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Were any of the main characters in Pride and Prejudice (Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bingley, Lady Catherine de Bourgh) more than gentry? Did any of them belong to the peerage?

Was there any formal difference in the rank between Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bennet? I guess not, based on what Elizabeth says:

He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman's daughter; so far we are equal.

Chapter 56

So was the superiority felt and expressed by Mr. Darcy and Lady Catherine based only on the difference in the scale of property?

BTW, was any relevant Jane Austen character a British peer?

2 Answers 2

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Formally, they are of equal rank, but Mr. Darcy has an extra aristocratic connection. His family is therefore a bit more fancy than the Bennets, although he personally is a "Mr." and not a peer. His aunt, Lady Catherine, is the daughter of an earl, which is why she's called "Lady" and "her Ladyship". He is the grandson of that earl, and nephew of the current earl. This contributes to his superior attitude.

We have to read between the lines a bit to figure out the precise genealogy. In Chapter 30:

There were two nephews of Lady Catherine to require them, for Mr. Darcy had brought with him a Colonel Fitzwilliam, the younger son of his uncle, Lord ——.

Then in Chapter 33, Jane refers to Colonel Fitzwilliam as "the younger son of an earl", and we already know that Darcy's mother, called "Lady Anne", is the sister of Lady Catherine. Darcy's father, often called "the late Mr. Darcy", was another "Mr.", and so the title of Lady Anne cannot be because she is the wife of a knight (like Sir William and Lady Lucas). It must be the courtesy title of a daughter of a peer. What we can reconstruct is that there was an earl who was Mr. Darcy's maternal grandfather. His children included a son (the present earl, Col. Fitzwilliam's father) and at least two daughters, Catherine and Anne.

In other books, there are some aristocrats proper, but most of the time Austen has "not one lord in the neighbourhood; no — not even a baronet" (Northanger Abbey). Some of the ones who appear directly, as opposed to just being name-dropped by another character, are -

  • Persuasion has the Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple and her daughter Miss Carteret. She is a Miss and not a Lady because daughters of viscounts don't get the same courtesy title as daughters of earls or above. Both still have precedence according to their rank.
  • In Northanger Abbey, a viscountcy is inherited in the final chapter, so we have a viscount and viscountess. I think these are the highest-ranking titleholders who actually appear.

There are other characters who are the children or other relatives of peers, such as Miss Morton in Sense and Sensibility (her father, "the late Lord Morton", does not appear), and some people called Lady whose exact status is not explained.

Anne Elliot of Persuasion is the daughter of a baronet; they are not part of the aristocracy, but this is still a hereditary dignity that gives a social boost. That said, an exchange in Chapter 7 of that novel shows that formal social precedence is not the only dimension of standing:

Again, it was Mary’s complaint, that Mrs Musgrove was very apt not to give her the precedence that was her due, when they dined at the Great House with other families; and she did not see any reason why she was to be considered so much at home as to lose her place. And one day when Anne was walking with only the Musgroves, one of them after talking of rank, people of rank, and jealousy of rank, said, “I have no scruple of observing to you, how nonsensical some persons are about their place, because all the world knows how easy and indifferent you are about it; but I wish anybody could give Mary a hint that it would be a great deal better if she were not so very tenacious, especially if she would not be always putting herself forward to take place of mamma. Nobody doubts her right to have precedence of mamma, but it would be more becoming in her not to be always insisting on it. It is not that mamma cares about it the least in the world, but I know it is taken notice of by many persons.”

Mary is a baronet's daughter, and ranks higher than Mrs Musgrove, but it is unseemly for her to throw her status around. Likewise, Mr. Darcy has several reasons for feeling himself to be a cut above, even if he is ultimately shown to be wrong in a deeper sense.

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    Also, the fact that one is Lady Lucas and the other Lady Anne tells us whether the title is procured through marriage or inheritance.
    – verbose
    Feb 16 at 11:40
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    @verbose Oh, is this really the key to understand why someone is Lady firstname and someone is Lady familyname? I have never noticed :) Feb 16 at 12:26
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    @HonzaZidek I believe it is? But you should prolly not trust the word of some internet rando. A reference librarian or English-Canadian great aunt would be more reliable. The former are easier to come by.
    – verbose
    Feb 16 at 12:35
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    Yes, it is - definitely in older British fiction. Nowadays the distinction is often ignored - in these more egalitarian times, people don't like to appear too particular about aristocratic titles. If Jane Smith is a well-known person who is made a life peeress, she will often be referred to as Lady Jane Smith rather than the more correct Jane, Lady Smith. Feb 16 at 13:12
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    One suspects the rules are deliberately subtle in order to give a greater opportunity for sneering at those who make mistakes.
    – alexg
    Feb 16 at 13:18
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There is more behind Lady Catherine de Bourgh's sense of superiority to the Bennets than simply the fact that her nephew is so much richer than they.

In the conversation you quote, after Elizabeth points out that both Darcy and Mr Bennet are gentlemen (i.e., owners of inherited landed property), Lady Catherine de Bourgh retorts:

“True. You are a gentleman’s daughter. But what was your mother? Who are your uncles and aunts? Do not imagine me ignorant of their condition.”

We know of Mrs Bennet's family background from Chapter 7:

Her father had been an attorney in Meryton, and had left her four thousand pounds.

She had a sister married to a Mr Philips, who had been a clerk to her father and succeeded him in the business, and a brother settled in London in a respectable line of trade.

An attorney might seem like a fine, upstanding, gentlemanly profession. However, in Regency England, it meant that you had to work for a living, and to make your own way in the world. That is, you were not born into landed property—you were not gentry. As for trade, it was again a respectable way to earn one's living, but considered a bit sordid nevertheless. You were supposed to inherit money, not make it, and tradesmen spent their entire time thinking about making money. So these livelihoods, simply because they were livelihoods, marked their practitioners as less than quality. The "quality" simply inherited landed property, or had ancestors who, even if tradesmen, had made and invested enough money that their descendants did not have to work for a living.

So yes, Mr Darcy is not titled. But his aristocratic background and obscene wealth makes up for this. Neither of these factors pertains to Mr Bennet. And if Darcy is connected upwards to the aristocracy through his family connections, Mr Bennet is connected downwards, to clerks and tradesmen. This makes Elizabeth's family an unequal match for Mr Darcy's.

Bingley's sisters are at pains to point this out to both Darcy and Bingley, for fear of the men's attractions to Elizabeth and Jane respectively. In Chapter 8, Louisa Hurst is speaking:

“I have an excessive regard for Jane Bennet,—she is really a very sweet girl,—and I wish with all my heart she were well settled. But with such a father and mother, and such low connections, I am afraid there is no chance of it.”

“I think I have heard you say that their uncle is an attorney in Meryton?

“Yes; and they have another, who lives somewhere near Cheapside.”

“That is capital,” added her sister; and they both laughed heartily.

“If they had uncles enough to fill all Cheapside,” cried Bingley, “it would not make them one jot less agreeable.”

“But it must very materially lessen their chance of marrying men of any consideration in the world,” replied Darcy.

To this speech Bingley made no answer; but his sisters gave it their hearty assent, and indulged their mirth for some time at the expense of their dear friend’s vulgar relations.

This is of course self-serving. Bingley's sisters want Bingley to marry Georgina Darcy, and Darcy to marry Caroline. But while the Bingleys have enough money to be able to live off the interest on their investments, and therefore meet one criterion for "quality," they are not as far removed from trade as Louisa Hurst and Caroline Bingley would have one think. Mr Bingley does not own landed property, and neither did his father. Their inherited wealth is from trade. From Chapter 4:

Mr. Bingley inherited property to the amount of nearly a hundred thousand pounds from his father, who had intended to purchase an estate, but did not live to do it.

In other words, their money is new money. They just have enough of it for its less than impeccable antecedents to be overlooked. But a large part of Caroline and Louisa's motivations for the matches they have in mind is that these matches would enable them to transcend their arriviste status. Marrying into the well-connected and fabulously rich Darcy family would consolidate the Bingleys' ongoing climb up the social ladder and enable them to escape the taint of their low origins. See also this question and answers thereto for a discussion of similar dynamics in Austen's Emma.

By definition, the gentry was land-owning classes one step below the aristocracy. So Mr Bingley is not, in fact, gentry, while Mr Bennet, who does own land (albeit entailed), is. In the question, when Mr Darcy, Mr Bingley, and Lady Catherine de Bourgh are all lumped together, and Mr Bennet is asked about in opposition to them, it is worth pointing out that all four occupy rather different places in the peculiar British pecking order. Lady Catherine is entitled (as alexg points out in their answer); Mr Darcy is a very wealthy landowner, with aristocratic relatives and no worries about pesky entails; Mr Bingley is just one generation removed from "vulgar relations"; and Mr Bennet, alas, is married to a woman who is vulgar in as many senses as Lady Catherine is entitled.

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