The Economic Context

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When he first walks into the assembly in Pride and Prejudice, Darcy claims ‘the attention of the room’ with his ‘fine, tall person, handsome features, [and] noble mien’ (P&P, p. 10), a fascination enhanced as reports circulate ‘within five minutes’ that he is worth £10,000 a year. When he quickly offends the company with his pride and arrogance, the implied voices we hear and the judgments of Darcy with which we identify, are, to a large extent, those of the women in the room. After he dismisses Bingley’s suggestion that he dance with Elizabeth, who is merely, he declares, ‘tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me’ (P&P, p. 12), no first-time reader of the novel can possibly find Darcy sympathetic. To a great extent, much of the sheer fun in reading Pride and Prejudice is that we, along with Elizabeth, must learn to interpret Darcy’s reserve and understand the basis of his pride; we, too, have to chart our own responses to his transformation from a seemingly arrogant prig to a romantic hero. While many critics have suggested that this transformation occurs as much in Elizabeth’s mind as it does in his manners, her view of Darcy changes only when she realises how being master of Pemberley, his large Derbyshire estate, shapes his character. In the twenty-first century, we are accustomed to thinking of individuals possessing land and earning incomes, but in Jane Austen’s world, it is as illuminating to think of her characters being possessed by their estates, social positions and inherited responsibilities and obligations; this is, after all, the hard-won lesson that Emma Woodhouse learns from Mr Knightley after she has thoughtlessly insulted Miss Bates at Box Hill. For the last century or so, those of us living in Western, capitalist countries have been trained to think of our possessions – houses, cars, stock portfolios, livestock or crops that we might grow – as alienable; that is, we can dispose of our property in whatever ways we choose: selling it, donating it to charity, leaving it to our relatives or friends in our wills. Pride and Prejudice, however, asks us to consider the complicated situations in which upper-class men and women find themselves when property comes with legal restrictions and ethical obligations, and when their incomes from their estates or investments come with all sorts of strings attached.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Companion to 'Pride and Prejudice'
EditorsJanet Todd
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)9780511844591
ISBN (Print)9781107010154
StatePublished - Mar 2013

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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