The story begins in the autumn of 1811 when Charles Bingley, accompanied by his two sisters and Darcy, takes up residence at Netherfield, close to the Bennets’ home at Longbourn. Both homes are located in a rural area of Hertfordshire, a county in southeast-central England. Other scenes take place in nearby Rosings in Kent county, where Mr. Collins occupies a clergyman’s “seat,” and in the central county Derbyshire, where Darcy lives. The novel also describes, but does not show, events that occur in London (located twenty-four miles from Longbourn) and in the popular seaside resort town of Brighton.

Pride and Prejudice reveals distinctions of social class that may seem unusual to young American readers. Darcy and his aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, are members of the aristocracy, England’s hereditary ruling class. The Bennet family and the clergyman Mr. Collins-like Jane Austen herself-fall into the category of landed gentry, which means that they own property in the country, are well-bred, and hold a good social position. The Bennets are “poor” only in comparison with others of the gentry. Historically, the aristocracy and gentry mixed freely but tended not to cross lines for marriage. Both maintained business but not social dealings with people of “inferior” status, such as small merchants, tenant farmers, and servants.

The members of the Bingley family, from the north of England, are neither gentry nor aristocracy, but their wealth and cultivation earn them immediate prestige in Hertfordshire and make Charles an attractive bachelor. Finally, the officer corps of the militia contains men of diverse status, ranging from aristocrats such as Colonel Fitzwilliam to men of more ordinary background, such as Lieutenant George Wickham, whose father once managed the property of Darcy’s father. Wickham’s rank as an officer allows him to visit the Bennet family, but his lack of money or property renders him a poor choice for marriage, as Mrs. Gardiner reminds her niece Elizabeth.

Young readers should know that Austen considers rural communities like the Bennets’ places of comfort and havens for traditional values. Families know each other well and care very much about how they appear to their neighbors. Unlike London, which values change, fashion, and commerce, Austen’s country towns preserve pleasures considered more genteel: social graces, family living, and honorable courtship.

In this world marriage is a complex institution; teen-age women are considered “out” (or eligible for suitors) after they attend their first dance, and most of a young woman’s life consists of preparing for marriage. For most women, the choice of a spouse is the most significant decision they will make. Because few women hold jobs, those who do not marry may live lonely, idle existences. Many couples-like Charlotte Lucas and Mr. Collins-wed not for love but to gain property or achieve a desired social rank. Austen’s novels show such arrangements, but they do not approve of them; her heroes and heroines never marry coldly.

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