English class and hierarchy

The significance of social class

It is almost impossible to understand the nineteenth century English novel without an understanding of the class system of English society. Although the term 'class' was a nineteenth century invention of Engels and Karl Marx, there had been other terms used previously: 'orders' was a common one, suggesting a hierarchy from high to low.

Origins of the class system

The feudal system

The English class system is basically feudal in origin, dating from the Norman conquests of the eleventh century. Feudalism was a highly organised hierarchy, with the monarch or sovereign at the top, followed by the great aristocrats (Earls and Dukes), then the gentry (knights and squires), then the lawyers, merchants, clergy, free-hold farmers, teachers and clerks, down to the tenant farmers and peasants. Obedience was given to the rank above one, responsibility was assumed over the rank below.

The determiners of medieval social class

The major division in this system was ownership of land. Put quite simply, the upper classes had the land, from which they derived their wealth. The lower orders worked the land of the upper classes or rented land from them.

The middle classes only existed in the few towns there were in the Middle Ages and early modern Britain. Their property might be their own; they were often self-governing; they were educated: but their numbers and political influence were limited.

A God-ordained system

Great Chain of BeingThe hierarchical class scheme was seen as part of a divine order, which tied in with the concept of the chain of being. This belief continued into the nineteenth century, being used as an argument to keep people satisfied with the class into which they were born.

The impact of the Industrial Revolution

The social pyramid

By 1803 it was reckoned there existed around:

  • 27,000 upper class families
  • 630,000 middle-class households
  • Two million working class ones.

The Industrial Revolution changed population patterns enormously, creating many new towns and cities, and increasing the population many times over with the need for more workers. However, it changed traditional class patterns very little.

Social mobility

It had always been possible for a rich merchant or lawyer to buy property, educate his children and marry them into some impoverished upper class family. In a generation or two, the family would be considered upper class. Similarly, working class children, if showing sufficient talent and lucky with a benefactor, might rise to be teachers, lawyers or merchants.

This possibility of upward mobility was argued against, compared to the desirability of a permanent stable order, yet was enhanced by the opportunities of the Industrial Revolution.Many landowners found themselves sitting on rich deposits of coal or iron, or their land rising in value due to the expansion of new towns. The rents and royalties deriving from such kept their wealth intact. No longer did someone need 10,000 acres to keep himself in the style of an aristocrat.

Class in nineteenth century fiction

The tension between ‘old' and ‘new' wealth became a favourite theme of the nineteenth century novelists. For example:

  • In Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Darcy may come from an old landed (though untitled) family, but his friend Bingley's wealth came from an industrialist father
  • In Emma, the arriviste pretensions of Mrs. Elton are juxtaposed with the established gentry of the Woodhouses
  • Nearly a hundred years later, Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles shows the villain, Alec d'Urberville, inheriting his money from a wealthy merchant father who had  bought up an aristocratic name, property and lifestyle. Meanwhile, he helps destroy Tess, whose family used to be aristocratic but now have fallen to be landless labourers.

What is a Gentleman?

The nature of gentility

One dominating theme in the nineteenth century novel has to do with what constitutes a ‘gentleman'. The status of gentleman was traditionally shared between the lower ranks of the upper classes and the educated and upwardly mobile middle class. The term 'Esquire', often used of a gentleman, was derived from the term 'squire', a small landowner often serving as Justice of the Peace for his community and representing it politically.

Attitude and employment

Traditionally, a ‘gentleman' had an income that did not depend on him having to enter paid employment in order to provide for his family. He was also expected to have a noble and generous attitude toward others.

Literary examples

In Pride and Prejudice, Darcy is stung by Elizabeth's reproach that he has not behaved like a gentleman. She has to remind Lady Catherine de Burgh, an insufferable aristocrat, that Elizabeth's father is as much a gentleman as Darcy, in that they both live off inherited property - that is, they do not have 'jobs'.

In Mrs. Gaskell's North and South, Margaret Hale, the middle-class heroine, sees her clergyman father as a gentleman, but finds it difficult to see the industrialist Thornton as one because he still works for his living. In the end she has to admit he behaves like a gentleman, and so is one.

Most significant in this literary debate is Dickens' Great Expectations. Magwitch tries to buy the status of ‘gentleman' for Pip, a very working class boy. He succeeds in the eyes of London society but it results in Pip having a divided personality. In the end, Pip realises it is his working class mentor, Joe, who is the true gentle Christian man, because of his moral integrity.

Victorian definitions of class

This redefinition of a gentleman was enormously important for the Victorians. It shifted the concept from wealth and status, plus education and manners, to a moral basis. In other words, anyone could become a gentleman, and a good education was redefined as a moral one. The best example of this is in one of the Victorians' favourite novels, Mrs. Craik's John Halifax, Gentleman. Here middle-class meritocracy replaces a worn-out aristocracy.

Revolution and politics

Fears of insurrection

The Great Chartist Meeting, London 1848In the first part of the nineteenth century there was a tremendous fear that the working class would behave like the French (who overthrew their rulers in the 1780s-90s), and bring about a revolution. The working class Chartist movement was therefore seen as a tremendous threat rather than as a first step to a wider democracy. Democracy was still something of a dirty word, in fact, and the vote was denied the working class male till the 1867 Reform Act.

Securing social stability

Influential writers like Thomas Carlyle wrote on both the French Revolution and Chartism. His solution, as laid out in Past and Present (1843) was taken up by John Ruskin and Benjamin Disraeli, a Conservative Prime Minister. He encouraged a renewed aristocracy to go back to its Medieval roots, find what a true Christian leadership was, and lead the working classes in a sort of benevolent plutocracy. The rapidly growing middle-classes would be somewhat sidelined by this move, but the country would be stabilised.

In fact, the country was much more stabilised by the formation of legitimate Trades Unions, the influence of the Methodist church which was most popular with the working class, and the gradual improvement in conditions of work and living through legislation.

Victorian attitudes to class

The Working Class

Middle class perspectives

Victorian writers were nearly all from the middle classes and many had quite ambivalent attitudes to the working classes. There was often a distinction made between the skilled artisans and factory workers, who could be earning decent wages, and the unskilled and casual labourers who lived on the poverty line. The Victorians also tended to distinguish between the 'deserving poor' and the 'indigent' when it came to charity and the administration of Poor Law relief, the only social security system there was.

A completely sympathetic picture of a working class main character is given in Mrs. Gaskell's Mary Barton and Charles Dickens' Hard Times. But even there, the fear of the Trades Unions is strong. Much more ambivalent portraits of the working class occur in Dickens' Bleak House. The urban underclass is seen as disease-carrying and criminal, a danger to the welfare of the rest of society.

Working class aspirations

Attempts by working-class characters to 'get on' socially are portrayed:

  • In Charles Kingsley's Alton Locke they are successful
  • In Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, Jude is unsuccessful. The latter novel created a furore over Jude's radical ideas.

Both novels show how impossible it was for working class men to gain access to higher education.

Living conditions

Generally, the lives of many working class people in the nineteenth century were marked by grinding poverty, slave-like labour conditions, overcrowding, disease, alcoholism and few opportunities to gain an education. Surveys done as late as 1898 in York and London bear this out exactly, concluding that a third of the working class lived on the edge of starvation.

However, there were many who, as skilled craftsmen, earned decent wages, were law-abiding and respected the hierarchy. They often were portrayed as enjoying close social cohesion. Dickens portrays such families in his novels, for instance:

  • In Dombey and Son, the cold and frigid family life experienced among the rich is contrasted to the warmth of relationships among the working class
  • Jo Gargery in Great Expectations is another example, though his family life only becomes happy with his second marriage.

Shabby genteel and the bourgeoisie

The lower middle-class

Just above the Victorian working class was the lower middle-class, whose greatest fear was to fall back into the working class. (Just how easily this was done was discovered by Dickens when his parents were jailed for debt. It is said this experience haunted Dickens the rest of his life.) This group were often known as 'shabby genteel' as they tried to emulate the more prosperous upper middle-class, by keeping a servant, not allowing their daughters to work, and trying to stay 'respectable'.

The bourgeoisie

Above the lower middles-class were the bourgeoisie, the solid middle-class. The term is another nineteenth century invention. The best portrayal of these is given by the novelist George Eliot. The Mill on the Floss portrays provincial middle class manners and values exactly. The heroine, Maggie, cannot fit in to the narrow conventions and is doomed to exclusion. In France, Gustav Flaubert's famous novel Madame Bovary well portrays the boredom and conventions of the bourgeois life in a similar way.

The breakdown of class divisions

Many of these characteristics of class and hierarchy continued in England till after World War II. It must be said that in Scotland, and to a lesser extent, Wales, the democratic urge and the access to higher education were stronger, modifying the strength of division of class feeling.

Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.