And neither are you.
My mother read me most of Jane Austen's novels when I was growing up. It was an evening ritual. She would read, and I would rug-hook. The stories soaked into me, and when I went to university, I was delighted when an Austen novel appeared in a course. I took courses specifically on 18th century novels, so as to read what Austen read. The first draft of Pride and Prejudice was, in fact, written in 1797.
My love for the work of Jane Austen took a bruise from a chap who had decided that in some mystical way I was Elizabeth Bennett, and he was Mr Darcy, and my mother was Mrs Bennett, and my father was Mr Bennett. There was very little evidence for his decision, but that's what he thought. He wrote me rather eighteenth century letters exhorting me to live up to the Elizabeth Bennett standard.
There was something rather flattering, when I was 22, to be assured that I was all Austenian perfection when "so many other girls are sluts." Had I known then what I know now, I would have taken a student loan and finished my degree abroad. But I did not.
The funny thing is that I now live in the ruins of Jane Austen's world. This is to say, I live in a 17th-18th century home once owned by a baronet. One of my professors discoursed on the "ha-ha" Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey might have fallen into. I can see our ha-ha (a trench that separates a cow pasture from one's manicured lawn) from the kitchen window.
Occasionally I even meet a baronet, although not often because there are not a lot of baronets in my social circle. One of life's little realities is that baronets tend to hang with other baronets, or at least with people as rich as, or richer than, they.
Austen was a realist who wrote with great wit and confidence about the society in which she lived. Her family was in--says wiki, and really this is the best way of putting it--"the lower ranks of the landed gentry."
It's always tricky being in the lower ranks of anything, if you ask me. You're perpetually worried about the easy slide down and longing for the tantalizing prizes just a rank up.
Not to be crass, but the family that owned this house was a rank or two up from Austen, and indeed I have checked with B.A. and by 1775 the heir was in the "Mr Darcy" class. A real-life Mrs Bennett would have indeed been pleased if her daughter could have married him, and a real-life Elizabeth Bennett, someone whose father was wealthy enough to run a country house with servants, would have felt comfortable here. (N.B. That heir's "Pemberley" is somewhere else; I write from one of the more minor properties.)
All this preamble is to impress upon you that I know what I am talking about when I tell you that I am not Elizabeth Bennett and neither are you.
And I think it important to say this because I have met both men and women who view life through the prism of Pride and Prejudice, and adjust their beliefs and behaviour accordingly. One woman misquoted to me one of Elizabeth Bennett's spirited remarks to Mr Darcy with such enthusiasm that I was seized by a fear that she had said it herself to some crush object or other.
Let's get this straight. We do not have much in common with Elizabeth Bennett. She did not have the vote. She could not get a job without losing her place in society (which means all of her friends). She automatically lost the right to own property when she married. She certainly did not go to university. She could not go for a morning jog. Her exercise was restricted to walking, dancing, horseback riding (sidesaddle) and, if the owner of the vehicle agreed, driving. She could not travel farther than the nearest town by herself.
If this sounds to you restful rather than restrictive, consider that if she had not married, upon her father's death Elizabeth would have had to become a governess or schoolteacher--from lady to upper servant or employee in one fell swoop. It is hard to express in contemporary terms how humiliating this would have been. Jane Eyre did not have Elizabeth's upbringing, and represents the horror of the third option: being completely dependent on wealthier relations.
Being female was a serious, serious handicap in 1800, and all that kept a woman from perpetual risk of sexual exploitation was her rank in the class system and the goodwill of the men around her.
(If you think the lovely manners the men of Austen's novels show the women were universal in Austen's day, you can think again. Working women were propositioned day and night, and prostitution was rife. Song-sellers stood in the city streets singing lewd songs. There were city guides to brothels. It was not considered a horrific scandal if a man of Austen's class had a child out of wedlock, as long as he paid something towards his/her support. The opposite, of course, was true of women of Austen's class. Dear heaven. And the politeness shown by "gentlemen" to "ladies" was as much about the ladies' gentlemen relations as about the ladies themselves.)
So when Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy confront each other, and when Elizabeth Bennett sends Mr Darcy packing, we have a situation in which an almost powerless person stands up to an almost omnipotent person and says, "Despite the vast disadvantages life has handed me, I know I am a human being worthy of your respect."
The social inequalities between the daughter of a rich man and a rich man have since been swept away. Look around and take note. It is true that some men still take sexual advantage of women and some are more ready to sexually insult women they think socially "beneath" them than of women they perceive to be "above" them. However, men simply do not have the social privileges over women they had in 1800.
I once witnessed a young Austen fan being coquettishly rude to a younger man. It was not pretty, and I suspect that she had picked up this technique from the works of Miss J.A.
To put the situation in context, the Austen fan had a university education, a career and a mortgage. The young man was still in university and, I'm guessing, dependent on his parents for food, etc. Physically he had the advantage as he could have, had he chosen, beaten her to death with a hardcover copy of Pride and Prejudice. But, otherwise, no.
And that is what Austen fans, and other fans of "spirited heroines" have got to get into their heads. Elizabeth Bennett cannot be our guide to life because she was not our equal. She was not our equal because she was not, in law, men's equal. She lived under social and legal restrictions few of us know anything about. And Mr Darcy had powers and privileges beyond most modern men's wildest fantasies.
Thus, if at parties we sound like spirited Elizabeth Bennetts, trying to get ordinary 21st century men to acknowledge an equality that they already know we possess, then we are only going to look and sound silly and rude. This will be especially true if we are richer and more glamorously employed than they.
The war for equality under the law and in polite society has been won. What we need now is a mop-up action against sexual assault, sexist rudeness and crudeness. And Elizabeth cannot be a guide to this either, for the crumb her society tossed her, as the daughter of landed gentry, was never having to deal with this stuff.