Social class plays a large part in Jane Austen's novels. This is reflective of the time period, as rank meant everything during the Regency and Victorian eras (although Austen's novels are set in the early Regency).
Very few aristocratic characters in Austen's novels are portrayed in a positive light, except for perhaps Colonel Fitzwilliam, the younger son of an earl, who is inoffensive and polite in bearing. Lady Catherine, although impressive in her rank, is shown as being incredibly rude and uncouth, which during the Georgian and Regency periods, was a mark of ill-breeding. This may be considered a critique of the aristocracy, as many novels would feature at least one positive aristocratic character. In fact, common characters are portrayed as being "truly noble" without nobility, such as Austen's description of Mrs. Annesley.
There are two aristocratic characters featured in the book, Lady Catherine and her nephew, The Hon. Colonel Fitzwilliam. It is important to note that there was a real Earl Fitzwilliam at the time Austen was writing this book, and as the colonel is the one connection to the real earl, he is made to be an actual likable character.
The only aristocratic characters who appear in Northanger Abbey are mentioned in passing, such as the kindhearted viscount whom Eleanor Tilney married.
Rank was inherently tied to land, and estates themselves play a prominent role in the books. A man had no social nor political power unless he had some measure of land. The landed gentry, particularly the untitled landed gentry, feature prominently throughout the novels.
Most of the novels feature male-preference primogeniture, as well as the effects of primogeniture on female dependents. It is important to note that this played a large part in Jane Austen's own life, as she was left with nothing and forced to live on her relations' charity for the rest of her life.
Male-preference primogeniture means that the eldest son, above all siblings, inherits all land and assets previously owned by his predecessor. Many families used a complicated legal document called an entail in order to ensure primogeniture. As land was so important for social class, it was largely believed that the head of the family should retain all wealth above all siblings so that the land did not get broken up into pieces, which would then degrade the family as a whole. Who counted among heirs was stipulated in the entail, and could even extend to males of the female-line, which might explain why Mr. Bennet and his heir presumptive, William Collins, had different surnames. An entail also protected the estate against any neglectful or bad owners, as often the estate would be tied with a stipulated sum of money that would be held in trust.
Women could inherit land if there was no entail, and if they were mentioned to be the beneficiary in any wills and documents drawn up by the predecessor. Wives were very rarely beneficiaries of land, as that would leave the estate unprotected if the widow remarried, as the land would legally become her husband's unless some very ironclad agreements were written before the marriage. This means that Anne de Bourgh is likely the owner of Rosings Park and not Lady Catherine.
The novels feature plenty characters of rank, and characters who transcend rank, like Elizabeth Bennet.
The highest ranking Jane Austen heroine at the beginning of each respective book is arguably Anne Elliot, as she was born the daughter of a baronet, however her rank lowers slightly when she marries Frederick Wentworth. The person of the highest rank in all of Jane Austen's books is actually Lady Dalrymple, as the widowed wife of a British peer, the late Viscount Dalrymple. Although Catherine de Bourgh is the daughter of an earl, the wives of peers took social precedence over the daughters of peers, which means Lady Dalrymple ranks higher than Lady Catherine, even though she is only a viscountess.
Peers, or those who have an aristocratic title, are few and far between in Austen's novels, which reflects that Austen recognized that her characters would not be likely to meet many peers in their social circles. Mostly, the reader is exposed to landowners, some very wealthy, but most are average.
Order of precedence:
- No dukes appear in the novels.
- One is mentioned, Earl Fitzwilliam, in Pride and Prejudice.
- No barons appear.
Gentry: (all come after the lowest peer)
- Sir William Lucas of Pride and Prejudice.
Courtesy titles refer to titles that are held by parent or spouse, as opposed to titles held in own right. Wives of peers technically only hold courtesy titles, as they are not privy to all of the rights that the main title holds, such as a seat in the House of Lords, etc. A woman who held the title in her own right would be privy to such privileges, and thus it would not be a courtesy title.
The following shows each of the basic courtesy titles for each peer's children:
- Dukes, Marquesses
- Male children: The courtesy title lord precedes their first name. If their father holds a subsidiary title, then the heir apparent takes that as a courtesy title. They do not have all the rights of the title, such as the political power, but they have the social power.
- Female children: The courtesy title lady precedes their first name. If they marry someone who is not a peer, they keep the courtesy title.
- Earls, Viscounts, Barons
- Male children: They do not hold the courtesy title lord unless it is due to a subsidiary title for the heir apparent. Their style is preceded with The Honourable (e.g. The Honourable Colonel Fitzwilliam)
- Female children: If the daughter of an earl, lady precedes their first name. This holds true if they do not marry a peer. (e.g. Lady Catherine de Bourgh; Lady Anne Darcy) If a daughter of a viscount or baron, The Honourable precedes their style (e.g. The Hon. Miss Carteret)