Pride and Prejudice
Jane Austen was born on December 16th, 1775 in Hampshire, England. She was one of seven children born to Reverend George Austen and Cassandra Austen (nee Leigh). Jane was said to have been closest with her only sister, also named Cassandra, and her brother Henry who became her literary agent later in her career. Jane was also very close to her father and this relationship may have served as the model for the relationship between Elizabeth Bennet and her father in Pride and Prejudice. When Jane was eight years old, she was sent to a boarding school for her formal education, which for girls of Jane’s middle class standing likely consisted of learning foreign languages (mainly French), music and dancing. A voracious reader, her education was continued at home, and she was encouraged by her father to explore her creative side by writing stories. It is also believed that the family created their own entertainment by performing existing plays or writing and performing their own.
Upon completion of her formal education, Jane set to work on the first draft of First Impressions which was completed in 1799. First Impressions later became Pride and Prejudice. Also around this time, Jane began work on Susan which would later become Northanger Abbey.
In 1802 Jane received and accepted a marriage proposal from a family friend, Mr Bigg-Whither. Her acceptance seems to be based on a desire for financial stability for herself and her family. Feeling no affection for Mr Bigg-Whither, she ultimately rejected the proposal the next day. This chapter of her life is reminiscent of Elizabeth Bennet’s rejection of Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice.
In 1805 Jane’s beloved father passed away, sending the female Austens into a state of financial instability. In the end they went to live with Francis Austen (the fifth child born to George and Cassandra) in a cottage on his property called Chawton. This was to be the home where Jane would do her most prolific writing. Jane’s first published novel in 1811, Sense and Sensibility, was a critical and popular success and financial boon to the family. Pride and Prejudice was published next in January of 1813 and was again a critical and popular success, this time warranting a second printing only ten months later. Mansfield Park followed and although its critical reception was not as favourable, the public were eager to read more of Austen’s work. Emma, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion rounded out Jane’s published novels and although by now she was able to contribute financially to her family, her brother Henry’s banking enterprise began to fail, leaving them in a precarious financial position. In 1816 Jane’s health began to deteriorate, though she continued to write. In the spring and summer of 1817 Jane’s health declined rapidly and she died on July 17th of that year. Her brother Henry and sister Cassandra worked to have her later novels Northanger Abbey and Persuasion published as a set. Henry then wrote an account of the author and her works so that the world would know the talent behind the beloved novels.
N.B. Although Jane Austen never married, there is one documented account of her falling in love. She wrote many letters to her sister Cassandra about her feelings for a young student named Tom Lefroy. Tom however was being supported financially by his family during this time and, seeing the relationship as a distraction to his work, they acted to keep the two apart. Once the Lefroy family sent Tom away, the couple never saw one another again. The storyline of this love affair is explored in the 2007 film, Becoming Jane.
The Regency Period
The formal Regency period lasted only from 1811 to 1820. This period marked the time when King George III was deemed unable to rule and his son, Prince Regent (who later became King George IV) ruled by proxy. The Regency era is sometimes denoted by a longer time frame – 1795 to 1837 – which encompasses the reigns of King George III, Prince Regent (later King George IV) and William IV until the reign of Queen Victoria.
This era in Britain was characterized by architectural development, a strong appreciation for the arts, and a sense of elegance. For the aristocracy, it was a period of excess. Class was deeply stratified. There was a dark side to the opulence exuded by Prince Regent – many of Britain’s lower classes struggled with issues of gambling and drinking, lacking the opportunity to change their social standing. Interestingly, Britain was undergoing a time of major population growth due to increased fertility rates coupled with decreasing mortality rates as a result of the waning of the plague and other diseases.
The average age of marriage was also going down. Due to economic factors including the increasingly popular agricultural arrangement of Enclosures (small farms previously run independently by families now grouped together and working for an owner), men and women who had previously postponed marriage until they had saved some money now found themselves able to marry earlier. No longer waiting to amass their own wealth but now working for someone else, men and women got married and started families at a younger age. The average age for marriage in the aristocracy had always been low since the purpose of marriage was for families to align with one another for financial stability and gain.
When Jane Austen was writing Pride and Prejudice, women had no legal right to own property or material goods. This is the main cause of concern for the Bennet household as there is no male heir to inherit their home, thus giving Mr Collins the entail to the estate. Anything that a woman possessed before marriage, or acquired during marriage (through inheritance or earnings of her own), became the property of her husband. Prior to The Married Women’s Property Act of 1884, women were considered “femmes covert” and a woman’s personal property immediately became her husband’s upon marriage. However provisions could be made in order to ensure that a women’s property remained her own or an inheritance could be held in trust and therefore passed down to the next generation. In these cases a legal settlement had to be procured.
It is interesting to note that prior to The Custody of Infants Act of 1839, men were automatically given custody of children regardless of the reason given for the separation or divorce.
Although it seems as though women’s treatment was unjustly one-sided, men were also obliged to automatically assume all debts previously carried by the woman upon entering into a marriage.