[repost from wordpress]
I’ve always gone with the assumption that Pride and Prejudice is set in 1811-1812, because it’s convenient, it’s close to the publication date, and because – for me – Pride and Prejudice really seems a world away from Sense and Sensibility. However, I’m starting to seriously consider the 1790s theory – that is, that when ‘First Impressions’ became Pride and Prejudice, Austen retained the original setting of c. 1795.
So, first order of business: what details does the novel supply?
Well, the Netherfield ball was held on Tuesday, 26 November. The twenty-sixth only fell on a Tuesday in 1793, 1799, 1805, and 1811. That should, of course, narrow it down to 1793-1794, 1799-1800, 1805-1806, and 1811-1812 – but doesn’t, because Mr Gardiner’s letter is dated Monday, 2 August. The second only fell on a Monday in 1790, 1802, and 1813. And then we get a third date: Mr Collins plans to arrive at Longbourn on Monday, 18 November. The eighteenth fell on a Monday in 1793, 1799, 1805, and 1811. That fits perfectly with the ball, but not with the letter – however, since it’s the odd one out, and Mr Gardiner might have been a bit discombobulated, I’m more or less throwing it. That gives us four possibilities – on the face of it, equally probable.
Correct me if I’ve missed anything, but these are the only specific period details I remember:
- Incomes: Mr Bennet’s property consists almost solely of Longbourn, worth two thousand a-year; Bingley lives off the income from his 100,000 l. inheritance – four or five thousand a-year; Pemberley is worth a clear ten thousand a-year, or was when Daddies Wickham & Darcy ran it. Women’s fortunes range from the five thousand pounds divided among the Misses Bennet, to Mary King’s ten thousand, to Caroline Bingley and Louisa Hurst’s twenty thousand a-piece, to Georgiana Darcy’s thirty thousand.
In the 1790s, two thousand a-year was exactly the middle income for country gentry; four to five thousand a-year was the basic requirement for fashionable London living; ten thousand a-year was the average income among the great and powerful. After ten to twenty years of wartime inflation, however, twice as much would be required for each. Given what we see of the gentlemen’s lifestyle and consequence, these seem to fit the 1790s much better.
- Fashion: When Elizabeth arrives at Netherfield, Caroline waxes eloquent (well, wannabe eloquent, anyway) over her muddy coat – more precisely, she says that Elizabeth’s muddy petticoat could be clearly seen even though she had dropped the overskirt to cover it. So it seems that Elizabeth’s dress was a petticoat with a skirt ostensibly cut away to either side – a style fashionable throughout the 1790s and early 1800s, and persisting in the country well into the Regency. Additionally, when Mrs Gardiner comes from town, she talks about the London fashion for long sleeves – and I think (though I don’t know a great deal about fashions and I can’t be sure) that short sleeves began to replace the long ones around 1806. Oh, and Bingley wears a blue coat, but that was rather smart throughout the whole period.
Mr Bennet, incidentally, has a powdering gown; either he’s still using hair-powder, or it’s a relic of the days when he did. The latter seems kind of bizarre, but if he’s still using powder . . . well, it doesn’t make sense. We know that Mrs Bennet’s extravagance would have driven them into debt, were it not for Mr Bennet’s parsimony, but the tax on powder, instituted in 1795, was . . . er, prohibitive. Unless, of course, this occurs before the tax went into effect. (NB: I’ve since discovered that gentlemen with two or more unmarried daughters could pay two guineas and be exempt from the tax. He could still be using it c. 1812 at no great cost to himself, though it would be very dated by then – some fifteen years out of date.)
- Military: There is clearly a war during Pride and Prejudice, but that’s rather spectacularly unhelpful. However, the widespread militias (and, most notably, their deployment to Brighton) was specific to the 1790s – if I recall correctly. (Military history = *yawn*)
(NB - According to Robert Irvine, the Brighton camp was not operational until August 1793 and remained in place for all regiments until 1796. P&P, according to Cassandra Austen, was written in 1796-1797.)
Moreover, we’re told in the last chapter that, while the ‘restoration of peace’ dismissed the Wickhams to a home, they henceforth moved from place to place, ‘always in quest of a cheap situation, and always spending more than they ought.’ (Charming.) The Peace of Amiens, in 1802, was far too short-lived to apply here; they’d have been back to the barracks within the year. No, it has a reasonably permanent peace – which wouldn’t occur until 1815, two years after Pride and Prejudice’s publication; evidently Austen was anticipating it. Regardless, the traditional 1811-1812 timeline works quite well for that, as does the 1805-1806 one; otherwise, we’re being told about the Wickhams’ living arrangement some ten to twenty years after their marriage.
*rereads the last chapter*
I suppose there’s no reason to suppose we’re only hearing details about the next few years of marriage - I always have supposed it, but perhaps . . . Hm. It’s still a bit awkward, I think.
Overall, though the 1790s seem the most promising – 1793-1794 or 1799-1800, or more vaguely, c. 1795 (which fits best, I think, with the Evidence of the Militias). It does mean we needn’t imagine their offspring in the godawful clothes of the 1830s. And the tumbled curls are rather pretty.