Gather 'round, everyone. It's time to tell the story of the days of yore. Which yore, you ask? Good question.
It's easy, from way over here in the future, to just lump all that stuff that happened 100 years ago with the stuff that happened 150 years ago with whatever else was going on 200 years ago. So you see Austen, you think "19th century," and you might think stuffy Victorians with their prudish manners and their uptightness about the human body and their froofy décor. Well, we're here to tell you—think again.
Austen was writing just as the 18th century was turning into the 19th, way before Queen Victoria gets on the throne and buttons the whole country up to the neck (even though, let's be honest, those Victorians could be super wacky), and Austen certainly has no way of knowing that this is what's coming up next. Instead, let's think about her time period: the Regency.
Basically, we're coming off the high that was the 18th century: the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, the philosophical ideas that brought you democracy and the rights of man, and the rise of science and secularism. At the same time, we're also riding the wave of horror that was the French Revolution—a people's revolt that turned in on itself with a wave of violence and state terrorism, and ended with the rise of Napoleon, who England spent a lot of time fighting in Jane Austen's lifetime.
In England, the guy on the throne is the Prince Regent (who later becomes George IV). He's a fun-loving, spendthrift kind of guy, and it's good times for the aristocracy who go a little nuts with the luxury. It's a stressful time for them as well, though, since England is at war in America on one side, and Napoleon is rampaging through Europe on the other. Everyone (well, all the aristocrats anyway) is really, really keeping their fingers crossed that England doesn't go the way of France.
How does this context play out in the novel? For example, all those massing soldiers? They're about to ship out to fight. That really puts a damper on the whole "sexy men in uniform" thing.
In every single one of her novels, Austen is always letting readers follow the money trail. Say what you will about whether it makes sense that Darcy goes for Elizabeth, there's never any doubt that the transfer and flow of wealth is being described flawlessly.
In Pride and Prejudice, money means land ownership. Most of the plot happens because people either own or don't own the place where they live. The whole thing starts because Bingley randomly decides to rent Netherfield. This means that he's rich (because he can afford that sucker, baby), but that he's not staying long (since he's gotta go buy an estate of his own sometime).
Meanwhile, the Bennets are hustling to get the girls married off because their house is going straight into Mr. Collins's pocket as soon as daddy dearest kicks the bucket, and there's nothing anyone can do about it. This is why it's so awkward when Mr. Collins visits (because it just looks like he's measuring for new drapes) and why he proposes to Elizabeth (he feels bad that he's going to get the house and wants to make it up to them).
Finally, there's Pemberley. Now, that one—that's owned outright by Darcy, without the stress of anyone coming to take it away, and it is just heavenly and perfect in every way. Check out the novel's other houses—the Collinses' small house, Lady de Bourgh's house, the place where Lydia goes off with Wickham. How does their ownership work in the novel?
Austen doesn't take us on a tour of busy London. In fact, her novels sometimes get criticized for being too "small"—for not taking into account wider social realities. (To which we have to say: how much more socially realistic do you want, than a bunch of girls trying to get married and preserve your reputations?)
The point is, in the teeny-tiny social world that we're working with here, where everyone knows everyone else and is all up in their neighbors' business, there's an enormous difference between what people do in private when around people they know well, and how they act in public. It's a lot harder to reveal anything about yourself when every small detail of your actions is going to be micro-analyzed by everyone around you, right?
Take Darcy for example. In public, he's a snappy, rude jerk: "We neither of us perform to strangers" (32.26), he tells Lizzy. But when he writes Elizabeth that letter—or should we say That Letter—he's totally transformed. Alone, in the privacy of his desk, he is generous, open, and caring. In the same way, Elizabeth falls in love with him in complete privacy, when she is alone and able to concentrate on Darcy the letter-writing Pemberley-owner, not Darcy the annoying guy frustrating everyone around him.
Check out the novel's other characters. What are they like in public? In private? Is anyone the same in both settings? Why or why not?