An 18th Century Perspective on Elizabeth Bennet

In anticipation of an upcoming review I’ve been reading Susannah Fullerton’s Celebrating Pride and Prejudice: 200 Years of Jane Austen’s Masterpiece.  I’ll be posting the full review on December 16th, Jane Austen’s 237th birthday, but in the meantime, I wanted to share with you an 18th century perspective that shows just how incredible the character of Elizabeth Bennet truly was.

Unproven portrait of Jane Austen at Bath, age 15 | Johann Zofanny
Unproven portrait of Jane Austen at Bath, age 15 | Johann Zofanny

Jane Austen started writing Pride and Prejudice in October 1796 at the age of twenty.  She would no doubt have been exposed to the popular publications of the period, including the ever so entertaining Lady’s Magazine: or, Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex.  A few years prior to Austen putting pen to paper for what was then called First Impressions, The Lady’s Magazine published in their 1791 edition “A Letter from a Father to his Daughter on Relative Duties,” part of which is excerpted below.

“Of all the weaknesses the younger part of your sex are most prone to are pride and affectation, and there are none scarce which render more contemptible in the eyes of the thinking and sensible part mankind; therefore as you value the esteem of your friends, crush them in the bud.  The ingenious Mr Addison says “Pride in a woman destroys all symmetry and grace; and affectation is a more terrible enemy to a fine face than the small pox.  

And yet there is no passion so universal or steals into the heart more imperceptibly than pride; at the same time, there is not a single view of human nature, under its present condition, which is not sufficient to extinguish in us all the secret seeds of pride.  As nothing appears more odious and disgusting than pride and affectation, to nothing is more amiable in your sex than humility; it adds a beauty to every feature and a luster to all your action.”*

These epistolary tutelages served as continual nudges against youthful waywardness, advising sons on achievement in politics and education, and daughters on obedience and humility.  Based on works they produced, writers like the young Jane Austen must have felt the thorn in these infuriatingly narrow instructions at one time or another.

From 'Pride and Prejudice' film showing Jane and Elizabeth | 2005
From ‘Pride and Prejudice’ film showing Jane and Elizabeth | 2005

Elizabeth Bennet was a character written from the breed of proud, independently-minded women who were mightily disapproved of by the majority of gentlemen (and a whole lot of gentlewomen) during the 18th century. She is, in many ways, diametrically opposed to the ideal gentlewoman and her genius, of course, is in being appealing nevertheless.  As Fullerton says, “She was a highly unconventional, new sort of heroine, and it is easy for modern readers to underestimate just how astonishing she was for readers of the time.”  What’s interesting is that Austen made Elizabeth THE favorite daughter of her father and despite all obstacles of temperament, she is our heroine.  As Fullerton points out, according to the values of the time Jane Bennet would’ve been the appropriate choice.  I think we can all say thank goodness she wasn’t Austen’s choice, as today only Elizabeth would be ours.

*Find the full letter on page 42 here

2 thoughts on “An 18th Century Perspective on Elizabeth Bennet

  1. A very provocative post.
    Writing as a father of a young girl, I wonder: how much of our understanding of 18th Century ‘pride and affectation’ is informed by present incarnations of those traits? Pride is an elusive concept, very prone to interpretations and weight (‘good’ pride and ‘bad’ pride). Perhaps a particular self-possession was the gold standard Miss Austen sought in a heroine.

    The layering of protestant ethics in a Christian upbringing from that period placed a heavy emphasis on humility when emulating a Christlike nature. I suspect we’ve moved so far away from that sociologically that we can’t easily imagine what it was like to live each day in a world centered around that meta-narrative. (As an igtheist, I don’t exactly yearn for it).

    Many stories of that period contrast the delights and anguish felt when those ubiquitous, lofty ideals encounter friction with our Fallen Nature, one which bends toward temporal pleasures, sensuality and sin.

    Elizabeth Bennet’s qualities compare favorably with Anne Elliot from ‘Persuasion’. Anne possesses a kind and sweet nature with a sharp mind. The ‘pride’ expressed by her father and her beautiful, but vain, older sister on the subject of rank and social status are revealed as empty and vapid. Austen peels away surface conventions to expose something authentic, or missing within.

    The ‘proud, affected woman’ viewed as a negative idea is difficult to even recognize today, since ‘pride’ as a 21st Century idea is employed so frequently as to be rendered meaningless. American and British popular culture also appear to feed on the idea of “the mighty brought down low”. One has to scour our culture to find someone who has so much obvious vanity and derision for others and who is not already reviled by everyone.

    Offensively proud women who exhibit unseemly affectation, like Ann Coulter for example, or Lil’ Kim are such caricatures that they seem comically villainous when held to the standard to the criticisms viewed in The Lady’s Magazine.

    1. Pride does suffer from a lack of definition in modern usage, but I suspect it was muddled in Austen’s time too. I imagine it’s one of those vexing words to translate through time and across cultures; the spectrum between that which a ‘good’ person should possess, to that which only a nauseating braggadocio would, is all grey. The pious Mr. Collins incarnations (which as you say, need not return) and the mean girl Miss Bingley (subjected to Schadenfreude, god, yes. Glee at pulling down 15 minute idols is having a moment) are comical and frankly hard to relate to. I’m quite sure an 18th century man would’ve stabbed himself in the eye at the sight and sound of Lil’ Kim or Coulter.

      I think it’s safe to say Austen’s ideal pride was somewhere near self-possession. In P&P her characters exhibit a wide range, the end of the novel’s self-reflective pride of Elizabeth and Darcy being far superior to their previous afflictions, which only caused them hardship and misunderstanding.

      Thanks for the thoughtful response, as always!

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