Social Classes in 19th Century British Literature

During 19th century, social class played an important role in lives of people and determined their destiny and life opportunities. In their novels, Austen and Gaskell depict the role and importance of class, and describe attitudes and values of different social classes. Persuasion and North and South are based on a class conflict between poor and rich people, working and upper classes. Thesis Gaskell and Austen distinguish two main social classes, working and upper classes, and depict that class location plays a key role in destinies and life of people.

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Social class and class struggle can be interpreted as distinctions between individuals in society caused by economic difference (Eitzen and Johnston, p. 34). These concepts are important because they help to explain social classes utilized in Persuasion and North and South, and explain attitudes and values of the main characters. In both novels, Austen and Gaskell depict two main social classes: working class and bourgeoisie. The similarity is that the main women characters belong to an upper class while their fiancées belong to a working class. Using the idea and theme of class, Austen and Gaskell unveil social morality and importance of class location for marriage.

Describing a working class, Gaskell and Austen underline that workers have interests, and class interests. In both novels the authors portray that if ownership is operationally separated from control of industrial enterprises, the question becomes which group of bureaucrats decides what will be regarded as social cost or welfare. In North and South the main characters ebonizing to a working class are Nicholas Higgins and Bessy, Nicholas Higgins’s daughter. In this novel, a working class is depicted through industrial relations between Mr. John Thornton, the owner of the mill and his workers. Gaskell depicts class location in terms of ownership because it tends to make the choice between alternative systems an all-or-none bargain. Rather, the issue is which property incomes are to be considered social costs. Gaskells writes: “have those others been working directly or indirectly? Have they been labouring to exhort, to enjoin, to act rightly for the sake of example, or have they been simple, true men, taking up their duty, and doing it unflinchingly, without a thought of how their actions were to make this man industrious” (Gaskell, 2000). This passage shows that working class reacts to the barbarous conditions of manufacture by agitating for a shorter workday, higher wages, and for the limitation of child and female labor. The returns to labor get closer to their social cost, although Marx would insist that any profit return to capital was socially unwarranted. The result is the replacement of living labor by constant capital (Eitzen and Johnston, p. 34).

Similar to Gaskell, Austen unveils hardship and grievances faced by working class men. The main characters belonging to working class are servants. Thus, Austen portrays low social classes and their problems caused by social prejudices and lack of money: Mrs. Clay, Captain Frederick Wentworth, etc. in general, naval officer, Captain Frederick Wentworth, does not belong to working or low class. It is possible to say that Austen depicts a navy and naval officers as a separate class, but this class is lower in comparison with middle and upper classes. Austen describes class relations and class conflict using the example of two families:

the Musgroves were in the first class of society in the country, the young Hayters would, from their parents’ inferior, retired, and unpolished way of living, and their own defective education, have been hardly in any class at all, but for their connexion with Uppercross, this eldest son of course excepted, who had chosen to be a scholar and a gentleman, and who was very superior in cultivation and manners to all the rest” (Austen, 2000).

This passage shows that class differences cannot be eliminated caused by education, income and social differences.

The protagonists of both novel, Anne Elliot and Miss Margaret Hale represent high social class. The story conflict and conflict resolution depicted by Austin is not usual for 19th century class relations. The plot element in Persuasion lies in the marriage of Anne and Frederick at novel’s end. However, both the process of the couple’s getting there and a rather ambiguous ending create a substantial deviation from the happily-ever-after fairy tale. Anne’s mistake, her “over-anxious caution” (Austen, 2000) at being persuaded by her father and godmother, makes her appear more human and sympathetic, and it allows her room to grow: “She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older — the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning” (Austen, 2000). When Wentworth returns to England more prosperous after years at sea, Anne becomes aware of her abiding love for him: she feels “agitation, pain, pleasure, a something between delight and misery”. In contrast, though romantic love seldom exist in 19th century (Eitzen and Johnston, p. 34).

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Anne and Miss Margaret are further guided as to the type of marriage they wants by observing married couples around them. Anne has the advantage over Miss Margaret, who has no marriages to use as comparison. Some of the marriages within her family show Anne what she does not want. She was exposed to her parents’ marriage until she was fourteen. Her mother, Lady Elliot, a wife for seventeen years (until her death) to a “conceited, silly” man (Austen, 2000), was an “excellent… sensible and amiable” (Austen, 2000) woman who, though “not the very happiest being in the world, herself, had found in her duties, her friends, and her children, to attach to life” (Austen, 2000). These were typical upper class values based on economic gain and class location. Also, during the 19th century it was more important for a woman to marry a wealthy man belonging to an upper. This class location determines destiny and opportunities of a woman. Probably, for this reason Anne and Miss Margaret pay attention to class location and family of their husbands.

Gaskell and Austen depict domestic values and traditions of upper class women. They pay attention to themes of motherhood and religion. Christianity played a crucial role in lives of all women. Christianity and church was a strong force which dictated social norms and social order. Gaskell and Austen depict the situation of women inside family. Through dialogues and discussions Austen portrays that Lady Elliot’s choice of a marriage partner was not the best. Another marriage that Anne observes is that of her younger sister, Mary, and her husband, Charles Musgrove. In this relationship Charles is “civil and agreeable,” and “in sense and temper he was undoubtedly superior to his wife” (Austen, 2000). So although Charles and Mary “might pass for the happy couple” (Austen, 2000), Anne admits that “a more equal match” and “a woman of real understanding” (Austen, 2000) would be to Charles’s benefit. The lesson that Anne may learn from the Elliots and the Musgroves is to choose a marriage partner who is like herself – giving and not self-absorbed. Similar ot Austen, Gaskell portrays that at the nineteenth century women’s life, their destiny defined and depended upon the men, and, particularly, upon the their marriage. Although men had an influence on women’s behavior and exaggerated them in many life situations. Men perpetrate an ideological prison that subjected and silenced women. This ideology oppressed women by they eased to be subdues by religion and social norms. Gaskell idealizes family relations depicting that wife can openly express her life position to her husband.

Historically class representations were used to construct a ‘reality’ and generate discourses of difference. Austen states: ,,Elizabeth had been lately forming an intimacy, which she wished to see interrupted. It was with the daughter of Mr Shepherd, who had returned, after an unprosperous marriage, to her father’s house, with the additional burden of two children. She was a clever young woman, who understood the art of pleasing -the art of pleasing, at least, at Kellynch Hall” (Austen, 2000).

This passage unveils importance and role of class and equal marriage in destiny of a woman. As a result of few challenges or alternatives they are still available as a framework for understanding and positioning (Eitzen and Johnston, p. 34). This is why to proudly identify as working- class is often lived as a defensive mode, an angry reaction, fuelled by resentment at continually having to begin social interactions with a fear that one is being positioned by the discourses of degeneracy and vulgarity. Gaskell and Austen portray a positive side of women’s life avoiding such negative things as absence of education and narrow-mindedness. In reality, most women in the nineteenth century had no good education and could not so openly express their life position. Closely related to this are the differences in economic relations, awareness of which persists long after they have acquired many of the trappings of a upper class lifestyle. The part that language and accent play in signifying our histories is particularly complex. Often occupation type, level of education, speech and dialect, body language, manner of dress, spatial locality and even the type of housing someone resides in are used to judge a person’s social class. Therefore, they act as important social class signifiers. Determining membership of a specific social class also has much to do with the labels attached to individuals by those in power, for example, white middle-class male elites, rather than how we recognize and identify ourselves.

In sum, Gaskell and Austen portray two social classes, working class and upper class. Austin and Gaskell underline that women had little choice. Austen correctly says that marrying nearly any husband is more pleasant than remaining single and poor. Women received little education, and they could get only low-paid employment as servants, seamstresses, factory workers, or governesses. Upper-and middle class women were socially destined to be dependent on men for financial support, to be wives and mothers. Once married, they could be divorced only by an act of Parliament, which only the richest could afford. A woman’s decision about marriage must be made early, then, and it is permanent. Working class men had little chances to marry a wealthy woman who was protected by her family. both Gaskell and Austen idealize class relations portraying female characters as independent members of society. In reality, women were guided and supported by their husbands and family members. It is possible to say that all women represented in the novels do not suffer greatly, because of male oppression. Most of them were stuck to values preached by the society.

Works Cited

  1. Austen, J. Persuasion. 2000. Web.
  2. Eitzen,D.S., Johnston, J.E. Inequality: Social Class and Its Consequences. Paradigm Publishers, 2007.
  3. Gaskell, E. North and South. 2000. Web.
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