Novel of Manners
Pride and Prejudice is one of the earliest and most influential examples of a novel of manners. By the 1700s, social classes and hierarchies had started to change in England. Due to the rise of industry and capitalism, it was now becoming possible for some people to earn significant amounts of money during their lifetime even if they had not been born into wealthy families. This shift meant that social identity became more complicated. A new emphasis was placed on subtle behaviors that signaled someone’s class background. Examples might include how one dressed, the vocabulary one used, one’s table manners, and what sort of topics one understood to be appropriate for discussion. All these subtle visual or behavioral cues indicated whether a person had been born into their money and were therefore truly upper class, or whether they had acquired their money in their lifetime and were therefore not truly members of the upper classes.
Pride and Prejudice features a cast of characters who are very concerned with money and social position and who are very conscious of the “right” ways to act at all times. Examples of this social consciousness include the horror shown by the Bingley sisters when Elizabeth walks to Netherfield rather than taking a carriage, the way that Mr. Collins fawns over Lady de Burgh due to her wealth and title, and the various snide comments about Uncle Gardiner working as an attorney. (At the time Austen wrote, holding a job could be seen as socially embarrassing because it signaled that an individual did not possess inherited wealth and had to work to earn an income.) Throughout the novel, the Bennets struggle to maintain their membership in the upper class. Their position is precarious, because when Mr. Bennet dies, neither his wife nor his daughters will inherit the house or a sufficient income to maintain their status or live independently. Moreover, while the Bennets’ social position is secure within the sphere of families in the neighborhood (as long as they maintain possession of their house and estate), the Bennets (apart from Jane and Elizabeth) do not consistently display the refined behaviors that would ingratiate them with people of higher status than themselves, such as the Bingleys and Darcys.
Austen’s novel can also be classified as belonging to the genre of realism because it focuses on the everyday life of ordinary people and does not include any sensational or supernatural events. For most readers at the time, much of what was described in Pride and Prejudice would have been recognizable and familiar. The novel also focuses on the personal emotional experiences of the characters rather than political or historical events. For example, while the presence of the regiment implies that a war is taking place, Austen does not discuss geopolitical events in her novel. Although the genre of realism has since gone on to be very popular in fiction, during Austen’s lifetime, novels were much more likely to feature violence, scandals, exotic locations, and even supernatural or magical events. Jane Austen played a significant role in popularizing the idea that readers could be interested in the everyday lives and emotions of characters who were not experiencing anything out of the ordinary.