The main theme of Pride & Prejudice, Dr. Helena Kelly posits, is class warfare. It's the Jacobins versus Burke. This refers to an important conflict in English politics and society in reaction to the French Revolution which we'll refer to several times in this series.
At first, progressives in England greeted the French Revolution with excitement, hailing it as a new era in democracy, and one that they hoped would have an influence in reforming the United Kingdom. But when the Revolution was followed by the Terror, when innocent people were rounded up and guillotined, or set on rafts and drowned, there was a huge backlash in England. Government censors cracked down on radical writers like Thomas Paine.
In the cartoon at left, Paine is pulling the stays of Britannia. The joke is that Paine is destroying her constitution, a pun on the British constitution and the idea that wearing too-tight corsets was bad for women's health. Paine was originally a corset-maker by trade. He is wearing the red cap of liberty, a symbol of the revolution.
Dr. Kelly thinks Austen would have been on the Jacobin side of the debate, despite the fact that (as Kelly notes) her cousin's husband was executed on the guillotine. Kelly sees Austen's satirical portrayal of Lady Catherine as an argument for overthowing the entire class system. Why else, Kelly asks, would Austen use the name "de Bourgh" for Lady Catherine and "Darcy" for the hero? Why use French-sounding names "if you don't want to bring up what happened in France--the abandoning of titles, the confiscation of estates, the guillotining?" Well...
When Elizabeth and Mr. Wickham "sit and shred" Lady Catherine's character, Kelly calls it "a revolutionary moment" in a "revolutionary novel." She thinks it is daring of Elizabeth to gossip with the son of a steward about a titled lady,
Yet when Elizabeth and the Gardners go to Pemberley and take a tour, the housekeeper tells them, "There is not one of his tenants or servants but will give [Mr. Darcy] a good name," which suggests that the lower orders can and do give their opinions of their betters, and Mrs. Reynolds has no hesitation in acknowledging as much.
"From the corner of our eyes," writes Kelly, "we can see the shadow of the guillotine."
Very well, Elizabeth is saucy to Lady Catherine. But she is saucy to everyone. Does this really mean she, or Austen, wants to see Lady Catherine's head on a pike? Or is it possible to be just a little more nuanced here?
If Pride & Prejudice is intended as a rejection of social class, how about the important climactic moment when Lady Catherine confronts Elizabeth? When Lady Catherine says: “If you were sensible of your own good, you would not wish to quit the sphere in which you have been brought up.”
Does Elizabeth pump her fist in the air and exclaim, “Who cares if I am not his social equal? To hell with the class system! Viva la revolución, bitch!”
No, she doesn't. Elizabeth responds that she is of the same class as Mr. Darcy. Her father is a “gentleman.” That is, her father does not work and he lives off the income from his fields and his tenants. "So far we are equal."
And Lady Catherine concedes the point! “True. You are a gentleman’s daughter.” (And Bennet is also an Anglo-Norman name.) She follows that up with other objections, but the point is that Elizabeth defends herself to Lady Catherine by asserting her membership in the privileged class. This is a key exchange in the novel.
In their reviews of Jane Austen: the Secret Radical, YouTube vloggers Blatantly Bookish and Books and Things both point out that the real rebel in the story is Lydia, who runs off without getting married, while Elizabeth is embarrassed because her family can't behave properly. Elizabeth is mortified when Mr. Collins talks to Darcy at the Netherfield Ball, "without [an] introduction... it must belong to Mr. Darcy, the superior in consequence, to begin the acquaintance."
Likewise, Mary Crawford says of the wealthy Mr. Rushworth of Sotherton, "I often think of Mr. Rushworth's property and independence, and wish them in other hands." She does not say, "I often think the Rushworths should be kicked out and Sotherton should be broken up into a cooperative farming venture." Her complaint is that Mr. Rushworth is too stupid to be worthy of his position in life.
The idea that people were born in their station in life, that God intended some people to be dukes and other people to be peasants was in fact the mainstream view in Austen's time. The hymn, "All Things Bright and Beautiful" speaks of: "The rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate, God made them high and lowly, And ordered their estate."
A footnote was added to Mrs. Leyster's speech to point out that The Two Cousins was written when there was a strong backlash over the French Revolution. It appears that the author, Elizabeth Pinchard, felt she needed to explain or justify Mrs. Leyster's strict views as to rank.
This is a dig both at Mr. Collins and at Lady Catherine, but is it a hint at class overthrow? Incidentally, the phrase "pride and prejudice" appears in The Two Cousins:
James Gillray's cartoon, below, shows the aristocratic members of the British cabinet buck naked, except for the Bishop of London, who gets to keep his clothes on.
The idea that the aristocracy could not be criticized, mocked or lampooned is simply not accurate.
Elizabeth "gloried in every expression, every sentence of her uncle, which marked his intelligence, his taste, or his good manners," as he speaks with Mr. Darcy. But her uncle doesn't talk to Darcy until Darcy asks to be introduced.
In Austen, vulgarity and ignorance are greater shortcomings than being poor or low-born, and those who are born into privilege have duties as well. Elizabeth's opinion of Darcy begins to change when she hears his housekeeper praise him. He fulfills all his duties and responsibilities -- to his sister, his servants, and his tenants.
And in the end, Elizabeth marries the rich, high-born guy with the French-sounding name.
Next post: So what is the moral of Pride & Prejudice?
In my book A Different Kind of Woman, Fanny Price accidentally meets up with a large group of millworkers marching into Manchester for a big protest rally. She is quite uncomfortable when she see that some of them are carrying the red cap of liberty--with everything that it signifies--on a flagstaff. Click here for more information about my books.