Setting and Social Status in Austen’s Novels

Setting and Social Status in Austen’s Novels

We all are aware that Austen wrote what she knew. Most authors do, except perchance those who write paranormal or science fiction or fantasy (although I would argue that these made-up worlds have similarities to the present day) and to an extent, historical fiction, but even with historical fiction, I often include something that occurred in my personal life. For example, in Christmas at Pemberley, I have Elizabeth grieving for the babies she had yet to carry to term. She goes so far as not to permit anyone even to mention the child or to present her with clothing for it. This came from my life. I experienced an ectopic pregnancy and two miscarriages before my son Joshua made it into the world. I refused all baby showers, talking of the pregnancy, speculating on the child’s sex, etc., until I was six months along. I thought if I could carry to six months, that he would make it. [Incidentally, my Josh was anxious for the world. He came at 7 and a half months.]

Like it or not, our dear Jane wrote about the economics and the restrictions upon her life. She spoke of status and social class. Although Henry Austen attempted to mold Jane’s image when his sister died in 1817, the fact is Jane’s every day life also held questions of her future. Should she marry to secure a home? We know what happens to her and her mother and sister when her father dies unexpectedly. Henry tells us in a biographical note as part of the preface of the posthumous edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion that his sister Jane was not interested in financial matters. In Henry’s words, Jane Austen knew amazement at having earned £150 from the publication of Sense and Sensibility. “Few so gifted were so truly unpretending,” Henry assures us. “She regarded the above sum as a prodigious recompense for that which cost her nothing.” That being said, have you not seen the letter from Jane to a friend where she complained about a lack of a larger advance that the £110 she received for Pride and Prejudice.

4121h-YMhXL._AC_US218_ 419eWLeOb1L._AC_US218_ In Austen, we view parts of the Regency culture through a microcosm of a handful of families in each village Austen creates. Women married for security (and hopefully, for love). But if there was no love in equation, these women would likely still marry the man (for example, Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice). They sought out someone of their social class. Remember Elizabeth Bennet’s retort to Lady Catherine De Bourgh: He is a gentlemanI am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal.” (Ch. 56) Those who were obsessed with high rank are satirized by Austen. The few members of the aristocracy that she includes in her tales are dunderheads, who are consumed with their own consequence. They range from the all-knowing Lady Catherine de Bourgh to the amiable, but dense, Sir John Middleton in Sense and Sensibility to the calculating Sir Thomas Bertram in Mansfield Park and the conceited Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion.

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Speaking of the gentlemen in Austen’s novels, they are usually wealthy and landed. Even most men “in trade” are treated well in her novels. Look at Mr. Gardiner and Mr. Bingley in Pride and Prejudice

Austen uses the setting as part of her story. There are a multitude of highly intelligent women and successful men as the main characters of a story. But by making the setting as important as the characters, Austen changes the story. Those who write contemporary versions of Pride and Prejudice hit a roadblock when we think of Lydia Bennet’s loss of reputation when she runs off with Mr. Wickham, for nowadays, no such stigma exists because if the family truly objects, a quickie divorce is as accessible as a quickie marriage. But during the Regency, a divorce was not possible for the average person, for they were very public, very expensive, and took a parliamentary decree. Once the couple said “I do,” they were joined for LIFE. Austen’s depiction of the rural country life of the early 1800s is so precise that it becomes part of the plot line. The expectations of society control the characters as surely as the laws of the land controlled society. All of Austen’s stories revolve around a relationship of equals—in intelligence, social standing, compassion, confidence, wit, etc. 

Note: You might find John Mullan’s piece on “Status, Rank, and Class in Jane Austen’s Novels,” May 2014 interesting.

14 Responses to Setting and Social Status in Austen’s Novels

  1. Thanks for the post Regina. I, too, like to incorporate a little something of what I know in my stories. So many scenes are visual in my mind and these ideas make it easier to make my points. As you know, music is my weak point. I’m so looking forward to your new release and now you have my curiosity as to what you might have included in that one. Jen

  2. It was sad and scary for a woman to live in those daya. Being dependent on a man to have a secure future unless you are rich. I xsn’t imagibe how nany women and kids that ends up in a bad position becas use of the dictates of society…

    • Women had no rights. A divorce was possible in Scotland, but then the family would be drenched in scandal. In England, it took Parliamentary permission to grant a divorce. The poor and the middle class had no such option.

  3. Very interesting article regarding Austen’s use of her life experiences, the society of her day, and the setting to add ‘truth’ to her stories. It’s probably what makes her novels so relevant to readers over the years. Appreciate, your sharing of your own life experience and how they add depth to your own stories — sorry for your having had such a terrible experience but I do remember how ‘true’ it seemed in the scene you mentioned.

  4. Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry to hear of your troubles! That is one thing I really loved about Christmas at Pemberley because i related so closely to it. Thank you for sharing.
    It’s interesting to see how authors of moderns have handled creating a Wickham/Lydia scandal that holds up in modern times.

    • I have one in my “Honor and Hope” contemporary, Laura, where Wickham pretends to be a professional photographer and talks Lydia into posing in provocative ways. Then he tries to blackmail her. Darcy steps in and handles the situation, but Wickham again ups his game.

  5. Really interesting post! All of her stories fireplace around equals and everybody treated equally. It is sad to lose a baby but glad you finally had your son. I’m sure he is a source of joy.

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