Literature can never be divorced from the dominant social and cultural values underpinning the historical context of its production. Rather, the representation of people and events contained within a given work may function as mirror, reflecting not only the prevailing values and belief systems of a given society; but also offering its author a vehicle through which these values may be challenged or critically reconsidered. Such ideas emerge through a close reading of Elizabeth and Mrs Bennet within Jane Austen’s seminal 1813 romance Pride and Prejudice. Set against the historical backdrop of Regency England, Austen’s voice lends itself to these two women to dually challenge and reflect the societal values that governed the time in which she was writing; values that crystallised around rigid discourses of social stratification, patriarchal conceptions of marriage and feminine propriety. Here, it will emerge that while the novel’s young protagonist Elizabeth Bennet functions as an extension of Austen’s authorial voice with intent to challenge the social mores of Regency England, Mrs Bennet is a representation of a woman who unyieldingly complies with them.
Composed during a time when feminine propriety was aligned with rigid notions of a woman’s submission, financial dependence, modesty and deference to the public male figure, Austen’s idealistic protagonist Elizabeth Bennet arguably represents a transgression against the dominant values that governed Regency England, presenting a heroine whose personal virtues triumph over the restrictions of her era. As the daughter of Mr Bennet - a member of the lower gentry whose estate yields an unimpressive £2,000 pounds per annum – Elizabeth’s intelligence, wit and independence of opinion frequently position her at odds with the prevailing discourses of ‘refined helplessness’ and ‘propriety’ befitting a woman whose financial and social prospects of marriage are “unhappily so small”. To convey these aspects of her character, Austen is seen to employ an omniscient third-person narrator to positively outline Elizabeth’s “lively, playful disposition”, quickness of observation and [her] pliancy of temper”; her character is immediately established to be something of an anomaly in Meryton, the evidence of which is found in the narrator adopting Elizabeth’s centre of consciousness to observe the contrasting affections of propriety in the “decided fashion[s]” of Miss Bingley and the unrefined “ animal spirits” of her sisters Lydia and Catherine. Elizabeth’s sense of determined rationality and wit shines through in the text, her strong authoritative tone in declarative statements: “I shall be very fit to see Jane – which is all I want” work alongside uncharacteristic images of female activity: “springing over puddles to with impatient activity [gave her] a face glowing with the warmth of exercise” to undermine a social value system that links feminine propriety with explicit passivity. Such aspects of her character are further augmented through Austen inscribing Elizabeth’s dialogue with a strongly comedic tone of satire and irony. She delights in intellectually challenging the supposedly superior intellect of Mr Darcy in a series of playful exchanges: “I am convinced that one good sonnet will stave [love] entirely away”; “your defect is to hate everybody”. The result of which indebts her with a strongly established sense of self assurance that defines her against her more passive peers. Together, these techniques portray an image of Elizabeth that consistently challenges the “universal truths” of femininity and propriety of Regency England, provoking responders to consider the capacity of an individual’s self-governance to overcome the restrictive values of a patriarchal society.
While Elizabeth is seen to function as an extension of Austen’s sense of dissidence with the patriarchal values of Regency England, her mother Mrs Bennet functions a