Class in Pride and Prejudice: Explanation & Examples

Instructor: Lucy Barnhouse
This lesson provides an introduction to issues of class in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Social status was very important at the time of the book's publication, but the criteria and markers of that status were changing.

Thinking About Class

Jane Austen's critique of class-based snobbery is one of the main themes of Pride and Prejudice, first published in 1813. In the contemporary English society Austen describes, several factors went into determining social class and its attendant status.

Early edition of Pride and Prejudice
title page

Just as much in the early nineteenth century as now, social class was a complex thing, and one label could cover many different lifestyles. You might want to think of the gentry of Jane Austen's time as being roughly equivalent to today's middle class. In two families labeled as middle class, the children of both households might have piano lessons, and one family might also go skiing every winter.

If you were a member of the gentry in Regency Britain, you didn't have to work for a living, but you could either have a small house and income, like Mr. Bennet, or a gorgeous estate and multiple homes, like Mr. Darcy. Similar cultural values could underlie vastly different realities. In the families of Jane Austen's novel, income, family, and living circumstances all contributed to marking out social class.

Changing Times, Changing Values

Family and Living Circumstance

In Regency Era Britain (1811-1820), the variables that determined social class were shifting in relative importance. For hundreds of years, family had been the most important thing: who you were related to by blood, and the family's status. Lady Catherine de Bourgh represents these old values. Sir William Lucas believes in them too, to an extent, because although he started out as a tradesman, he was knighted and is very proud of his status.

Sir William Lucas is an interesting example because he goes as far as to change his living circumstances to reflect his status, moving from the town to a private house outside it. However, Sir William still can't afford a good dowry (marriage payment) for his daughters, which a good father should be able to do. He's still an important man in local society, though, and is proud of having been presented at the royal court of St. James (Chapters 5-6).

Lizzy, Mr. Darcy, and Mr. Bingley
Meryton dance

Income

In early nineteenth-century Britain, commerce was growing by leaps and bounds, and income was become increasingly recognized as a source of status. Mrs. Bennet gives voice to this when, gushing over Mr. Darcy's wealth, she exclaims ''Ten thousand a year, and very likely more! 'Tis as good as a Lord!'' (Chapter 59).

The source of one's money becomes a distinguishing factor, too. Mr. Darcy comes from old money: he has not only the equivalent of over $300,000 a year in modern terms, but a gorgeous family estate. His friend Mr. Bingley obviously comes from new money. The huge excitement in the first comes from him renting out Netherfield Hall because he doesn't have inherited property of his own. Since he comes from northern England, it's quite possible that he made his fortune in the booming manufacturing towns of the early Industrial Revolution. Though both friends enjoy the benefits of wealth, the source of their money marks out differences in their class status.

Interaction of Variables

The combination of income, family, and living circumstances all contributed to social class, which largely determined with whom people associated and how they were perceived by others. This is perhaps most pithily demonstrated in the heated exchange between Lizzy Bennet and the arrogant Lady Catherine de Bourgh, in Chapter 56. Lady Catherine is shocked and horrified at the thought that her own nephew, Mr. Darcy, might marry Lizzy.

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