In Pride and Prejudice, because of the entail on Longbourn and the Bennets being blessed with five daughters and no sons, it’s all about the money.
Mr. Bennet has the life tenancy at Longbourn. That gives him lifetime occupancy and an income from rents paid by the farmers. It was not much, but kept him on the right side of the line dividing the gentry from the laboring class. It seems he spent all his income and was not able to save any to create an inheritance for his daughters. Mrs. Bennet had no money of her own.
This is truly what is meant by leisure. Not working for your daily bread. If one has inherited wealth, one need not work. Unfortunately, Mr. Bennet did not have his inheritance outright and it was not very large. He was just over the line.
On Mr. Bennet’s death, the property would pass to a cousin, Mr. Collins. If Mr. Bennet died, how were his wife and five daughters to live? There were very limited options if they hoped to stay on the gentry side of the line. They could hope for charity from other family members, including perhaps, Mr. Collins who would be the new tenant in possession of Longbourn. The main option was to marry another man with a sufficient income.
Knowing this, we can take a kinder view of Mrs. Bennet’s efforts to marry her girls off to a man with an income – almost any man and any income just to keep body and soul together.
Did the Bennet girls understand this? Surely, on one level they did because they endeavor to “explain” the “evil entail” to their mother. But on the other hand, they indulged in romantic fancies to an extent that one has to wonder if they really understood how precarious their position was. In today’s parlance, I would call it “one man away from welfare.” Do they have any idea where their ball gowns come from?
When suitors appear you will note that one of their important descriptors is how many pounds per year they have. Now we see how very important that is.
Can you think of one of these 18th century stories where the gentlewomen falls to the working class? In Jane Eyre, due to calamity, a “gentle” girl goes to be a governess to earn her keep. You read of gentlewomen contemplating “going into service” meaning being a ladies maid or a house servant. They might make a shift to marry a farmer, as in the Belton Estate, although Will Belton is hardly a day laborer.
What is so bad about work? Or is it not the work, but the living circumstances? The class distinction? The money.