This first paragraph in Pride and Prejudice offers a small insight of the entire plot. The importance of marriage to secure the social status of a women in the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century English society manifests itself here. T he paragraph states that a single man “must be in want of a wife”, with this sentence the narrator reveals that the reverse is also true: a single woman, whose socially prescribed options are quite limited, is in want of a husband. Those limitations are based on a family`s social rank and connections. To be born a woman in the beginning of the nineteenth century means having even less choice about whom to marry or how to determine the shape of one`s life.
For example, as members of the gentry, the women of the Bennet family in Pride and Prejudice cannot work or make a career for themselves because it was socially unacceptable to work as a member of the gentry. As a result, marriage is one of the very limited options for attaining wealth and social standing. The 1790s, when Jane Austen began to write for publication, was characterized by a legacy of the Enlightenment (Sulloway, 1989). All over Europe, and especially in England, France and Germany, women had already begun to think that the injustices imposed upon women of all classes were as legitimate a subject for rational debate as the wrongs of any other minority. But when
Austen began to write her mature work, women rights fighters were considered as rebellious and as a member of a clerical family, she was anxious to spare herself and her family any ugly reputation. This version of women`s oppression occurred in the form of a compensatory equation: The more “rights of men” seemed as a legitimate line of question to some enlightened men, the more men of almost all persuasions demanded restrictions upon women, even beyond the regular hardships (Sulloway, 1989). In this search for freedom and order, men craving for new enlightened liberties was ironically counterbalanced by a renewed social insistence upon woman`s restriction in her limited province. In some way, woman`s segregated domesticity was supposed to compensate for man`s expanding freedom and to forestall revolutions.
While men savoured their newly obtained freedom, women were seen as the creation to profit and comfort of men. In the eye of society, a good wife should be like a mirror which has no image of its own. She has to obey her husband, and only desire what her husband allowed her, instead of following her own wishes and goals. It was also required that a woman should not love before marriage, because women were seen as irrational and too emotional, therefore, women`s behaviour must significantly differ from that of men, who expressed their own wishes and make their own choices (Poovey, 1984). This harsh and irrational treatment of women was one of the most urgent and haunting preoccupations that shaped Jane Austen`s satires. The poor image of women and the double standard to which it is related to are deeply interwoven into the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century culture. And since Austen presented an important reality of English women exposing the social and moral follies of her society at that time, it plays a vast part in her fiction. Together with the enlightenment of women, it shapes the plots, invigorate the satire, reflects in the dialogues and opens up the question; what possibilities and limitations genteel women had at the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century.
To answer this question, this paper will be divided into two parts. Firstly, a general view of the status of women in the nineteenth century will be presented. Secondly, women`s possibilities and limitations will be analysed and separated into education, women`s work and legal rights. The research will be based on data gathered from historical books as well as from Jane Austen`s fictional Novels Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Mansfield Park and Persuasion.