of schools; but what has been the result?—a profound conviction that the neglected education of my fellow-creatures is the grand source of the misery I deplore; and that women, in particular, are rendered weak and wretched by a variety of concurring causes, originating from one hasty conclusion. The conduct and manners of women, in fact, evidently prove that their minds are not in a healthy state; for, like the flowers which are planted in too rich a soil, strength and usefulness are sacrificed to beauty; and the flaunting leaves, after having pleased a fastidious eye, fade, disregarded on the stalk, long before the season when they ought to have arrived at maturity.—One cause of this barren blooming I attribute to a false system of education, gathered from the books written on this subject by men who, considering females rather as women than human creatures, have been more anxious to make them alluring mistresses than wives; and the understanding of the sex has been so bubbled by this specious homage, that the civilized women of the present century, with a few exceptions, are only anxious to inspire love, when they ought to cherish a nobler ambition, and by their abilities and virtues exact respect.
My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone. I earnestly wish to point out in what true dignity and human happiness consists—I wish to persuade women to endeavour to acquire strength, both of mind and body, and to convince them that the soft phrases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and refinement of taste, are almost synonimous with epithets of weakness, and that those beings who are only the objects of pity and that kind of love, which has been termed its sister, will soon become objects of contempt.
The education of women has, of late, been more attended to than formerly; yet they are still reckoned a frivolous sex, and ridiculed or pitied by the writers who endeavor by satire or instruction to improve them. It is acknowledged that they spend many of the first years of their lives in acquiring a smattering of accomplishments: meanwhile strength of body and mind are sacrificed to libertine notions of beauty, to the desire of establishing themselves,-the only way women can rise in the world,—by marriage. And this desire making mere animals of them, when they marry they act as such children may be expected to act:—they dress; they paint, and nickname God's creatures.—Surely these weak beings are only fit for a seraglio!—Can they govern a family, or take care of the poor babes whom they bring into the world?
It seems scarcely necessary to say, that I now speak of the sex in general. Many individuals have more sense than their male relatives; and, as nothing preponderates where there is a constant struggle for an equilibrium, without it has naturally more gravity, some women govern their husbands without degrading themselves, because intellect will always govern.
Before comparing Austen and Wollstonecraft, guide students through a quick analysis of the Vindication.
(Keep in mind that these excerpts are taken from the introduction and, therefore, "introduce" but do not develop or defend those ideas. The main argument appears in the body of the book.)
Students should then compare Austen and Wollstonecraft. Based on these excerpts from A Vindication of the Rights of Woman:
Assign students a 3-page paper based on their reading of the novel and class discussions. They should take a position and defend it, using references from Pride and Prejudice to support their positions.
Alternatively, divide the class into two groups, assigning each group the responsibility of defending one of the two propositions—class or gender—in a class debate. Each group should make a formal presentation, using evidence from the novel, and be prepared both to defend their position and refute that of their opponent.
Using the "evidence" presented by Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice, which set of social constraints was more oppressive: class or gender?
Option 1. The reader learns that Mr. Bennet's estate has been entailed. What does this mean, and how does this legal arrangement relate to the two subjects explored in this lesson: class and gender?
To learn more about this legal strategy for preserving large estates, students might wish to consult the following link from the Pemberley website, accessible from the EDSITEment-reviewed British Academy Portal.
Option 2. Longfellow spoke highly of Austen (see quote at the beginning of this lesson); however, he also expressed reservations in this same journal entry:
But she explains and fills out too much. Those who have not power to fill up gaps and bridge over chasms as they read, must therefore take particular delight in such minuteness of detail. … But readers of lively imagination naturally prefer the original with its unexplained steps, which they so readily supply.
To what extent would Longfellow's comment apply to the film versions of Pride and Prejudice? Do visual adaptations add to or take away from the novel itself?
Option 3. Early editions of Pride and Prejudice included illustrations by C. E. Brock. Students can see digital versions of Brock's illustrations on the Pemberley website. Discuss what these contemporary drawings add, if anything, to our knowledge of the society about which Austen wrote? The following questions may help get the discussion started:
Option 4. Like all novelists, Austen made choices. For example, she choose the social classes of the characters in her novel, placed them geographically, described the circumstances (financial, social, religious) of their lives, decided on the challenges they would face, and charted the course of their lives. Her novel, of necessity, focuses on a small slice of English society in the early nineteenth century and the role of women in that select segment. The question arises:
What does Austen leave out of her portrait of women in early nineteenth-century England? For starters:
Why do you think Austen made the choices she made when writing Pride and Prejudice?
4 class periods