Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice": The Novel as Historical Source

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.

Guiding Questions

What part did social class play in the society depicted by Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice?"

What challenges, opportunities, and limitations confronted women of this society?

Learning Objectives

At the end of this lesson students will be able to: Recognize the importance of the class system in early nineteenth-century England.

Discuss the status of women in early nineteenth-century England.

Identify key concerns raised by Mary Wollstonecraft in "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman."

Appreciate ways in which a novel can be "realistic" in a historical sense. Organize information in order to evaluate, analyze, and draw conclusions.