In this study (PWS), I want to research the gender roles of the time in which Jane Austen lived: the Regency era. For the reason that literature – especially old literature – excites me a lot, I decided to use her book, Pride and Prejudice, as the primary reference for my study.
I feel much closer to people from a specific period whilst reading one of their books and I’m eager to see what Jane Austen herself can tell me about her era. As Pride and Prejudice is a story of marriage, entailment and love, I think that it serves as an excellent source for such a study.
I will try my best to answer this question by analysing Pride and Prejudice. I will analyse this book by citing things that I think are important to better understand the roles between men and women at Austen’s time. Even things that aren’t directly related to gender roles, but I still find essential to better understand the circumstances of men and women in Regency England, I will cite it. I will write down my thoughts about it, too, as I believe this will help me to get creative and come up with more and more questions. I think it’s also important to know about Jane’s background, how did she live and from what perspective did she look at everything?
My hypothesis: I think literary novels are excellent sources for studies like this. Jane Austen lived in this era and if you take a look at the subjects of her books, she had a clear perception of the position of women in her time. However, one must keep in mind that this is a romantic novel: Austen also used her imagination and I don’t think that Pride and Prejudice will give me insight into all the facts. I believe that additional research is unavoidable to fully understand the reality of gender roles in early 19th century England.
Jane Austen was born on 16 December 1775 in the village of Steventon in Hampshire4, into a family of lower gentry, where her father was the clergyman. She had seven siblings: six brothers and an older sister, Cassandra.5 Jane had a very intimate relationship with her sister, as I noticed whilst reading her letters to Cassandra. In the spring of 1783, Jane, her sister and their cousin, Jane Cooper, were sent to Oxford to be tutored by Mrs. Cawley. Jane was seven, her sister ten and her cousin twelve.6 Later that year, Mrs. Cawley took the girls down to Southampton because a measles outbreak had occurred in Oxford. In Southampton, Jane got dangerously ill, together with her sister and cousin. Troops were just returning to Southampton, bringing an infectious decease with them. Jane was severely sick at this time. Mrs. Cawley notified neither the Austens nor the Coopers, but Jane Cooper, fortunately, sent a letter to her mother. Mrs. Austen and Mrs. Cooper immediately went down to Southampton to take the girls home. Subsequently, Mrs. Cooper caught the infection, and she died in October 1783.6 and 7
After a year at home, making use of George Austen’s extensive library, the three girls were sent off to school again. This time they went to the Abbey School, which was a school that included girls from higher social strata. In Jane Austen: Her life, Park Honan speculates that it was at this school that Jane – coming from a lower gentry and financially insecure family – encountered her first strong dose of class consciousness.8 This school was well-established, and the girls were probably sent there to acquire accomplishments that would give them a better chance of marriage. Mr. Austen undoubtedly had felt it a good investment to pay for his daughters’ schooling.8 Jane began at Abbey School at age nine and would leave it for good just as she turned eleven.8 At that time, the school fees simply got too high for the Austen family.
At around 11 years old, Jane started writing fiction to entertain her family. She later compiled the twenty-nine works she wrote between 1787 and 1793 into three bound notebooks, which is now called the ‘Juvenilia’. These are all works written when Jane was between the ages of eleven and eighteen.9 Jane grew up in a family in which creative thinking was stimulated, the Austens had for some years made a habit of performing plays at home.10
On the night of January the 8th, in 1796, Jane Austen attended a ball at Deane House, which was newly built at the time. She just turned twenty, and this particular ball was a very eventful one for Jane. At this ball, Jane met someone new: a young law student called Tom Lefroy. They got on very well, as Jane mentioned in a letter to her sister, dated January the 9th 1796:
I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together. I can expose myself however, only once more, because he leaves the country soon after next Friday, on which day we are to have a dance at Ashe after all. He is a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man, I assure you.
It all started very promisingly, but Tom Lefroy never proposed to her; he had a lot of siblings to provide for and had to marry someone richer than Jane. This experience might have been a part of her inspiration for Pride and Prejudice.
In 1801, aged twenty-five, Jane had to leave Steventon for good. Her father, Revd George Austen, decided to retire and move to Bath, taking his wife and two daughters with him.12 Bath was a thriving spa-town at that time, with an incredibly busy social scene. Jane didn’t seem too enthusiastic about coming here, as such an environment would make it impossible for her to write in peace and silence. However, Jane had no choice and decided to just get on with the move. Her aunt and uncle also lived in Bath, and they wanted them to settle in the same part of town, but this part was way too noisy for the Austen’s. Eventually, they decided to move into 4 Sydney Place: a house with good neighbours, which was very important because where you lived in Bath, reflected your status. They would stay here for three years.12
One time, after moving to Bath, Jane and Cassandra returned to Manydown to visit their old friends in the fall of 1802. During the visit, the brother of one of her old friends, Harris Bigg-Whiter, proposed to Jane on the evening of 2 December. He was twenty-one at that time, and Jane was about to turn twenty-seven in a few weeks. Harris was a very respectable gentleman, about to inherit Manydown Park. As Jane had no source of independent income and had been disappointed in love, Harris’ inheritance was, logically, very appealing, and Jane accepted his offer. Nonetheless, the next morning she had changed her mind. Harris didn’t have much conversation, he could sometimes be insulting and Jane didn’t love him.12 She retracted her acceptance, which must have been so awkward that she had to run away from Manydown Park.13 After turning Harris Bigg-Wither down, she never got another proposal (that we know of).
Well, there was one man who might have made a great husband for Jane, but something very mysterious happened. In the years 1801 – 1804, the family enjoyed some holidays in the summer months at seaside resorts such as Lyme and Sidmouth. During a holiday in Lyme, Jane met someone and fell in love. Years after Jane’s death, Cassandra Austen told her niece Caroline Austen that Jane was involved in an unfortunate love affair with a clergyman whom she had met during a seaside holiday.14 Though he had plans to meet up with Jane again, he never came and either died or disappeared before the relationship could progress.15
In 1805, Jane’s father passed away. On January 1st, Jane wrote to her brother Francis: “We have lost an excellent Father. An illness of only eight and forty hours carried him off yesterday morning between ten and eleven. His tenderness as a father, who can do justice to?” The death of her father left Jane, Cassandra and Mrs. Austen in genteel poverty. They now had to rely on their brothers (for Mrs. Austen, her sons, of course). Just before the death of her father, the three-year lease of Sydney’s Place expired, and as they could not afford to renew it, they were forced to take a house at Green Park Buildings.16 Now that Jane’s father was dead, they also couldn’t afford a home at Green Park Buildings, so they moved to 25 Gaystreet. Eventually, Mrs. Austen, Jane, and Cassandra ended up in Trim Street. This house at Trim Street was precisely one of the homes in Bath that Jane detested while house hunting in 1801. It was clear: they could not afford to live any longer in Bath.
In 1806 they moved to Southampton. Jane had to be very careful with her money at this time. Jane had no income, and she had to rely on the kindness of her brothers. In 1808, Jane’s brother Edward Austen-Knight came across with the Chawton Cottage. It was an end to all the uncertainty, and this was the time in which her writing career flourished. Jane also visited her brother Henry Austen, now a banker in London.12 Because Henry was a widow, had only one maid, and was out all day doing business. Jane could finally write in silence and peace, with no social obligations. He also had found her a more prestigious publisher: John Murray. Henry dealt with the correspondence with the publisher, most likely because Jane Austen was a woman. A few weeks after her brother Henry fell seriously ill, Jane was forced to start dealing with her business herself. Her first letter to John Murray dated 3 November 1815. Murray had offered to publish Emma, but he wanted the copyright of both Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility. Now that her brother Henry was ill, Jane was the one who had to negotiate with John Murray. Jane had already been the victim of an astute publisher before, who earned three times more from Pride and Prejudice than the amount he paid Jane for it. However, none of her later books would sell as well as Pride and Prejudice. By the time she died, she had earned £684 13s from all of her books, which would be £23.250,71 in our time.
In the last years of her life, Jane had a glimpse of the life of a successful anonymous author, but less than a year after Emma was published, it all came to an end. Jane was back in Chawton Cottage and got severely ill.12 On the 24th of May 1817, Jane and Cassandra went to Winchester for treatment. At this time, Jane had already written her Last Will & Testament:17
I Jane Austen of the Parish of Chawton do by this my last Will & Testament give and bequeath to my dearest Sister Cassandra Elizth every thing of which I may die possessed, or which may be hereafter due to me, subject to the payment of my Funeral Expences, & to a Legacy of £ 50. to my Brother Henry, & £ 50. to Mde Bigeon–which I request may be paid as soon as convenient. And I appoint my said dear Sister the Executrix of this my last Will & Testament.
April 27. 1817
Jane Austen died very early in the morning, on the 18th of July, 1817.
You can read part 2 here