England Social Life in Novels by Jane Austen

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Comedy of Manners is a term used to designate realistic, often satirical, comedy of the Restoration period, as practiced by the Congreve. It is best defined as a form of comedy that satirizes the manners and affections of contemporary society and questions societal manners. The characters are more likely to be types than individualized personalities. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen is a classic regency novel set in Hertfordshire and Derbyshire in 1812.

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Jane Austen was an English novelist known for her major works that analyzed and critiqued social life in England during her time. Growing up in a middle class family, but living in a high class society, Austen experienced firsthand the issues she often wrote about. She attended Reading Abbey’s Girls school where it is speculated that her love for literature began. Her diction and syntax was known to be very sarcastic and ironic which attracted a wide scale audience; however, throughout her lifetime she received very little acknowledgment for her work due to it being published anonymously. She was born on 16 December 1775 in Steventon Rectory, Hampshire, England and died at the age of forty one due to Addison’s disease. Posthumously, she received immense admiration and fame for her work that has continued through today.

Pride and Prejudice portrays the unconventional love story of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, although it does not begin that way. Elizabeth and her four sisters were daughters of a gentleman who was old and nearing death. Their parents were yearning to marry their daughters off before their father passed away so they would be set. In an attempt to meet eligible bachelors, the sisters attended a ball. At said ball, Elizabeth’s oldest sister Jane catches the attention of the rich Charles Bingley. This so happens to be the same place in which Darcy and Elizabeth first meet, and Elizabeth’s distaste for him and his snobby personality comes to light.

Elizabeth only met Darcy briefly; however, she quickly became acquainted with a military officer, George Wickham. Wickham was a gentleman and they immediately fell for each other, but he did not like the thought of Darcy. In order to make sure Elizabeth’s hatred for Darcy continued to fester, Wickham told her that Darcy had denied him his inheritance. After Bingley leaves Jane, Elizabeth is convinced it is due to Darcy and continues to despise him even more. Darcy, however, is still infatuated with her and proposes marriage to her, in which she immediately declines. After being rejected, Darcy writes a letter to her stating that he was not trying to break Bingley and Jane up, nor was he withholding Wickham’s inheritance. He was actually protecting his sister from Wickham using her for her fortune.

After reading the letter, Elizabeth’s distaste for him mainly subsides and she loses her affection for Wickham. Shortly after, Lydia, her youngest sister, has a brief affair with Wickham. This affair leaves the Bennet’s afraid that the possible publicity will ruin the family name. Darcy, out of love, requests that Wickham marry Lydia and keep it a secret that he has asked such. He also manages to reunite Jane and Bingley, both actions which caught the attention of Elizabeth. At first, she was angry at him for meddling and attempting to fix her personal family problems, but she soon gets over it. They face several trials and tribulations of their love and overcoming the social barrier that separated them. Eventually Darcy overcame his ego and loved Elizabeth without thinking of her social standing whatsoever, and this time when Darcy proposes, Elizabeth joyfully accepts.

Through Austen’s character Fitzwilliam Darcy she reveals the stereotypical individuals in her society. Speech is the words in which the character says that reveal their personalities. Thoughts are what the character think. Actions are what the character does throughout the story that reveals characteristics about them. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen portrays comedy of manners through the characters speech, thoughts, and actions.

Characters’ speech often defines a literary work and portrays an alternative purpose than just dialogue. Darcy lived in a classist society and happened to fall in love with a woman with lesser social status than him. He often spoke without thinking and portrayed an entitled, snobby rich man in the early 19th century. Elizabeth being of a lower class than him, often was insulted by his words; he never failed to mention their differences.

From the start, Darcy put Elizabeth below him and did his best to not acknowledge her. While at a ball to meet eligible men or women, Bingley approaches Darcy and asks why he is not interested in dancing with Elizabeth. Darcy says, “She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men” (Austen 3). Though obviously physically attracted to her, Darcy says this because he does not think that a woman could behold so much beauty to make him risk his social status. This is the first sign that he values his image above all else, as most upstanding men in this era.

Elizabeth, although deeply in love with Darcy, saw through his prideful facade. When Darcy professed his love for Elizabeth, he went about it in such a way that offended Elizabeth with due cause. Darcy says, “In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you” (Austen 162). Confessing his love was not just an act of vulnerability to him, but he seemed to see it as an act of shame. He says that his love for her was something he tried to deny, presumably due to their class difference. This shows that he was not saying all of this for the right reasons, but as a classist man in a classist society, he took her social standing above all else.

Darcy is a prideful man, and seems to know so. This pride plays a key component in his role as a stereotype in this novel. Elizabeth is obviously bothered by his pride and is insulted by it on multiple occasions. When confronting him of his pride, Darcy says, “Where there is a real superiority of mind, pride will be always under good regulation” (Austen 48). Here, Darcy is saying that although he may be prideful and arrogant, he may do so. He believes it is okay to talk and think so highly of yourself as long as you have the qualities and capabilities to validate it. Austen’s depiction of Darcy as the typical, egotistical gentlemen in this time period solidifies the barrier between Elizabeth and Darcy due to their social statuses.

The thoughts of a character define what they truly mean, rather than what they actually say or do. Darcy means well in everything that he says and does; however, he tends to have the wrong ideals in his head when he is performing a gesture. Darcy focused harshly on his social class, and the thought of someone of a lower class affecting his social class was frightening to him. Despite all of this, Darcy loved Elizabeth.

Darcy also portrays his stereotype by feeding into the sexism prevalent in his society. After conversing about what he desires in a woman, and stating a long list of qualities that they must pertain, he adds one more thing. He says, “All this she must possess, and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading” (Austen 32). This shows Darcy’s thought process about women, and that he not only wants a woman to possess so many far fetched qualities, but he also wants her to be well-versed in literature and knowledgeable, not so she can stimulate her mind and be successful, but so she may be someone to confabulate his knowledge with. This portrays him as the sexist and classist man Austen is trying to paint so clearly.

In 19th century England, there was a way in which society ran, and the way in which feelings were expressed, or so Darcy thought. If one had feelings for another, like Darcy did for Elizabeth, they were not to simply tell the other. Darcy thought that he could not tell Elizabeth his feelings for her because of the societal rules, and because of this, they both kept their feelings from the other for a while. In doing so, Darcy fulfilled yet another societal norm in his time period, conforming to the precedents and stereotypes that were set before them. That remained true until Darcy admitted his love for Elizabeth. Darcy says, “You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you” (Austen 162). Up until this moment, Darcy had fulfilled this portion of Austen’s comedy of manners.

True love can change even the most stereotypical character, and Elizabeth was able to do so to Darcy. He realized his wrong doings and changed for the better, but before doing so he was a different, more egotistical and prideful man. Darcy says:

What do I not owe you? You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you, I was properly humbled. I came to you without a doubt of my reception. You showed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased (Austen 319).

By saying so Darcy shows that he knows his previous thoughts of women and Elizabeth were wrong. Darcy’s prior thought process on class and his pride was ignorant and followed the viewpoints of everyone they were surrounded with, as Austen was trying to portray.

Actions speak louder than, well anything, and through a character’s actions the novel the theme can be conveyed. Characters like Darcy often let the pressures of a society cause them to conform, unfortunately that was his case. Though, in the end, Darcy was able to overcome the societal norms and express his love despite what was conventional, at first he was not able to do so. Austen uses Darcy to convey the hilarity of his society and the stereotypical actions that those within it perform.

Men are expected to be protectors of women, especially so in this time period. Darcy was very diligent on looking out for his sister Georgiana. When Wickham attempted to put foul images of Darcy in Elizabeth’s head, Darcy had to put them to rest. Darcy explained how Wickham had previously been interested in his sister. He says, “Mr. Wickham’s chief object was unquestionably my sister’s fortune” (Austen 173). By protecting his sister and defending her from a man who was only after her money, Darcy fulfilled another conventional role of a man in his time.

Jane, Elizabeth’s sister was having trouble with Bingley, and it worried the family that things would not work out. Darcy, even after being rejected by Elizabeth, still went meddling into her personal family affairs. He says, “My avowed [purpose] … was to see whether your sister was still partial to Bingley” (Austen 330). This angered Elizabeth because Darcy tried to fix a problem to gain her affection once again. As men in their society often did, he tried to solve a problem to get her to fall in love with him without consideration of how this action would make her feel, thus portraying the stereotype yet again.

Jane Austen portrays comedy of manners through Fitzwilliam Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Through Darcy’s actions, thoughts, and speech, he is shown to be the stereotypical man in his society that is filled with pride and consumed by classism. This all proves that Darcy does indeed portray comedy of manners. So, I guess Darcy was wrong after all, Elizabeth was totally handsome enough to tempt him.

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England social life in novels by Jane Austen. (2022, Sep 05). Retrieved October 7, 2022 , from
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