The English Class System in the early 1800’s
In the late Seventeenth and early Eighteenth Centuries, England
was experiencing the Industrial Revolution. During this time period
the country was undergoing massive technological, economic and social changes.
Improvements in the manufacturing of raw materials had led to an increase
in the urban work force; people were flocking to the cities. Before
the Industrial Revolution, the class structure in England was separate
and distinct. Upward mobility was virtually impossible.
The upper class, or aristocracy, was born into their station and usually with nobility. They inherited money and all the wealth and political power that went with it. They educated and had the right to vote. They had expansive lifestyles, and longer life expectancy. They socialized only within their own class.
The middle class was a class that gained prominence because of the Industrial Revolution. This class could be attained with an increase in wealth. Money could also be inherited, but it was not necessary. Unlike the aristocrats, this was a class of merchants and businessmen who made their money in trade. Before the Industrial Revolution they had very little political power. However, with the increase in size of this class, as well as the increase in their wealth, they gained power.
The working class developed out of the peasants who had come to the city to work. This class rarely, if ever, inherited any money. They had little wealth and no political power. With the increase in wealth of these social classes, especially that of the middle class merchants, social interaction between the classes began to occur. For many of the old aristocracy, the social prejudices of the past were difficult to overcome.
The social prejudices of the upper classes are exhibited in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The Bingleys are a family of higher social standing than that of the Bennets. Although, Charles Bingley does not display any bias towards the Bennets sisters, Mr. Darcy does. Even though he begins to find Elizabeth Bennet admirable, “He really believed, that were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger.” (Pride and Prejudice, 35) Miss Bingley, Mr. Bingley’s sister also reveals her intolerance when she says,
“You are considering how insupportable it would be to pass many evenings
manner – in such society; and indeed I am quite of your opinion. I was never more
annoyed! The insipidity and yet the noise; the nothingness and yet the self-importance
of all these people!” (Pride and Prejudice, 19)
Miss Bingley also shows evidence of her social bias when she writes
a letter to Jane explaining that they will most likely not be returning
to Netherfield. She talks of her brother engaging the heart of Mr.
Darcy’s sister, Georgiana and how, “…her relations all wish the connection
as much as his own…with all these circumstances to favour an attachment
and nothing to prevent it…” (Pride and Prejudice, 81)
Mrs. Bennet is also very aware of her standing in society. She has a strong desire for a prosperous marriage for Jane. “A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls.” (Pride and Prejudice, 1), but she is also aware that all the girls will not have this opportunity. Therefore, she is happy when Mr. Collins speaks for Elizabeth. Although Mr. Collins is not of the same social class as Mr. Bingley, he by the patronage of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, socializes with this class on a more regular basis than the Bennets. This is good enough for Elizabeth, as far as Mrs. Bennet is concerned.
Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice during the later part of the Industrial Revolution, and though the class conflicts described within the book seem superficial today, they were of great import to those living at the time. Life was changing dramatically. Many were trying to hold on to the old way of life they knew, while others were trying to break from the past and improve their lives. The pride and the prejudices of the social groups were something to hold on to. The world was changing fast and many were just trying to stay the tide.
Why does Jane Austen leave out the working class?
How does the military fit in to this class structure?
Chirot, Daniel. How Societies Change: Thousand Oaks, Pine Forge Press. 1994
Hall, Catherine. Defining the Victorian Nation, Class, Race, Gender and the Reform Act of 1867. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. 2000 JN 955 H35
“Social Class”. The Victoria Web. University Scholars
Program. National University of Singapore.
“Race and Class Overview”. The Victoria Web. University
Scholars Program. National University of Singapore.
“Economics”. The Victoria Web. University Scholars
Program. National University of Singapore.
http://184.108.40.206/victorian/history/economics/eh2.html (Note: This website is no longer accessible.) For further information on Victorian England please go to - http://220.127.116.11/victorian/victov.html