Jane Austen’s critique of polite society in her novel, Pride and Prejudice, explores the inequitable societal expectations and inferiority of women in Regency England. Her utilisation of the novel form to satirise high society and attitudes towards women denounces a Regency female’s complete dependence upon men. In Pride and Prejudice, Austen’s ironic depiction of Collins as a caricature of the societal boundaries in Regency England highlights the negligibility felt by women, her characterisation of Charlotte Lucas reveals women’s reliance upon matrimony to gain financial stability, and her unctuous characterisation of Miss Bingley displays how women’s lives were shaped around their exigency to impress men.
Firstly, the strict social boundaries and manners imposed upon young women in Regency England left these women in a position inferior to their male counterparts. Austen’s use of irony in her pompous characterisation of Mr Collins presents him as a caricature to mock these social boundaries. Collins’ narcissism and obliquity is laid bare in his self-assured tone after Elizabeth rejects his proposal, ‘I know it to be the established custom of your sex to reject a man on the first application…consistent with the true delicacy of the female character.’ The noun ‘delicacy’ highlights the perceived weakness and inferiority of females in Regency England, whilst Collins’ refusing to accept that Elizabeth’s rejection is on the grounds of disaffection emphasises the common occurrence of women’s opinions and feelings being ignored, as a result of this perceived insignificance. The irony of Mr Collins’ faith in his understanding of ‘the female character’, despite his indubitable ignorance of the matter, allows Austen to satirise polite society and its mannerisms. Furthermore, Collins’ respect and admiration for Lady Catherine de Bourgh exemplifies his affection for traditional societal manners, thus proving that his feelings towards the Regency female are aligned with the majority of others in this period. Overall, Austen’s satirical characterisation of Collins presents him as the epitome of Regency England’s idiosyncrasies, and acts as a vehicle for Austen to attack these unjust social boundaries and patronising attitudes towards women.
Moreover, women’s complete lack of economic independence left matrimony as the exclusive means for young women in Regency England to ensure a stable future. In Pride and Prejudice, Austen characterises Charlotte Lucas as dependent upon marriage, to display this common quality amongst women in Regency England. Charlotte’s pragmatic approach to marriage is represented in the dialogue, ‘When she is secure of him, there will be more leisure for falling in love as much as she chooses.’ The dependent time clause ‘when she is secure of him’ exemplifies Charlotte’s belief in assuring a partner as quickly as possible, and her disregard for feelings in a relationship. Furthermore, Austen proves the sensibility of Charlotte’s ambition by affirming its necessity, demonstrated in the omniscient narration after Charlotte marries Mr Collins, ‘without thinking highly of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only honourable provision for well-educated women of small fortune.’ The irony that Charlotte’s ‘object’ is to enter matrimony, despite her disregard for men, reveals that her desires stem from understanding the importance of establishing financial stability through marriage. Charlotte’s views on marriage were aligned with the majority of other women in the Regency Period. Austen’s use of the novel form to characterise Charlotte Lucas as pragmatic and holding a duty-driven outlook on marriage reveals young women’s utter dependence upon matrimony to secure a stable future in Regency England.
Finally, as a result of their inferior position and reliance upon matrimony, women’s lives in Regency England were shaped around making themselves attractive to men. In Pride and Prejudice, Austen’s unctuous characterisation of Miss Bingley explores the societal expectation that young women must be accomplished to appear desirable to men. The required refinements are described by Miss Bingley to be ‘a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages…something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions’. The use of listing and accumulation conveys the abundance of these accomplishments. Austen’s characterisation of Miss Bingley as desperate to agree with and impress Mr Darcy, by expressing her accordance with the importance of female accomplishments, reflects how resolutely women’s lives were shaped around impressing men. Furthermore, Austen goes on to comment on the unattainability of such expectations, through Elizabeth’s dialogue, ‘I rather wonder now at your knowing any [accomplished women].’ Austen employs Elizabeth as a lens to critique the futility of expecting such extensive accomplishments of young women, by expressing her belief in the impossibility of fulfilling these societal expectations. Overall, Austen critiques the societal expectation that women in Regency England must make themselves appear desirable to men and acquire an abundance of refinements, by using Elizabeth as a vehicle to expose Miss Bingley’s unctuousness, as well as the unattainability of women’s accomplishments.
In Pride and Prejudice, Austen’s use of irony in Mr Collins’ presumptuous characterisation depicts the social boundaries and patronising attitudes towards women, her pragmatic characterisation of Charlotte Lucas demonstrates female dependence upon matrimony, and her fawning characterisation of Miss Bingley exemplifies the need for women to make themselves desirable to men. Despite the immense differences between Mr Collins, Charlotte Lucas, and Miss Bingley, Austen’s use of satire in their characterisations acts a vessel for her to critique the inferiority of women and their dependence upon men in Regency England.