Pride and Prejudice: What Constitutes an Accomplished Woman
Pride and Prejudice is largely a social commentary on the plight of women, especially poor, single women, in the Regency period. In Chapter Eight of Volume I of the novel, there is an extensive discussion on what it means to be an “accomplished woman”. The list entails everything from knowledge of the arts to manners of behaviors:
“A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, all the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address, and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved.”
(Jane Austen, Vol. I, Ch. 8)
The listing out of qualities between Mr. Bingley, Miss Bingley, and Darcy serves as a social commentary on the role of women in Austen’s society. It is Austen’s way of criticizing the high level of expectations from women which are to no end. A woman, no matter how accomplished, has to, at the end of the day, secure a respectable, well-to-do husband in order to be considered of any esteem in society. The only true accomplishment of a woman in the Regency period is how well of a marriage prospect she can secure for herself. Yet, in order to that, it is expected of her to have all these other “accomplishments.” It is ironic that even after having such advanced skill sets women of Austen’s time had little means of advancement in society.
Thus, Darcy’s addition to the already long list supplied above by Caroline Bingley on his behalf that “all this she must possess…and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading” seems comical to Elizabeth, because the women of her time are not regarded as a gender of substance, to begin with. Upon arguing that it is not possible to have all those qualities in one person and that Darcy cannot have known any accomplished women, let alone six, it is amusing to Elizabeth that she is the one deemed to be “severe upon [her] own sex” by Darcy, when it is society that is severe on women for having such nonsensical expectations of perfection.
This conversation really highlights the contrast between Caroline Bingley and Elizabeth as well. Caroline consistently tries to bring Elizabeth down by talking behind her back, criticizing her lower class and status. Even earlier within the same chapter, she discusses with Mrs. Hurst that Elizabeth’s long walk through the mud for her sister shows “an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country town indifference to decorum.” This shows the discomfort caused by Elizabeth’s person to the other women in this novel but also highlights the superficiality and hypocrisy of that society in general. It is more important to look a certain way than to be concerned for someone’s health. Whereas for Caroline, it is all about self-presentation, for Elizabeth there are more important things, like her sister’s health, that takes priority over being concerned about the fact that she is covered in mud.
Furthermore, Elizabeth is apart from being independent, headstrong, witty and assertive. The fact that she speaks her own mind and doesn’t shy away from a debate is evidence of those qualities. Whereas Caroline strives to gain Darcy’s attention as a potential Mrs. Darcy by agreeing with everything he says, Elizabeth argues her differing viewpoint. By commenting that this is Elizabeth’s way of gaining the attention of the other sex, Caroline’s hypocrisy and jealousy are evident because it is she that is, in fact, doing exactly that. Even Darcy is even quick to point that out in his own witty way.
The importance of establishing this contrast is that even though Elizabeth seems to lack the social qualities of Darcy’s and society’s idea of “an accomplished woman”, while Caroline seems to think she is the one in possession of those qualities, it is ultimately Elizabeth that holds Darcy’s attention. The fact that she is different from the other women in the novel is what draws Darcy to Elizabeth—her directness and her sincerity is a fresh breath of air in contrast to Caroline and company’s fawning and duplicity.