Class

Further thoughts on the topic from the last post (I guess I wasn’t done thinking yet when I hit “publish” on that).

You might perhaps be wondering why I’m saying that clergy, armed forces and law, the three professions open to a gentleman, are part of the ruling class. What’s preaching a Sunday sermon have to do with running the country? Think about it: the church teaches the rules, the law court judges the rules, the army enforces the rules. Legislative, Judicial, Executive – the three branches of government (or at least so I was taught in grade 10 social studies class). Add to that the landowners, who’re everyone’s boss, and there you have it. The landowner (squire, lord, landlord) commands the physical space, the vicar the spiritual and moral, the lawyer the legal, and the colonel his soldiers. That’s all the upper classes do – command. And that’s what they train their sons to do.

And none of them make anything, not even money. They don’t produce, grow things, create things, trade things. That’s for the lower classes. As soon as those lower classes climb up the ladder far enough to make the jump into the upper, they drop any of that “making” stuff, and are henceforth gentlemen (Sir William Lucas and Mr Bingley’s grandfather come to mind). The money upper class people have is in the form of “income” from what they already own – interest on capital, return on investments, rents from their land, or, more or less, tax payments they receive (the vicar got the tithe from the whole population of the parish, which they had to pay whether they wanted to or not).

But for all their being “gentlemen of leisure”, gentlemen’s professions really were professions – they were supposed to keep them busy. Edward Ferrars’ problem is that he was not allowed to “choose a profession”, so he was “idle” and had too much time on his hand to do anything much smarter than fall in love with Lucy. The idea is, of course, that a young gentleman like Edward who is heir to a fortune is preparing himself for the day when he will be rich, and in charge of an estate. And estate management should, by rights, keep a man as busy as a clergyman’s job, or an army career. But Edward’s mother doesn’t let him at any of that, and so he’s twiddling his thumbs and gets in trouble (in his very mild-mannered Edwardian way).

As for the ladies, they sit around and “work”. Work, you say? Yup. Needlework. They sew (from what I can gather, mostly decorative stuff like seat cushions), they are busy with “accomplishments” like playing piano or “drawing”, i.e. sketching in watercolours (I can never get Dylan Thomas’ line out of my head: “faint lady watercolours … like a lettuce salad dying” – as a sometime watercolourist, I was quite offended at that when I first heard it), and then they go for walks and visits. All that, of course, as a framework for their real job, which is to bear children to furnish more gentlemen to fill the commanding roles of the ruling class and more ladies to draw faint-lettuce watercolours and in turn bear more gentlemen.

That’s the world Austen’s novels are set in, that her characters inhabit – ladies and gentlemen, all of them, at least by their class, if not always their behaviour. It’s something that’s difficult for us emancipated 21st-century readers to comprehend. But it’s worthwhile trying to wrap one’s head around. It adds a whole other level of enjoyment to the books to understand a little bit of the world they’re set in.

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