Attitudes to Women in Pride and Prejudice
The first mention of women appears in the very first sentence of 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. ” This rather plainly expresses women not simply on their own, separate from men, but as wives. Jane Austen goes on the write, “this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some or other of their daughters. ” This goes to show that parents were quite willing to marry off their daughters to a man simply because he as a wealthy gentleman.
There is not a word of his character or to his general disposition, no question of whether or not he could make their daughter happy, or if she could ever love him. Marriage was, as Mr Collins later proves, a “business” transaction. This was not because parents did not care for their daughters, it was simply because unless a woman had her own financial means, as Lady de Bourgh does, she had no option but to marry a man who could support her and provide her with a house and such securities.
Other alternative was to become a governess, hich was not desirable. In Shirley by Charlotte Bronte Mrs Pryor (who was a governess herself) spends a great deal of energy trying to dissuade Caroline Helstone from becoming a governess. “Governesses,” she observed, “must ever be kept in a sort of isolation… … All I mean to say, my dear, is, that you had better not attempt to be a governess, as the duties of the position would be too severe for your constitution. Not one word of disrespect would I breathe towards either Mrs. r Miss Hardman; only, recalling my own experience, I cannot but feel that, were you to fall nder auspices such as theirs, you would contend a while courageously with your doom: then you would pine and grow too weak for your work; you would come home if you still had a home broken down. Those languishing years would follow, of which none but the invalid and her immediate friends feel the heart-sickness and know the burden: consumption or decline would close the chapter. Such is the history of many a life: I would not have it yours. In that light marriage was the obvious choice. In the particular case of the Bennet family, the situation is even more dire than was sual. Mr Bennet had no heir. He had only five daughters, and the law of primogeniture stated that inheritance would be to the closest male relative. In this case, Mr Collins. As Mr Bennet says to Mrs Bennet one morning at the breakfast table, “(the letter) is from my cousin, Mr Collins, who, when I am dead, may turn you all out of this house as soon as he pleases. ” Such was the reality of the matter.
But for being obliged to marry, what else was expected of the Pride and Prejudice’s ladies? When Caroline Bingley speaks to Elizabeth Bennet on “accomplished” young adies she mentions the following requirements, “A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, and the modern languages to deserve the word. ” Later on, when Lady Catherine de Bourgh questions Elizabeth Bennet about her family, she proves how little was expected from ladies by asking “at different whether they were handsome, where they had been educated… and then shortly afterward, “Do you play and sing, Miss Bennet? ” Charlotte Bronte, in her novel Jane Eyre, has Mrs Reed tell Jane of the importance that she should “acquire a more ociable and childlike disposition, a more attractive and sprightly manner– something lighter, franker, more natural. ” In short, women were supposed to smile lots, not be too inquisitive (women who cultivated an interest in studying life and the world were scornfully termed “bluestockings”), and to spend large quantities of time improving their French, their music, and their sketching abilities.
If they had mastered these abilities, and possessed “a certain something in (their) air and manner of walking, (their) tone of voice, (their) address and expressions… they would not struggle overly much in finding a husband. Men, it would seem, were easy to please. Mr Bennet, a highly intellectual man with a very sharp wit and intuitive streak had strangely enough been “captivated by (Mrs Bennet’s) youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour which youth and beauty generally give… ” Had Mrs Bennet been a man he would probably have disliked her from the very first.
However, since she was a woman, he did not expect any great things of her. Elizabeth is, most unfortunately, very intelligent. She breaks many social barriers by eing sharp and “outspoken. ” Mrs Bennet cannot understand why her husband holds Lizzy in such high regard when she is “not half so handsome as Jane, nor half so good-humoured as Lydia. ” “Something more of quickness” was not quite proper in a young lady, and definitely not thought of as any sort of accomplishment. Lady de Bourgh is disgusted at Lizzy’s readiness of tongue and exclaims, “Upon my word! You give your opinion very decidedly for so young a person. Lizzy is appreciated only by Jane, her father, and Mr Darcy, all of whom are intuitive and intelligent people. Mr Bennet and Mr Darcy are both not conformers to society and its biased views, and Jane is too sweet to dislike anybody. Women like Elizabeth had a hard time being intelligent and almost manly in their outlook on life. The general attitude then, can be described as a hope that women would be “attractive and sprightly” and not hope to be too enlightened. They should not dare to appear more intelligent than the “superior” sex, and should be accomplished in the proper manner. It was not too much to ask for, was it?