Persuasions #11, 1989                                                                                                                                                                Page 70-76

The Comedy of Social Distinctions in Pride and Prejudice 

Department of English, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts 01267

When Sir Walter Scott identified Jane Austen’s territory as a writer as “the middling classes of society,” he inadvertently fixed what posterity has, ever since, taken to be her social status as well.1  David Spring says she belonged to the rentier class of pseudo-gentry.2  James Thompson, giving no quarter, says every one of her heroines occupy social positions superior to her own.3  To P. J. M. Scott she was “a middle-class radical Tory.”4  Claudia Johnson also is comfortable with a Jane Austen anchored firmly in the middle class, and, voicing contempt for Lord David Cecil’s effort “to co-opt Austen … into the aristocracy,” deplores a late tendency to advance her “higher and higher” up the social scale.5

       Jane Austen’s economic circumstances support the view that she came from a family of no special distinction.  Her father was a country parson, orphaned at six, and indebted to relatives for his education and parish livings.  His income never exceeded £600 a year, a sum that included money got from tutoring and from working his glebe land.  To raise eight children he sought loans from close relatives and patronage from remoter kinsmen.  Jane Austen’s situation thus was not socially ideal.  After her father’s death, things got worse for her mother, her sister, and herself.

Cassandra Leigh Austen usually is described as belonging to a higher station than her husband.  Alison Sulloway minimizes this difference.  Cassandra, she says, “was descended from county families with one or two distinguished members.”6  Certainly she was not richly dowered.   Her brother James was good for occasional loans, and her descent from Sir Thomas White enabled her sons, James and Henry, to attend St. John’s College, Oxford, as founder’s kin.  Otherwise, Cassandra’s “higher station” did nothing to ease the circumstances the Austens found themselves in.

Since the Austen-Leighs assure us Cassandra took pride in her Leigh heritage, it seems likely she found there something more than Sulloway remarked.  In fact, she did.  Her father’s mother, Mary Brydges, was the daughter of the eighth Lord Chandos, and sister of the renowned first duke of Chandos.  She bore the name of his duchess, Cassandra (née Willoughby), also a blood relative.  Her mother was descended also from the Lord Leighs of Stoneleigh, and from the earls of Kent, Northumberland, March, and Westmoreland, and so on back to the Plantagenets, to two sons of Edward III, John of Gaunt and the duke of Clarence, and, beyond that, to the royal lines of kingship in England and Scotland unto Egbert and Kenneth McAlpin.  And, through Edward II’s marriage to Isabeau of France, she was related to the French royal line including Hugh Capet,  She was descended as well from Elizabeth Woodville’s son, born of her first marriage.  By her subsequent marriage to Edward IV, Elizabeth became the mother of Elizabeth of York, wife of Henry VII and mother of Henry VIII.  Hence Cassandra had blood ties with Mary Queen of Scots, who was descended from Henry’s sister, Margaret.  This fact helps explain the fierce allegiance of the “loyal Leighs” to the Stuart cause, and Jane Austen’s own admiration for Mary.  Cassandra was also related to William Pitt (prime minister during much of Jane Austen’s lifetime), and to the Duke of Marlborough from whom Winston Churchill was descended.  Theophilus Leigh, moreover, an uncle, was vice-chancellor of Oxford, and, for fifty years, master of Balliol College.

Nor should George Austen’s family be dismissed, as commonly happens, as Kentish clothiers risen from obscurity.  In his father’s boyhood, George’s branch of the family had been launched on hard times when his great-grandfather, John Austen III, left his estates to his eldest grandson (a fact that may explain Jane Austen’s aversion to entails), but good blood ran in his veins.  George’s mother was the daughter of Sir George Hampson, a baronet; his great-grandmother, Jane Atkins, wife of John III, was a direct descendant of Thomas Howard, fourth duke of Norfolk, beheaded in 1572 for acting in the interests of Mary Queen of Scots.  Through this connection George was related to Cassandra’s family since both families were descended from Henry Percy (“Hotspur”), who was, in turn, descended from Edward III.  George likewise could claim recent Howard ties.  His cousin, Sarah Inwen, had married Henry Howard, Earl of Suffolk.  Another connection is also of major interest.  His cousin, Hannah Stringer, whose father, George’s grand-uncle, was high sheriff of Kent, had married William Monke, a relative of the Duke of Albemarle, who, in 1660, had been allied with Jane Atkins’s father in the successful effort to put Charles II on the throne.  Through this marriage, the Monke riches, much augmented, passed to Edward Austen, George’s son.  Small wonder the Austens were Tory conservatives.  Their commitment to the inherited order was rooted in long loyalties and long struggles.

The evidence that Jane Austen knew her heritage is abundant.  She says as much in a letter sent to Cassandra, from Godmersham, in 1808: “It is pleasant to be among people who know one’s connections and care about them.”7  It is in everything she wrote, starting with the juvenilia.  In “The History of England” alone nearly every personage cited is someone to whom she was related by blood.  Throughout those early pieces she scattered family names broadside – Scudamore, Stanley, Montague, Stanhope, Neville, Talbot, Dudley, Grenville, Arundel, Willoughby, Elliot, Dashwood, Wentworth, Musgrove, and Grandison!  Shake Cassandra’s family tree and many names used later in the novels rain down.8  Shake George’s and most of the rest follow.  Family names used in Pride and Prejudice are Bennet, de Bourgh, Darcy, Gardiner, Fitzwilliam, and Wickham.  A ready source for such information was the nine-volume edition of Collins’s Peerage edited by Sir Samuel Egerton Brydges, her putative cousin and brother of her beloved Madame Lefroy.  Incidentally, when her niece, Anna, married his nephew, Ben, they ended up uncle and aunt to the pair, an ironic coupling of the best novelist of the age with the worst.  We have her word for it that his novels were ghastly.

Did it matter to Jane Austen that she had an august heritage?  It did.  Family memoirists agree that the Austens were held together by clannish loyalty.  The Howards offered a celebrated patriarchal pattern to follow.9  Other factors are to be considered too.  The Austens were declined nobility.  They did not accept that status passively.  Cassandra especially cherished hopes for a return to eminence.  It was she who got two older sons into Oxford and two younger sons into the Royal Naval Academy, and saw to it that James and Edward were the heirs to childless kinsmen.  Mrs. Bennet could have taken pointers from her.  James, her firstborn, chose for his first wife the grand-daughter of the Duke of Ancaster.  The second time, he married into the earl of Craven’s family.  So eventually did Frank, and so would have their sister, Cassandra, had not her intended died.  Henry married his countess cousin; Edward, a baronet’s daughter.  Cassandra did well.  Today many of her descendants are counted among the nobility.  She probably thought Jane was the one child she had done nothing for.  If so, she was wrong.  Her ambitions goaded Jane in a strange way.

The theme of disinheritance loomed large in Jane Austen’s thoughts.  Some critics see it as the axis her world rotates on.  She took umbrage, too, at those who, swollen with pride of rank, treated their social inferiors meanly.  Yet she did not call for the overthrow of a system of values and behaviour that had been the underpinning of civilization for centuries.  Instead, she brought cool logic to bear on the problem.  The social hierarchy, she concluded, as ideally constructed, is the outward manifestation of a moral hierarchy.  It is this moral hierarchy that endows it with meaning and purpose.  Ignore it and the social hierarchy becomes a sham apparatus devoid of function.  In the country estate she saw this society emblemized.  Administered by a caring landholder, a country estate was an embodiment of the natural moral order.  Neglected, chaos enveloped it.  She asked only that men would so conduct themselves that their behaviour would affirm the existence of a stable order energized by sound moral principles.  This argument she expounds in Pride and Prejudice with care and thoroughness.

We begin with George Wickham.  Without knowing his offence, Caroline Bingley dismisses him because he is the son of Darcy’s father’s steward: “considering his descent, one could not expect much better.”10  This argument Elizabeth rejects.  Wickham is a Cambridge graduate.  His manners are perfect.  She is responsive, however, when Mrs. Gardiner cautions her against the imprudence of encouraging such an attachment.  Here, not prejudice but common sense is speaking.  At issue is not Wickham’s social position but his want of fortune.  Later, however, when she declares, “Brother-in-law of Wickham!  Every kind of pride must revolt from the connection” (326), neither his social standing nor his economic circumstances account for her revulsion.  He is repudiated because he is unprincipled.  For that reason alone he can never be received at Pemberley.  Possibly he behaves as he does because he resents his social inferiority to Darcy, but the choice is his.  Morally he is bankrupt.

Pride and Prejudice’s second soldier is Darcy’s cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam.  His place in the social hierarchy points to a flaw in that structure.  He is the younger son of an earl.  Though attracted to Elizabeth he is not at liberty to woo her.  Younger sons of noblemen were not free to follow their own hearts.  He explains: “there are not many in my rank of life who can afford to marry without some attention to money” (183).  To marry for money was crass: to marry without it was folly.  To find a compatible mate while keeping within this narrow corridor was no simple feat.  Jane Austen spoke from personal knowledge.  Yet it was one of the conditions which society, to maintain stability and order, necessarily imposed.

The Bingleys, as a family, are passing from the middle class into the gentry.  Predictably they exhibit the uneasiness such a transition involves.  Their father has grown rich in trade and has educated his children to prepare them for social elevation.  But to his son has fallen the task of acquiring a landed estate, the essential move that will establish him as a gentleman.  For Bingley himself this step need impose no great difficulties.  He is “gentlemanlike” (10) and possesses “perfect good breeding” (14).  Mindful of Bingley’s origins, Darcy concedes that it would not be socially damaging for him to marry Jane: “the want of connection could not be so great an evil to my friend as to me” (198).  But if Bingley is socially unambitious, his sisters are not.  Elizabeth shows she has taken their measure when she says: “they may wish his increase of wealth and consequence; they may wish him to marry a girl who has all the importance of money, great connections, and pride” (136-37).  In her portrayal of Bingley’s sisters, Jane Austen further develops her argument that no amount of money or manners makes sufficient amends when character is lacking.  The sisters, she says, “had been educated in one of the first private seminaries in town, had a fortune of twenty thousand pounds, were in the habit of spending more than they ought, and of associating with people of rank; and were therefore in every respect entitled to think well of themselves, and meanly of others” (15).

Prime focus centres on Caroline.  Jane Nardin sums her up: “a social climber who values herself on the eloquence and fashion of her own behavior, which, however, is often comtemptuous and rude” (50).  In attributing to Elizabeth “an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country town indifference to decorum” (36), and sneering at her muddy petticoats (one imagines after her sister’s comment) and “blowsy” hair (a term the eighteenth century applied to beggars’ trulls),11 she thinks to elevate herself above her, just as earlier she had taken pains to put distance between herself and the Meryton community by condemning “The insipidity and yet the noise; the nothingness and yet the self-importance of all these people” (27)!  “We are not rich enough, or grand enough for them,” Elizabeth says after the Bingleys decamp (119).  Repudiating them, Jane Austen repudiates not the gentry but those who aspire to gentry status mistaking posturings of superiority for the essentials of character.

The Lucases, like the Bingleys, are caught in the act of slipping into the gentry, accompanied by a fortune garnered in trade.  Although Caroline Bingley’s self-importance entertains us, resentment tempers our amusement.  The social aspirations of the Lucases also amuse us but occasion no resentment, only pity.  Their aspirations rest on slight credentials.  As mayor of Meryton, William Lucas spoke before the king and got a knighthood.  Feeling the distinction perhaps “too strongly,” he withdrew from business and set up as a landed gentleman at “Lucas Lodge” “where he could think with pleasure of his own importance” (18).  Sir William is not well enough circumstanced to launch his children successfully in their new life.  His son’s idea of being a gentleman is being able to “keep a pack of foxhounds, and drink a bottle of wine every day” (20).  His daughter’s hopes centre on an establishment of her own, no matter that the man she settles for is a fool.  Sir William appears ridiculous, mouthing platitudes and storing up noble names to drop in conversation.  Through the Bingleys, Jane Austen satirizes those who must hold their inferiors in contempt to think well of themselves.  Through the Lucases she satirizes those who must hold their superiors in awe to think well of themselves.  Through neither does Jane Austen derogate the aristocracy.  As interlopers they do discredit only to themselves.

Among those in Pride and Prejudice who are upwardly mobile, Mr. Collins stands supreme.  Despite his kinship to Mr. Bennet, he is of middle-class origins, and superior society is still a novelty to him.  In social situations he is often at a loss.  On meeting Mrs. Bennet’s sister, the vulgar Mrs. Philips, he protests “that except Lady Catherine and her daughter, he had never seen a more elegant woman” (74).  Part of the fun of this encounter is that Mrs. Philips is equally awed by his seeming consequence.  His misuse of the word “elegant,” says Page, “constitutes a damaging criticism of Mr. Collins and his standards.”12  His presumption in forcing his acquaintance on Darcy further attests to his ignorance of the prevailing properties, a lamentable deficiency in one with his social ambitions.

Grateful to Lady Catherine for whatever crumbs she throws to him from her table, Mr. Collins schemes constantly to compliment her.  He tells Mrs. Bennet: “I have more than once observed to Lady Catherine, that her charming daughter seems born to be a duchess, and that the most elevated rank, instead of giving her consequence, would be adorned by her” (67).  What Lady Catherine means to him is embodied in his own summation of Darcy’s merits: “splendid property, noble kindred, and extensive patronage” (362).  Undoubtedly he thinks that in marrying Charlotte Lucas, the daughter of a knight, he has enormously advantaged himself.  Yet it is sad to learn that, apart from their evenings with Lady Catherine, when he must sound unceasing hosannahs in her praise, “Their other engagements were few; as the style of living of the neighborhood in general, was beyond the Collinses’ reach” (169).  His life as a member of the gentry is a life of pretext, a fact he may never discover.

Each character in Pride and Prejudice adds to our knowledge of the workings of the social hierarchy.  Mrs. Bennet is no exception.  By her marriage she has left the middle class.  By her conduct she has stayed there.  Habitually she finds herself on the defensive.  Though Mr. Collins displays his own ignorance by assuming the Bennet girls have cooked dinner, Mrs. Bennet in the vehemence she shows in disabusing him, markedly overreacts.  The only society the Bennets know is the Meryton society Mrs. Bennet sprang from.  Presumably her vulgarity has been a bar to their acceptance by superior people.  Her notion of what constitutes superior behaviour is simplistic, as when she says of Sir William, “He has always something to say to everybody. – That is my idea of good breeding” (44).  What Darcy refers to as her “total want of propriety” (198), is well illustrated by her indiscreet chatter.  To her, social eminence has nothing to do with morals or manners.  It is money and show.  She translates the news of Elizabeth’s engagement at once into material terms, as though to grasp it: “What pin-money, what jewels, what carriages you will have! …  A house in town! …  Ten thousand a year!”  Then comes a further declaration: “You must and shall be married by a special license” (378).  Special licenses, by which marriages could be celebrated elsewhere than in the parish church, could be issued only by the archbishop and were costly.  Hence their value as a status symbol.

The Gardiners are the source of an insight essential to our understanding of Jane Austen’s sense of class structure.  Mr. Gardiner is Mrs. Bennet’s brother.  He is in trade and lives within view of his own warehouses.  Yet he is university educated and both he and his wife are well-bred.  Sight unseen the Bingleys put them down for “vulgar relations,” and Darcy concludes that, for the Bennet sisters, having such an uncle “must very materially lessen their chance of marrying men of any consideration in the world” (37).  When Elizabeth first sees Pemberley she consoles herself by reflecting that, had she accepted Darcy, “my uncle and aunt would have been lost to me: I should not have been allowed to invite them” (246).  When the Gardiners are presented to Darcy (and here Elizabeth shows her good breeding by letting Darcy initiate the introduction), matters take a happy turn: “That he was surprised by the connexion was evident; he sustained it however with fortitude” (255).  What follows is a definite turning point in the novel.  No longer are we dealing with people who are bidding for recognition or claiming a distinction they do not merit.  The Gardiners are innately genteel.  Darcy enters into conversation with Mr. Gardiner: “Elizabeth could not but be pleased, could not but triumph.  It was consoling, that he should know she had some relations for whom there was no need to blush.  She … gloried in every expression, every sentence of her uncle, which marked his intelligence, his taste, or his good manners” (255).  Darcy’s acceptance of Mr. Gardiner affirms the pre-eminence of the moral hierarchy, which encompasses them both, over the arbitrary social hierarchy which hitherto has separated them.  And so the way is open for him to come to Elizabeth on the same terms.  Their perception of one another’s moral worth makes all else incidental.

That Lady Catherine is to the manner and the matter born admits of no doubt.  Through her, however, Jane Austen shows that improper pride of rank can be fully as objectionable as social presumptuousness, and may well be the greater offense since to dominate inferiors is an abuse of power.  Lady Catherine uses her eminence to browbeat others.  Even Darcy is, at times, appalled at her ill-breeding.  Her brusqueness is never more marked than when she informs Elizabeth that she is unfit to be Darcy’s wife: 

My daughter and my nephew are formed for each other.  They are descended on the maternal side, from the same noble line; and, on the fathers’, from respectable, honourable, and ancient, though untitled families … and what is to divide them?  The upstart pretensions of a young woman without family, connections, or fortune ….  If you were sensible of your own good, you would not wish to quit the sphere, in which you have been brought up.  (356)  

Parrying, now, Elizabeth’s reply that her father is a gentleman, Lady Catherine rejoins, “But who was your mother?  Who are your uncles and aunts?  Do you imagine me ignorant of their conditions?”  (356)

By failing to judge others by their inherent worth, Lady Catherine shows she lacks that moral wholeness she must have to express the essence of the social hierarchy which she thinks she so perfectly embodies.

Darcy’s pride of station and disdain for those of lesser distinction, are factors paramount in any consideration of Jane Austen’s sense of social hierarchy as set forth in “a novel that founds its action on class barriers.”13  Even Elizabeth’s assertive individualism shows itself in its fullness only in reaction to Darcy’s dismissive pride.  Actually a measure of proper pride is Darcy’s by entitlement.  As Charlotte Lucas explains: “with family, fortune, every thing in his favour … he has a right to be proud” (20).  Further exculpation comes in his own account of the sense of exclusivity his parents had fostered in him: 

I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle ….  I was given good principles but left to follow them in pride and conceit … allowed, encouraged, almost taught … to be selfish and overbearing, to care for none beyond my own family circle, to think meanly of the rest of the world, to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own.  (369) 

By telling Darcy that he has not conducted himself as a gentleman, Elizabeth opens his eyes to his moral failings.  So complete is the reformation that follows, his love for Elizabeth survives even the gross immorality of Lydia’s elopement.  For her part, Elizabeth learns, from Darcy’s caring behaviour, evident at Pemberley and extended now to the Gardiners and herself, that a sense of social identity is preferable to individualism.

As a voice heard from an obscure village, faulting society for entrenching itself behind a code it observed only in externals, Jane Austen might have been accounted a malcontent.  She was nothing of the sort and gave no one occasion for thinking otherwise.  She neither flailed the mighty nor celebrated their foes.  In times past her family had renown beyond most men’s dreams and she knew she was happier for its passing.  What she did want was to see society re-embrace those principles which had been its traditional support, and she wrote to that end, sweeping away, in a surge of laughter, grievances that could not have been scoured away by an ocean of tears. 


1 Sir Walter Scott, an unsigned review of Emma, in Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage, ed. B. C. Southam (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986), I, 64. 

2 David Spring, “Interpreters of Jane Austen’s Social World,” in Woman & Literature, ed. Janet Todd (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1983), pp. 59-60. 

3 James Thompson, Between Self and World: The Novels of Jane Austen (University Park, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988), p. 140. < 

4 P. J. M. Scott, Jane Austen: A Reassessment (Totowa, N. J., Barnes & Noble, 1982), p. 69. 

5 Claudia L. Johnson, Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), xviii. 

6 Alison G. Sulloway, Jane Austen and the Province of Womanhood (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989), p. 92.  

7 Jane Austen’s Letters to Her Sister Cassandra and Others, ed. R. W. Chapman (London: Oxford University Press, 1952), p. 207.  

8 D. J. Greene, “Jane Austen and the Peerage,” PMLA 68 (1953), 1017-31.  

9 Selections from The Household Books of the Lord William Howard of Naworth Castle (Durham: Andrews & Co., 1878).  

10 Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 95.  All quotations from Pride and Prejudice are from this edition. 

11 Alice Chandler, “ ‘A Pair of Fine Eyes’: Jane Austen’s Treatment of Sex,” Studies in the Novel VII:1 (Spring 1975), 96-97.  

12 Norman Page, The Language of Jane Austen (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1972), p. 94.> 

13 Mark Schorer, “‘Pride unprejudiced,”’ Kenyon Review 18 (1956), 86.

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