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The influence of social rank and class
Jane Austen's novels reflect the hierarchical framework that provided the same structure for Regency society as it had for centuries before. Precedence, often mentioned in her novels, is the ranking of society based on a clear distinction between one class and another:
- Royalty (not referred to in her novels)
- Aristocracy (characters like Dowager Viscount Dalrymple are rarely presented in a good light)
- The gentry (Sir Walter is a baronet, which is an inherited title, and places him at the head of this class)
- The landed gentry (like Mr. Knightly in Emma).
A person's eligibility to mix with the aristocracy and gentry was limited wholly by their rank. Such distinctions were noted by society at large and even between siblings and parents and their offspring. There was a code of manners that functioned as an acknowledgement of these distinctions:
- Deferential forms of address denoted one person's social superiority over another's
- Yielding to another, when entering a room or sitting at the table, acknowledged their position
- The proper order of paying and returning visits was determined by rank.
While precedence was still firmly entrenched in Jane Austen's day, class boundaries were beginning to blur as mobility between the ranks increased. In general, the upper classes felt threatened by social mobility, while the lower classes welcomed it as an opportunity to increase their social status through skill and hard work.
Because social standing (and thus power) was inextricably linked to birth and land ownership, the custom of primogeniture was developed. Primogeniture maintained the balance of power within the aristocracy and gentry by ensuring that property, land and the family name were held intact. The eldest son inherited the entire estate, and where there were no sons it would pass to the nearest male relative. Jane Austen's novels illustrate the unfairness of this system, and demonstrate its impact on daughters and younger sons:
- In Sense and Sensibility the Dashwood women are forced out of their home as the estate passes to their father's son
- In Persuasion, William Elliot is the heir to Sir Walter's estate because Sir Walter has no sons, so there is extra pressure on his daughters to marry for financial gain.
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