The Reading Room
Virtue and Wealth in Pride and Prejudice
Although it is now an iconic title and story, Pride and Prejudice was originally supposed to be entitled “First Impressions”. Despite the name being scrapped, its implications are ever present throughout the novel. It is through Elizabeth’s initial impressions of the two grand estates Rosings Park and Pemberley that Austen is able to create a conversation about the relationship between virtue and wealth.
The first of these estates Elizabeth has the pleasure of visiting is Rosings Park. Rosings Park is less of an estate on which people work and live and more so a doll house, with perfectly manicured gardens and seemingly few inhabitants. The people who live either in or adjacent to the manor fall directly into old world peerage stereotypes. The worshiped and the worshippers (looking at you, Mr. Collins). What passes as virtue at Rosings is, well, it’s wealth. The very facts of the de Bourgh’s lands and the finery of their house are supposed to define in totality their morality, regardless of the behavior of its residents. While this works for many characters, here is where Elizabeth becomes Austen’s tool for defining what is and what is not virtuous according to the new age.
The facade of Rosings and the de Bourghs is waning naturally, a sign that this was always a false sort of virtue, and that the world is moving on from acknowledging it as a truly virtuous way of life. There is virtually no interaction with the lands of the estate and if there are any nearby towns, they have no relationship with the manor.
Though Lady Catherine is described as a stout, physically sturdy woman, Anne, her precious heiress is sickly and quiet. Anne’s sickliness is the main facet of her character. Austen uses her unwellness as a way to instill the idea in the reader that there is something unnatural about the power of the de Bourgh family. After all, how could a family who is virtuous and capable of holding their place in society and their level of wealth produce an heiress who is entirely incapable (by no fault of her own) of upholding the title and estate of her family?
Virtue within Rosings Park rests entirely in the artifice of their ‘greatness’ and refuses to engage with a world in which virtue is tied to morality rather than wealth. What is virtuous to Lady Catherine is nothing more than holding up her title to the world, rather than living within it. This is a good clue for why servants in the house and workers on the estate are absent. Because they are not of the same class as the de Bourghs, their virtue lies in their silent servitude.
Later in the novel, Mrs. Gardiner remarks that Darcy's family home Pemberley would not be worth seeing if it were “merely a fine house, richly furnished,” The implication is that it is something more than a display of grandeur that equates to a worthwhile life and estate. The pursuit of virtue then is necessarily also more than a display of finery and a reliance upon class distinction.
Pemberley is not, however, a house of the same grandeur as Rosings Park. The overwhelming impression of Rosings lies in its separation from the surrounding land and people. Pemberley has the unique quality of being a house that has grown inseparable from its countryside. Not only is the house itself a “large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills”, it is in constant relation with its neighboring town of Lambton.
The house physically stands in contrast to the de Bourgh estate, but more interestingly it stands in contrast internally. Servants are not seen in Rosings, apart from the Collinses, in Pemberley, however, the first interaction Elizabeth and the Gardiners have is with servants. Although the conversation between the Gardiners and the housekeeper is sometimes understood as sarcastic, both Elizabeth and her aunt and uncle receive her words well. "He is the best landlord, and the best master that ever lived.", becomes the new basis on which Elizabeth builds her perception of Darcy.
Elizabeth’s shift in attitude toward Darcy is integral to the reader’s understanding of Pemberley as a more virtuous manifestation of wealth than Rosings Park. There is no question that Pemberley is a grand estate, but it lacks the doll house effect of Rosings, a place where nothing ever changes. For Pemberley, change is a part of its existence.
From this moment onward in the novel, Austen seems to use change as a metric of virtuous wealth. Here, in the walls of Pemberley is where Darcy is able to prove himself to be good not because of his wealth but in tandem with it. By running off to ensure Lydia and Wickham actually get married, he is using his money to ensure the wellbeing of the Bennets, whose reputation has nothing to do with his own. This act draws a distinction between himself and the likes of Lady Catherine, redefining Lizzie’s idea of class relations as being driven by wealth as instead being defined by individual virtue.
Armed with this new opinion of Darcy and his wealth, Lizzie is able to face Lady Catherine’s visit to Longbourn. Elizabeth is seemingly no longer holding herself to an old class system but to her newfound understanding of individual action as a more true descriptor of societal rank. Pemberley shows it is possible to be beautiful, wealthy, and meritorious, qualities which Elizabeth previously saw as incompatible. The contrast between Rosings and Pemberley helps her to disentangle show and grandeur from real virtue.
The conclusion of Pride and Prejudice follows in the same vein. The marriage of Darcy and Elizabeth sees two people of similar virtue, not similar wealth, joined together. Disparaged earlier in the novel by Miss Bingley because Mr. Gardiner is “in trade”, the Gardiners are often guests at Pemberley, not because of their societal status but because of their moral worth. Like Elizabeth herself, they are representatives of a class of gentlemen and gentlemen’s daughters who are active, useful, intelligent, kind, and perceptive, in strong contrast to the values of Lady Catherine and her daughter. Despite their differences, Lady Catherine, despite her being “extremely indignant” is eventually allowed the honor of visiting Pemberley, where perhaps she will be susceptible to moral change.
Although Pemberley is far from a democratic or egalitarian vision of equality in the world, and in some ways has simply replaced one social hierarchy with another, it is a social hierarchy that at least makes a claim to be better and more equitable than the one that it has replaced. If ultimately it admits a semi-reformed Lady Catherine, it also admits Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner.