Pride and Prejudice—-”Radical Jane” by Edward Ahearn

The focus of Ahearn’s argument is on the connection between the relationships of characters in Pride and Prejudice and the evolving social hierarchy of England at the time.  He discusses how the mingling and eventual marriages of both Jane and Elizabeth to Bingley and Darcy (respectively) represent a new shift in societal thinking as class lines shift and the old class lines (especially) around the aristocracy dissolve into the (then) modern world.  Ahearn notices some interesting instances of symbolism in the novel, such as the sickness of Anne de Bourgh and Georgiana Darcy and how the intended uniting of the two families was ill-conceived and impossible to execute.  According to Ahearn, this shows how the aristocracy is failing and that the idea of nobility mixing only with nobility is flawed, not only in the book, but also in the real world as well.  Ahearn identifies more examples of the slow, but steady downfall of the aristocracy through an analysis of  Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s actual aristocratic ties.  Her name comes from the word “bourgeois”, which represents the working upper-middle class, not the elite members of high dignified society.  He also says that “The verbiage [of Lady Catherine's speech] cannot hide the fact that neither Darcy nor her daughter comes from absolutely noble lineage; aristocracy in the novel as in history turns out to be a pseudoconcept.”  And this is illuminating because her purity and nobility are the attributes that the pretentious Lady Catherine most clings to, and yet, even these are not true.  This is further evidence of the dwindling “pure” aristocracy and how the masses have now entered the once-fortified home of the nobility.  In Pride and Prejudice, being of a lower class is not something to be ashamed of (according to Austen), in fact, it should not define one at all.  The Gardiners, who are technically “below” Lady Catherine, are presented as much nicer, friendlier, and altogether more worthwhile characters than the powerful and controlling aristocrat.  And although England was still driven by its social hierarchy, Austen uses her novel to showcase some of the progressive societal change that is slowly affecting the country, whether it likes it or not.

One Comment

  1. Neville:

    Well… There’s a big gap between on the one hand Ahearn’s observations that class is an issue in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and that big social changes were occurring in England at the time (not exactly news to many readers, either now or in the nineteenth century), and on the other the ‘vulgar Marxist’ framework he may think is the obvious accompaniment.

    In the real world, for instance, aristocracy has always been more about a fierce, ongoing struggle for status than about the preservation of an unchanging hierarchy. So there is really nothing radical about Jane Austen’s ability to notice the fact and satirize it; people have been talking about it for centuries.

    We should also not lose sight of the fact that if Jane Austen had a radical project then it didn’t get her very far; though she resembled Elizabeth more than any other character in the book, she herself died an old maid. For all the acuteness of her observations, Mr Darcy remained very much more a fictional character than a portrait of an emergent social type.

    Britain’s economy and its class structure were being transformed at the time, but not by romantic heroes. Pride and Prejudice is better understood as one writer’s witty, perceptive and creative attempt to understand how an intelligent unmarried woman might be able to navigate those changes, rather than any sort of deep analysis of what was driving them.