Austen might be known now for her “romances” but the marriages in her novels engage with economics and class distinction. Pride and Prejudice is hardly the exception. When Darcy proposes to Elizabeth, he cites their economic and social differences as an obstacle his excessive love has had to overcome, though he still anxiously harps on the problems it poses for him within his social circle. His aunt, Lady Catherine, later characterises these differences in particularly harsh terms when she conveys what Elizabeth’s marriage to Darcy will become, “Will the shades of Pemberley be thus polluted?” Although Elizabeth responds to Lady Catherine’s accusations that hers is a potentially contaminating economic and social position (Elizabeth even insists she and Darcy, as gentleman’s daughter and gentleman, are “equals”), Lady Catherine refuses to accept the possibility of Darcy’s marriage to Elizabeth. However, as the novel closes, “…through curiosity to see how his wife conducted herself”, Lady Catherine condescends to visit them at Pemberley.
The Bingleys present a particular problem for navigating class. Though Caroline Bingley and Mrs Hurst behave and speak of others as if they have always belonged in the upper echelons of society, Austen makes a point to explain that the Bingleys are trade rather than inheritors and rentiers. The fact that Bingley rents Netherfield Hall – it is, after all, “to let” – distinguishes him significantly from Darcy, whose estate belonged to his father’s family and through his mother, is the grandson and nephew of an earl. Bingley, unlike Darcy, does not own his property but has portable and growing wealth that makes him a good catch on the marriage market for poorer daughters of the gentry, like Jane Bennet, ambitious cits (merchant class), etc. Class plays a central role in the evolution of the characters and Jane Austen’s radical approach to class is seen as the plot unfolds.
An undercurrent of the old Anglo-Norman upper class is hinted at in the story, as suggested by the names of Darcy and his aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh; Fitzwilliam, D’Arcy, de Bourgh (Burke), and even Bennet, are traditional Norman surnames.