Social Conventions and Courtship in the 18th Century. Challenges for Independence and Genuine Love Displayed in Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”

Term Paper 2014 10 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of Contents


Courtship & Marriage in 18th Century Britain

Individual Freedom vs. Social Hierarchy

Extremes in Motives

Love Theme – Overcoming Pride & Prejudice




The concept of marriage in the 18th century was subject to a dynamic shift of values which largely determined the motives for choosing an appropriate partner. While courtship was solely exercised upon the grounds of social compatibility, the emergence of romanticism began to question such pragmatic approaches. As divorce was not an option, marriages in previous centuries were most likely to be arranged by kin and parents to ensure that their offspring was securely embedded into a socially and financially stable environment. Concerning these terms, children were seen as live property of their parents: “Children are so much the goods, the possessions of their parent, that they cannot, without a kind of theft, give away themselves without the allowance of those that have the right in them.” (Stone 180) However, in the late seventeenth and eighteenth century, a gradual shift towards individual freedom could be observed. Although marriages were still mostly arranged, children were allowed to participate in choosing suitable spouses. One aspect Stone claims is the “warmer affective relations between husband and wife and between parents and children, which was itself a powerful reason for the declining influence of kin and community”. (Stone 181) Therefore, it is arguable that the arrangement of marriages were supposed to serve the purpose of ensuring a fulfilling live for the children, especially in financial regards, rather than claiming a property.

Jane Austen, although never married herself, displays the contradiction of social conventions and genuine love in finding a spouse through various facets. “Pride and Prejudice” delivers a microscopic view on a rural family and manages to reflect contemporary social customs of the 18th century. In particular, Austen focusses on the struggle, the main protagonist, Elizabeth, has to go through in order to find genuine love as well as a stable marriage. This paper aims to contrast virtues and behaviors of the 18th century, which were expected from young women, with Elizabeth’s search for individual freedom. Furthermore, it will be examined how Austen able displayed a range of motives for marriage through various characters. Throughout the course of her intricate, but in the end romantic entanglement with Mr. Darcy, it will be examined how both were able to overcome doubts.

Courtship & Marriage in 18th Century Britain

As it was common practice to bequeath property to male descendants of the family, ideally the oldest one, women amongst lower classes were usually not able to own or even take care of property. Women were “supposed to contribute to a British economy no longer through their labor but through their supervisory capacities as wives and mothers.” (Warhol-Down 228). Wives served men as a kind of trophy with socially desirable abilities to be shown off to the public: “A woman must have thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, all the modern languages, to deserve the word; in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved.” (Austen 37) Consequently, families anticipated social and financial advantages as a result of marital bonds and thus highly influenced their daughters in choosing a spouse. (Dobošiová 8) Active efforts were expected to be made by men, while women were either to accept or refuse possible candidates.

However, with the emergence of an individualistic spirit within the British society, a greater space for choice were granted to women. Essentially, the degree of being pushed into a marriage highly depended on the relationship between parents and children. Most parents would still manage the matchmaking, as far as selecting appropriate men was concerned, but would also grant their daughters the “right of veto” (Dobošiová 26). But because of the fact that women could not inherit any property, men had a substantial amount of economic power, as women had to marry their “fortune”. The commonness of practical motives for marriage is perfectly depicted in “Pride and Prejudice” when Mr. Collins bluntly expresses his intentions behind marrying a woman: “My reasons for marrying are, first, that I think it a right thing for every clergyman in easy circumstances (like myself) to set the example of matrimony in his parish; […] But the fact is, that being, as I am, to inherit this estate after the death of your honoured father (who, however, may live many years longer), I could not satisfy myself without resolving to choose a wife from among his daughters, that the loss to them might be as little as possible, when the melancholy event takes place—which, however, as I have already said, may not be for several years.” (Austen 94) Charlotte Lucas, a twenty-seven-year old single woman who sees a possible match in Mr. Collins, does not make a secret of the fact that she sees Mr. Collins as her last opportunity to marry.

It is therefore obvious that, from the bachelorettes’ perspectives, these rather practical motives, were not easy to combine with aspects of physical and emotional attraction. The latter is apparently more valued by Jane Austen: “Financial inducements alone were not enough to tempt her into matrimony – she turned down one wealthy suitor in the full knowledge that, at the age of twenty-six and with eligible men in scarce supply, she might never receive another proposal of marriage.” (Jones 5)

Individual Freedom vs. Social Hierarchy

It is arguable that Austen expressed her rather critical position towards an economic oppression of women through the heroine Elizabeth. Austen grants her character a sort of independence which most woman at that time could not make use of. Despite Mr. Darcy’s wealth and social status, Elizabeth takes the liberty to reject him at the beginning, although the circumstances would suggest that he is certainly a good match: “[…] I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed to marry” (Austen 170) Newton pinpoints this case by claiming: “Pride and Prejudice is devoted not to establishing but to denying the force of economics in human life. In the reading of the novel the real force of economics simply melts away.” (124) Thus, Elizabeth advocates an individualistic spirit that overcomes the stranglehold of a traditionally oriented society. Mr. Darcy, on the other hand, can be seen representative for the society and its expected moral conduct, sacrificing individual necessities in favor of social acceptance. “Elizabeth, then, reveals the energy, the impulsiveness, the respect for personal merit which characterizes individualism, while Darcy, with his sense of propriety and his noble family connections, stands for “society” or the established social codes.” (Sherry 611) But can this be a sufficiently differentiated interpretation? Sherry suggests to reexamine the definition of the word ‘society’ and what it really meant to Jane Austen in contrast to other interpretations. (611) ‘Society’ is commonly referred to a frame for social conventions which is forced upon its members to ensure a certain predictability in human interactions. However, from Austen’s point of view, ‘society’ does not exclude but rather crucially requires individualism: “Far from being an abstraction, then, “society” always suggests for Jane Austen the presence of other individuals with whom it is either a duty or a pleasure to mix.” (611) Considering this instance, both characters cannot be simply classified through concepts like society or individualism. Elizabeth’s very sociable attitude might fulfill Austen’s definition of society, “[…] while it is Darcy whose reserve, privacy, and discretion are, in fact, protective of the individual.” (612)



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Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice Stolz und Vorurteil Love Courtship 18th century



Title: Social Conventions and Courtship in the 18th Century. Challenges for Independence and Genuine Love Displayed in Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”