Cheapside and Bow Church in London. Engraved by W.Albutt after T.H.Shepherd, published 1837. PHOTO CREDIT: Merchbow. This photo is in the public domain.
“I think I have heard you say, that their uncle is an attorney in Meryton.”
“Yes; and they have another, who lives somewhere near Cheapside.”
“That is capital,” added her sister, and they both laughed heartily.
“If they had uncles enough to fill all Cheapside,” cried Bingley, “it would not make them one jot less agreeable.”
“But it must very materially lessen their chance of marrying men of any consideration in the world,” replied Darcy.1
In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, class, expectations, and a full array of social pressures become obstacles to the forming of relationships. For the Bennet sisters, particularly Jane and Elizabeth, the residences of their uncles become a potential deterrent for suitors. In the passage above Mr. Bingley’s insufferable sisters try to demean the Bennet family by pointing out that one of the uncles–Mr. Gardner–lives in Cheapside. While the modern meaning of the word “cheap” seems to indicate this as an area of poor quality, the thrust of the attack comes from the fact that Mr. Gardner lives near where he works, an indication that he does not enjoy the leisurely life of those members of the gentry class who can live off the interest from their wealth or land. While Bingley expresses disinterest in this fact, Darcy conveys a common view of the time and his class. Of course, in Austen’s masterful way, as the book unfolds we recognize the sisters to be shallow twits, Mr. Gardner and his wife to be the most refined relatives of the Bennet daughters, and Mr. Darcy to be capable of overcoming his own social views.
Cheapside’s name comes from its role as a market place and is a common street name in England although by the time of Austen’s novel it seems to have taken on the derogatory connotation in Mrs. Hurst’s and Miss Bingley’s comments. The area of London, just north of the River Thames, has a long and rich literary history. John Milton and Robert Herrick were born there, and the area appears in the works of William Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, and Charles Dickens in addition to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Just across the Thames to the south was and is the location of the Globe Theatre and a little beyond is Southwark, where Geoffrey Chaucer’s pilgrims began their journey toward Canterbury.
1Austen, Jane. : An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds, Reviews and Essays in Criticism. Ed. Donald Gray. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001. 25. Print.
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