Marriage, Social Class, And Women In Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

The saga of the Bennet sisters remains, to this day, one of the most beloved novels, with millions of copies still being sold across the world. Published in 1813, “Pride and Prejudice” revolves around Elizabeth Bennet, a spirited young woman belonging to a middle-class family living in Longbourn, Hertfordshire, in England. The novel traces her journey to find love, in the process becomes a scintillating social commentary of the times.

A still from Pride And Prejudice, 2005

The opening lines of the novel introduce us to the Bennet family–the elderly Bennet couple and their five unmarried daughters. With unsurpassed ease and signature wit, Austen makes it clear that the young Bennet women are of marriageable age, and their mother, the inimitable Mrs. Bennet, who has little else to do in life but to get her daughters married off, and married well.

Marriage is one of the central themes of this novel set in late 18th century England. Austen laces, with understated humor, the social understanding that the culmination of a woman’s life lies in marriage. Moreover, marriage is shown to be a socio-economic arrangement rather than a union of souls, and while women could be well-read and well-informed, social expectations would most likely not go beyond finding a good match for them. It is a far cry from contemporary perceptions, especially in the West, where marriage has almost come to become peripheral to a woman’s identity, her independence, and choices in life becoming primary to her existence.

Jane Austen. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Austen herself, of course, broke the glass ceiling in more ways than one. Not only did she take to writing at a time when women writers were still a glaring minority, in fact, reading and writing were not seen as a woman’s cup of tea, she also remained unattached throughout her short life, thus going against the love, family and marriage centric plots of her stories.

However, keeping to the tradition of the time, most of her major publications during her lifetime were published anonymously– some of them cryptically as ‘A Lady,’ thus shielding her from any social animosity that could have arisen from revealing her true identity. One must remember the celebrated Bronte sisters in the early 19th century whose works were published under neutral noms de guerre (assumed names) to avoid social prejudices.

This brings us to the social order, which is again a recurring theme in most of Austen’s novels, and “Pride and Prejudice” is no exception. In fact, “First Impressions”, as the novel was initially named, adroitly encapsulated within it the very core of the story itself. That is, first impressions are not always the last impressions.

Thus, Eliza Bennet’s initial, and thoroughly justified detestation of Fitzwilliam Darcy, undergoes a gradual transformation, just as Darcy’s impression of the Bennets, although not drastically transformed, at least gets tempered by the end of the novel. And weaved into their respective first impressions is Austen’s astute observation of human nature, and her apt use of irony with respect to the social order of the time, marriage and the status of women.

The Bennet Family. A still from Pride And Prejudice, 2005

Women, at the time the novel was written, were not entitled to property rights. Thus, Mr. Bennet’s estate is entailed away from the female line and is expected to pass on, upon his demise, to his distant cousin, William Collins. Collins is a ludicrous mockery of a clergyman whose complete lack of common sense, coupled with his ridiculously inflated opinion of himself makes him one of the most farcical characters in the novel. Elizabeth’s sharp rebuttal of his proposal, the clergyman’s response to being rejected and the Bennet couple’s diverse reactions to the entire episode make for some thoroughly hilarious moments. 

Collins represents a particular social class–the so-called respectable, pompous clergy, financially stable, but with little breeding. His nuptials with the sensible Charlotte Lucas, Elizabeth’s close friend, clearly indicates the society’s perceptions towards a socially acceptable marriage. Theirs is a marriage without passion, offering stability and security, but little else to either party involved.

Mr.Collins proposing to Elizabeth Bennet. A still from Pride And Prejudice, 2005

Collins is in some way an anti-thesis to Darcy, who is the epitome of propriety and respectability. Like Collins, Darcy too is a victim of false pride but unlike him, Darcy’s pride is shown, albeit through biting irony, as arising from his noble lineage and the fact that he belongs to the landed aristocracy. Darcy’s aunt, the wealthy and haughty Lady Catherine de Bourgh, is another satirical figure. Once again, the author seems to subtly make fun of the society’s misplaced regard for the genteel classes. Irony and social critique blend together seamlessly through amusing characterizations and delicious writing.

Lydia Bennet, the presumed anti-thesis to Elizabeth and her sister Jane, can perhaps be seen as representing the darker imagery of the society–the foolish, ignorant young woman who falls into the clutches of the charismatic George Wickham, a degenerate womanizer. The couple presumably dives into what can only be a life of dissipation and misery. Wickham and Lydia’s complete lack of principles suggests a social and moral decay that runs parallel to the elitism signified by the Bingleys and the Darcys.

Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy.

In contrast to the Wickhams’ marriage for passion lies that of Elizabeth and Darcy–the ideal marriage filled with love, respect, beauty, material wealth, and most importantly, social propriety. Both Elizabeth and Darcy marry for love. And for that, they stand forgiven in spite of their flawed characters. At the other end of the continuum is Charlotte and Collins’ marriage for convenience.

Despite her highly entertaining style of writing and profound insight into social life, Jane Austen had failed to taste success in her lifetime. Today though, had she lived, she would have been a global celebrity. Her magnum opus, “Pride and Prejudice”, has given readers some timeless characters in the realm of classic English literature.

The head-strong Lizzy and the proud, extraordinarily handsome Mr. Darcy, the soft-spoken Jane and the charming Mr. Bingley, the comical Mr. Collins, the long-suffering Mr. Bennet who has no compassion for his wife’s poor nerves, and the unscrupulous Lydia and Wickham have become so deeply etched into the minds of any Austen lover, that it would be hard to convince us that these are, after all, the mere figment of a person’s imagination. Over 225 years on, Lizzy and Darcy’s love story continues to be every woman’s fantasy. Keeping true to Austen–if such happy prospects were to befall us, we would be very well pleased, indeed! 

 

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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