Between 1797, when a young Jane Austen began work on what would become Pride and Prejudice, and 1813, when the novel was published, the French Revolution was fought, Marie Antoinette was guillotined and Napoleon rose to power and conquered most of Western Europe. Closer to Austen’s home, Great Britain combined with Ireland to become the United Kingdom, the slave trade was abolished by Parliament throughout the British empire and King George III, driven to apparent madness by what historians now suspect to have been a rare hereditary metabolic disorder, was replaced in his duties by his son, the Prince Regent, later to become King George IV. These sweeping historical trends have made a considerable role in Austen’s domestic fictions, particularly in Pride and Prejudice.
Jane Austen, known for setting the novel during the time she lived, portrays the gentry, a broad social class that includes those who owned land as well as the professional classes who hadn’t the land. It also highlights the changing social perspective over property, money in late 18th and early 19th century England. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, ownership of English land was concentrated in the hands of the relatively small landed classes through strict inheritance laws. The law entrusted the property to male children or male relatives rather than distributing it amongst family members.
Similarly, a woman of the upper classes could expect to be granted a “fortune” from her family upon marriage or the death of her father, and the money would be invested in government funds to draw interest at a fixed 5 percent. If she is married, it would contribute to her husband’s income, or it would cover her living expenses. In contrast to the woman’s status, a man’s income was always reported as a number of pounds (£) “per year,” such as Mr. Bingley’s “four or five thousand a year.”
In addition, Austen leads an interesting role between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Though she often quotes, Dr. Samuel Johnson, her plots bear similarities to the works of Johnson’s contemporaries such as Pamela, written by Samuel Richardson. Further, the novel displays ambiguity between Romantic writing and Victorian literature, since the characters exhibit awareness of the conditions of modernity and city life and their consequences in family structure and individual characters.
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