In Breihan and Caplan’s excellent 1990 article Jane Austen and the Militia, which throws a considerable amount of light on the historical underpinnings of Pride and Prejudice, the authors argue persuasively that the book is set in the years 1794 and 1795, by picking up on the many small military-historical hints that Jane Austen dropped throughout the course of the novel. If that’s the case – and I, personally, am sold on their argument! – then it’s possible to build up quite a solid timeline for the book.
We begin with rumours of wealthy bachelor Mr. Bingley’s imminent arrival in the vicinity of Meryton, in Hertfordshire. He is to be in the house by Michaelmas (i.e. September 29th), a date which is somewhat over a week away (“some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week”). It’s a reasonable guess, then, that the novel begins in early September 1794 – more or less.
Fast forward past a winter full of socialising, sarcasm and scandal, and in the following spring we find our heroine travelling south for a visit with her newly-but-perhaps-not-very-happily-married friend Charlotte Collins, née Lucas, in Kent. During this visit, Elizabeth has an illuminating conversation about ages with her friend’s patroness, the inquisitive Lady Catherine de Bourgh:
“Upon my word,” said her ladyship, “you give your opinion very decidedly for so young a person. Pray, what is your age?”
“With three younger sisters grown up,” replied Elizabeth, smiling, “your ladyship can hardly expect me to own it.”
Lady Catherine seemed quite astonished at not receiving a direct answer; and Elizabeth suspected herself to be the first creature who had ever dared to trifle with so much dignified impertinence.
“You cannot be more than twenty, I am sure, therefore you need not conceal your age.”
“I am not one-and-twenty.”
Elizabeth, by her own report, is twenty years of age during March 1795, and so she must have been born sometime around 1774-1775. Jane Austen leaves us in the dark about her exact birthday, though – in fact, the only person in the whole novel who gets anything like a specific birthday is her younger sister Lydia (who turns sixteen in June 1795, and so must have been born in the summer of 1779). But is there anything in the novel that might allow us to guess the date on which Elizabeth was born?
As Breihan and Caplan argue, Pride and Prejudice very accurately depicts the old system of quartering – the housing of members of the militias in inland villages, over the cold winter months – as it was in its final year, before it began to be phased out in favour of barracks. They also argue that the “–shire” regiment who cause such havoc in Meryton are likely to be the Derbyshires, whose real-life counterparts were actually quartered in Hertfordshire in 1794-5. Austen doesn’t call too much attention to her rather unladylike knowledge of military organisation, but as the article argues,
she has written a history, if not of Napoleon, at least of a part of the military response to the menace of the French Revolution, at one of the most critical moments in British history.
What were her sources of information? Well, she spent a good chunk of her time travelling through very heavily garrisoned territory to her wealthy brother Edward’s home in Kent. As well as this, her favourite brother Henry held a lieutenant’s commission in the Oxfordshire militia (and spent time with his regiment in Brighton, where they were quartered for the summer). However, when she first started drafting the novel in 1796-7, she would also have had her own recollections to draw upon. According to Breihan and Caplan, “Jane Austen’s own experience of the militia was probably not too different from that of the Bennet sisters”:
From about the age of sixteen she began to attend the monthly assembly at the town of Basingstoke, about seven miles distant from her home village of Steventon. Here, during the winter of 1794-95, the assemblies would have been graced by officers of the South Devon Militia: three of their eight companies were quartered in Basingstoke.
Jane Austen would turn nineteen in December of 1794, making her just a smidge younger than Pride and Prejudice‘s heroine Elizabeth professes to be – although Lizzy’s answer is simply that she hasn’t yet reached the age of 21, not that she is currently twenty, even if we all tend to assume that that’s the case. Perhaps she’s being deliberately vague, in order to make herself sound older and wiser in front of the intimidating Lady C de B?
At any rate, it seems that when Jane Austen wrote P&P, she gave her heroine quite a few of her own life experiences. So, in the absence of any other evidence to the contrary, I declare Elizabeth Bennet’s birthday to fall on the same date as Austen’s: December 16th!
And her birth year? Either 1774, or like Jane Austen herself, 1775… depending on who’s asking.