Time Period and Culture
Since one of Austen's favorite themes was satire on the time period in which she lived, it is important to have an understanding of some of the customs, achievements, social expectations, and manners of the Regency period. The Regency period lasted from 1811 until 1820, the time during which Jane Austen's novels were published, and so it is the period assigned to her writings. This period directly preceded the Victorian period, and it is similar in many ways, but it does have some unique characteristics that should not be ignored.
The British Empire had lost the United States, but was not quite ready to accept this loss. The result was the War of 1812, a war which resulted in yet another British defeat and no significant gains for either side. Alongside the pressure of Napoleon rising to power, the monarchy felt the pressure of trying to keep the people under control. Any attempt at giving the citizens of England more freedom was generally viewed as treason.
The subject of Jane Austen's stance on politics revealed through her literature is hotly debated and is the topic of several books. The general consensus, however, is that Austen commented on society rather than the government. Her books probably provided an entertaining escape for the people of the era.
Regency era society was marked by extreme excess in the upper classes and a wide gap between rich and poor. Austen's works tend to ignore the lower classes and focus almost totally on the upper-middle to upper classes.
Women had a difficult role in society; they were almost totally dependent on men. Women could not honorably work, except perhaps as governesses, tutors, and writers. As we see in Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, women could not inherit property either. For financial security, the only option was to marry, and to marry well. In fact, this expectation is addressed in the famous opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice: "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of good fortune must be in want of a wife." Austen is speaking ironically, of course. What she is saying is that a woman must be in want of a single man with a good fortune. In the novel, Mrs. Bennet, a mother of five girls, has no business so important as to get all of her daughters married, and she worries and frets over this matter constantly. Austen feels that women do have a choice, however; her heroines often reject those suitors who could support them financially but for whom they have no love.
One of the most prominent features of the time period was the propriety expected between members of the opposite sex. This was the beginning of the social restrictions that were one of the defining characteristics of the Victorian period, which directly followed the Regency period. A young unmarried women should not be alone with a man without a chaperone; likewise, women were never to travel unescorted. Extended correspondence between two members of the opposite sex was seen as a sure sign of engagement. This explains why many of the letters in Austen's works go unanswered. It would be improper for an unmarried man and woman to write many letters back and forth. A double standard was in place, however, when it came to purity and chastity; a woman who was discovered to have had an extramarital affair was shunned and considered unmarriageable. If the woman was already married, infidelity was grounds for divorce. However, in the men's case, an affair was overlooked and hardly even a blot on his reputation. Jane Austen's writings are quite proper for the time period; no explicit love scenes, not even a kiss, are included in her novels. However, a few incidents occur, such as elopement and affairs, but they are never more than hinted at, and the reader must be very alert to note that these events take place.
Jane's novels must be looked at through the lens of the times, or behavior of their characters may not make sense to the modern reader. It is not enough to read her stories as mere romances; to truly appreciate the satire and caricature, one must know what Jane is making light of from the era.
British Regency. (2008, June 24). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 20:57, August 10, 2008, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=British_Regency&oldid=221512173
Calvin, June (2003, May 15). Definition of the Regency. Retrieved August 10, 2008, from June Calvin's Regency World Web site: http://home.telepath.com/~jlwc/definition.htm
Dean, Jenny (1999, June 13). Jane Austen and the female condition. Retrieved August 10, 2008, from University of Alabama in Huntsville Web site: http://www.uah.edu/colleges/liberal/education/S1998/jennyd.html
Robens, Myretta (2004). Notes on Pride and Prejudice. Retrieved August 9, 2008, from The Republic of Pemberly Web site: http://www.pemberley.com/janeinfo/pptopics.html
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