2012 JASNA Essay Contest First Place Winner High School Division
Sarah A. Stites
Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology
Alexandria, VA

Manipulation in Austen’s Day: Class and Character

A facet of Pride and Prejudice which lends verisimilitude to Austen’s work is the breadth of class rank in her characterization. From wealthy and esteemed Lady Catherine to Mr. Wickham, the mercenary “wickedest young man in the world,” (Austen 301) Austen shows the reader the breathtaking panorama of life in the English countryside, highlighting many manipulative characters both high and low in status. A detail that illuminates much about Austen’s characters is that the aristocrats tend not to see their actions as manipulative, but rather as simply emerging naturally from their superiority in power and wealth. Furthermore, they are accustomed to the lower classes conforming to their wills. Conversely, characters lower on the social scale are, for the most part, portrayed as being very aware of and intentional in their machinations as well as being easily manipulated. These class discrepancies serve to elucidate the relationship between class and character in Austen’s day.

“Austen’s novels show us a world in which desirable personal attributes are randomly distributed throughout the social hierarchy,” Austen scholars Handler and Segal note (701). Because of this dispersal, Austen highlights the fact that wealthy widows and mercenary militiamen alike can possess equally distasteful qualities (701), but the aristocrats alone are able to justify their behavior while the lower classes are left with little excuse. In fact, as Elizabeth tartly rejoins to the upper class Caroline Bingley, “[Wickham’s] guilt and his descent appear by your account to be the same” (Austen 98). In the same way, aristocrats such as Lady Catherine assume a sort of privilege to order the lives of those beneath them and expect their inferiors to abide by their commands.

Elizabeth’s world is one in which the upper classes can regulate the lives of the socially inferior without being viewed as manipulative. It is those persons such as Lady Catherine who show the greatest level of superciliousness and manipulation under the guise of omniscience and best intentions. Lady Catherine “deliver[s] her opinion on every subject in so decisive a manner” as to prove “that she [is] not used to hav[ing] her judgement controverted” (169). At first glance, the reader may take Lady Catherine to be simply officious, but further reflection leads to the understanding that she revels in the power she holds and is quite used to the groveling of her inferiors. It is not chance that Mr. Collins was “so fortunate as to be distinguished by the patronage of the Right Honorable Lady Catherine de Bourgh” (63). Collins and Lady Catherine both benefit from the situation as Lady Catherine exercises her will and Collins, by not resisting any manipulation, enjoys all the pleasures of “bounty and beneficence” (63). Indeed, according to Handler and Segal, “to be independent of others is […] to have the greatest power to order society hierarchically,” and Lady Catherine clearly basks in maintaining the integrity of that hierarchy (693).

Lady Catherine’s position gives her “the ability to exercise patronage, to offer charity, and generally to aid others—in brief, to encompass them as dependents”—facets which Handler and Segal consider “key mark[s] of social superiority” (700). Lady Catherine does exhibit these traits of the beneficent patroness; however, she furthers the continuum into meddling and manipulation. She feels the need to involve herself in the everyday lives of her ‘charges’ and does not view her interferences as attempted manipulation, but rather as proper advice that should be welcomed and esteemed. In fact, Lady Catherine goes so far as to

inquir[e] into Charlotte’s domestic concerns familiarly and minutely, g[i]ve her a great deal of advice as to the management of them all; t[ell] her how everything ought to be regulated in so small a family as hers, and instruct her as to the care of her cows and her poultry. (Austen 169)

Although Elizabeth is the only one perspicacious enough to understand that these “suggestions” do not stem from “elegant breeding,” the others around her conform to Lady Catherine’s wishes and do not recognize her presumptuous arrogance (165).

Compared to Collins’ “earnest endeavor to demean [him]self with grateful respect towards her ladyship” (63), it is Elizabeth’s clear-sighted resistance to Lady Catherine’s supremacy that the arrogant woman finds so stupefying. Lady Catherine is aware of the fact that many inferiors such as Sir William are so captivated by her power and grandeur that they automatically grant her every benevolent quality—even when her behavior suggests otherwise. Because Lady Catherine is used to the conformity of every other member of Elizabeth’s social class, the fact that Elizabeth can witness the “mere stateliness of money or rank […] without trepidation” (167) or wonderment is simply “not to be borne” (364). Not only does Lady Catherine anticipate “excessive admiration,” she also assumes that her inferiors are aware it is expected of them (168). In respect to his nauseating obsequiousness, Collins represents Lady Catherine’s archetype of the perfect member of the lower class and Sir William is also quickly drawn into Lady Catherine’s trap: “[Collins] carved, and ate, and praised with delighted alacrity; and every dish was commended, first by him and then by Sir William, who was now enough recovered [from his awe] to echo whatever his son-in-law said” (168).

Collins and Lucas, who both “think with pleasure of their own importance,” are two members of the low aristocracy who have been vaunted to higher positions of authority in the social hierarchy (16). Craving the power that comes with rank, both are ready and willing to accept Lady Catherine’s manipulations in order to receive her good favor and the benefits that come along with it. Mr. Collins goes so far as to deny his own merits and accomplishments when by nature he is overly conceited; however, the reason for this discrepancy is that his conceit is based upon Lady Catherine’s favor which he must maintain through debasing himself. “Mr. Collins was employed in agreeing to everything her ladyship said, thanking her for every fish he won, and apologizing if he thought he won too many. Sir William did not say much. He was storing his memory with anecdotes and noble names” (172). Likewise, Sir William recognizes the power he is gaining in the social sphere by forming connections with the upper aristocracy. In this way, the “speeches of thankfulness on Mr. Collins’ side and as many bows on Sir William’s” (172) at their departure from Rosings signify the calculated “mixture of pride and obsequiousness, self-importance and humility” (71) that characterizes both men. They gain pride and self-importance in their own social sphere by boasting about Lady Catherine’s favor toward them, naturally gained through obsequiousness and humility.

It is Lady Catherine’s role as “noble patroness,” Elizabeth finds, that causes nothing to be “beneath this great lady’s attention, which could furnish her with an occasion of dictating to others” (169). However, she also notes her own cousin’s “very pompous” (65) and meddlesome nature which bears great likeness to his patroness’ conceited, dictatorial style. In reality, although Collins possesses many of the same character traits as Lady Catherine, he lacks the proper descent to lend them force; therefore, he must live vicariously through the power bequeathed upon him by Lady Catherine and can only do so by remaining within her favor.

In Elizabeth, the reader discovers the scintillating antithesis to all of Austen’s compliant lower class characters. She is not afraid to speak her mind and is “chiefly struck by [Collins’] extraordinary deference for Lady Catherine” (65) of whom Elizabeth “had heard nothing […] that spoke her awful from any extraordinary talents or miraculous virtue” (167). Repeatedly rebuffing Lady Catherine’s attempted interference in her relationship with Mr. Darcy and refusing to submit to such a powerful social superior, Elizabeth points out that there really is no definite advantage of intellect between levels of the social hierarchy. Debunking Darcy’s words, “where there is a real superiority of mind, pride will be always under good regulation,” she uncovers the fact that some aristocrats do not always have “real superiority of mind” over their class inferiors. Therefore, their arrogance, and by extension, their right to manipulate others’ affairs, is often unfounded (58).

Despite their own interference in the lives of the lower class, people of higher ranks tended to look upon the lower ranks as manipulating the social hierarchy if they happened to gain the affection of or show feelings for a member of a higher class. The view maintained by those who dominated the upper tiers of the hierarchy was that the lower classes must be confined within their spheres to prevent “pollution” of the chain of command (368). Lady Catherine is most incensed when the hierarchy is manipulated into a ladder climbed by ambitious, “unfeeling, selfish” girls such as Elizabeth (368). Her view is clearly demonstrated when she charges into the Bennet house and wrongly assumes that the Bennets have “industriously circulated” the report of their daughter’s being engaged to Mr. Darcy (364). Her diction here gives vivid imagery of squalid low class folk knocking on every door in the vicinity, broadcasting their rise over the condition of their neighbors, triumphing that Elizabeth has finally attained the prize trophy for clawing her way to the top of the pyramid.

Furthermore, the officious woman, claiming that Elizabeth’s “own heart, own conscience” (363) must be stricken, is vitriolic in her criticism of Elizabeth’s supposed “presumption to aspire” (365) to the role of mistress of Pemberley. Not once does Lady Catherine assume the possibility of love on either side, citing Elizabeth’s manipulative “arts and allurements” as being the cause for Darcy’s “moment of infatuation” and assuming that lust for aggrandizement and monetary gain drive Elizabeth’s actions (364). However, in the process of her accusations, Lady Catherine is clearly blind to her own more obvious manipulation of Elizabeth, thinking it her duty and her right to determine her nephew’s marriage partner. However, Elizabeth rebuffs the supposed right Lady Catherine has to manipulate her, declaring “you are not entitled to know [my affairs]” (365) and “you have widely mistaken my character, if you think I can be worked on by such persuasions as these” (368).

On the other hand, Lady Catherine welcomes Charlotte as the mistress of Hunsford, knowing that she is the proper class for Mr. Collins and assuming that she is just as easily manipulated as her husband. Although Charlotte does accept Lady Catherine’s abundant advice and commands, the “noble patroness” never understands the extent of Charlotte’s own manipulations, which Austen presents very bluntly. In Charlotte, the reader observes a deviation from Austen’s famous protagonists: the cash-strapped but idealistically beautiful Jane, Elizabeth, Marianne, Elinor and others. The author purposefully highlights the case of Miss Lucas to show the difficulties in attaining independence that surround a “very plain” woman (44). Although Charlotte’s case might seem pitiable, she is very calm and calculated in her manipulations of Mr. Collins to secure independence for herself. Furthermore, by staying within her social sphere, she is also able to gratify Lady Catherine who “likes to have the distinction of rank preserved” (166).

Charlotte’s words to Elizabeth at an early ball serve to illuminate much of her later action: “If a woman conceals her affection with the same skill from the object of it, she may lose the opportunity of fixing him […] in nine cases out of ten, a woman had better shew more affection than she feels” (20). When Charlotte visits the Bennets right after Collins’ proposal to Elizabeth, Charlotte realizes her chance at “securing” Mr. Collins’ attention, although she does not care for him at all. Indeed, in the chapter following the proposal, Charlotte’s subtle manipulation of Mr. Collins, which appears as the veneer of genteel hospitality, is revealed: “[…] the assiduous attentions which [Collins] had been so sensible of himself were transferred for the rest of the day to Miss Lucas, whose civility in listening to him was a seasonable relief to them all, and especially to [Elizabeth]” (120). When Elizabeth is more “obliged to [Charlotte] than [she] can express” for entertaining Mr. Collins, Charlotte is revealed as having kindness “extending farther than Elizabeth had any conception of.” (126) “Without thinking highly of men or of matrimony,” (128) Charlotte manipulates Mr. Collins into a quick turnaround of affection, gaining her “an establishment” (127) in marriage—“such was Miss Lucas’s scheme” (126) Austen states. Charlotte is very aware of the fact that “to be independent of others is to achieve the apex of civil society” (Handler and Segal 693).

It is this drive for the attainment of independence that spurs the scheming Mr. Wickham to search for a single woman in possession of large fortune, who, of course, must be in want of a husband. His “beauty, fine countenance, good figure and pleasing address” as well as “happy readiness of conversation” (Austen 74) enable Wickham to hoodwink the men and women of Meryton into believing that he is an “angel of light” (301) as well as an eligible match for some of their daughters. Meanwhile, although the town residents are deluded, almost the entire upper tier is portrayed as being cognizant of his spurious character. Caroline Bingley, although being unknowledgeable of the “particulars,” states that she knows Wickham to have behaved in an “infamous manner” (98). In the same way, Bingley agrees that “[Wickham] is by no means a respectable, young man” (99).

On the other hand, the lower class Bennet family is completely taken in by Mr. Wickham’s charms, and Caroline Bingley’s obvious disdain for Elizabeth’s trust in Wickham makes it clear that she sees her as being easily taken in when Caroline states with a “sneer, ‘Excuse my interference, it was kindly meant’” (99). Elizabeth, deceived into believing Wickham to be sincere, questions the fine line between a “mercenary and prudent motive” when he becomes engaged to the previously undesirable Mary King upon her sudden acquisition of ten thousand pounds (159).

Although Elizabeth is manipulated by Wickham, she recognizes that she was duped when she discovers the truth and realizes “how differently […] everything now appear[ed] in which [Wickham] was concerned” (214). However, all the inhabitants of Meryton refuse to accept their own susceptibility to manipulation and “beg[in] to find out that they had always distrusted the appearance of [Wickham’s] goodness” (301). Elizabeth, along with Jane, is set apart because of her realization of her own flaws when she condemns her “vanity” and her prejudiced preference for Mr. Wickham and declares, “I who have prided myself on my discernment!” (215)

Elizabeth and Darcy both learn important lessons through Mr. Wickham’s downfall. While staying at Pemberley, Elizabeth initially declares to Darcy: “To yield readily—easily—to the persuasion of a friend is no merit with you,” and Darcy rejoinders: “To yield without conviction is no compliment to the understanding of either” (50). The former realizes that she has been easily manipulated, and states “till this moment, I never knew myself” (215). In making a turnaround in her life, it is clear that she ceases to be vain about her levels of acuity into the characters of others and makes a new resolution to resist manipulation.

Darcy, who first views it as “beneath him” to make Wickham’s sordid deeds known, is the polar opposite of Lady Catherine in that he initially wishes to have nothing to do with the lower classes and sees it as below his station to interfere in their daily lives (206). Clearly, he possesses great distaste for his aunt’s “unjustifiable endeavors” (393) to regulate his life and “is a little ashamed of [her] ill breeding” (179). Elizabeth brings him to the realization that the upper classes have no right to order the lives of their social inferiors or, on the opposite hand, to detach themselves from the warmth of society through “improper pride” (388).

When Darcy meets the Gardiners whom he has characterized as Elizabeth’s “inferior connections” (199), he discovers their character and elegance which stand in sharp contrast to his own aunt’s “ill breeding.” In words which illuminate the nature of the high aristocracy, Darcy admits that he was “allowed, encouraged, almost taught […] to be selfish and overbearing, to care for none beyond my own family circle, to think meanly of all the rest of the world, to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own” (380).

By the closing of the novel, Austen has shown the reader examples of characters both high and low, manipulative and susceptible to manipulation. By clearly showing variations in these tendencies based on class, Pride and Prejudice was avant-garde for Austen’s time, because she presents the case that no one, not even a high aristocrat such as Lady Catherine, has the right to regulate the affairs of others. Austen brings forward Elizabeth and Darcy, from opposite ends of the aristocratic spectrum, and takes them to middle ground—Darcy rejects his cold aloofness and “mean” outlook on those beneath him, while Elizabeth gains greater perspicacity and understanding. In the end, Austen writes that even Lady Catherine’s “resentment” to Darcy’s marriage “gave way, either to her affection for him, or her curiosity to see how his wife conducted herself; and she condescended to wait on them at Pemberley, in spite of that pollution which its woods had received” (400).

Works Cited:

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. 1813. London: Penguin, 1972. Google Book Search. Web.18 Mar. 2012.

Handler, Richard, and Daniel A Segal. “Hierarchies of Choice: The Social Construction of Rank in Jane Austen.” American Anthropological Association 12.4 (1985): 691 - 706. JSTOR. Web. 13 Mar. 2012