Friday, May 06, 2005

Class System in Britain

I noted in lecture that North Americans are prone to some misunderstandings when reading British fiction due to a lack of awareness of the almost universal effects of the class system there. This was a propos Charlotte Bronte and her fictional autobiography (in part) Villette. This drew a couple of comments in response. One, that the majority of North Americans stay within the same income bracket that their parents earned; and, two, an example was given of a working class father from the north of England who earned a doctorate from Cambridge.

Let me elaborate here. First, our class-fellow's working class father (clearly a highly admirable man) earned Cambridge in the nineteen fifties, by which time the class boundaries were feeling the blows of many engines: the two World Wars for instance. And second, at a larger remove, remember that Britain has a system of class not caste: in other words, there had always been some opportunity for mobility - in both directions. Profligate aristocrats had for centuries dropped their posterity well into the middle class. Successful business acumen brought some middle (and even some originally lower) class men into the aristocracy via a knighthood. Consider Sir William Lucas in Pride and Prejudice. And elevation by marriage was also an avenue: the stage was an effective platform in more than one sense; and "let a man be ordained to the clergy and he can marry as high as he likes" is a line from Born in Exile by George Gissing.

But beside all this, mobility is only one aspect of the class system: the levels are enduringly divided by the behavior and attitudes that the members of each level share. Mr. Lucas could rise to status of gentlemen, but he could not prevent Mr. Bingley's sisters from sneering at him behind his back. Indeed, only Elizabeth Bennett's omnipotent womanhood could make Mr. Darcy repent (with obsequy) of his disdain for her Cheapside relations, the Gardners.

My point about North America is that culture is uniform to a degree not experienced in England. Members of the Canadian Senate watch NHL games in undershirts while drinking beer - as does a longshoreman in Surrey whose choice of beer is quite likely to be Stella Artois. During the last American Presidential election, John Kerry -- a north-eastern aristocrat -- rode a mountain bike, wore a trendy yellow Lance Armstrong bracelet and had rap on his iPod. Bank balances allow for important -- even critical -- differences in health and opportunity among North Americans. And ethnic diversity provides reasons to celebrate significant difference. But for all that, a remarkable similarity of taste and value makes "class" a problematic term to apply. The "Red State/Blue State" divide, for instance, is a geographic and regional divide, not a class divide. And the rural/urban divide in Canada does not map faciley to income.

Less so under New-Labour Britain (which is just what is argued as a master hypothesis by this course,) but still very much alive, is exactly a class distinction where North America has a conformity. It was the fact that Diana: Princess of Wales, behaved like Anna Nicole Smith that caused Her Unstable Majesty to be ostracised by the British aristocracy. And, contrariwise, the fox-hunting passion of aristocrats -- nouveau and old alike -- produces derision against "toffs" from the man on Wigan pier.

Speaking of George Orwell, here is one of his many characteristically pithy insights into the British class differences in terms of attitude rather than mobility.

And again, take the working-class attitude towards ‘education’. How different it is from ours, and how immensely sounder! Working people often have a vague reverence for learning in others, but where ‘education’ touches their own lives they see through it and reject it by a healthy instinct. The time was when I used to lament over quite imaginary pictures of lads of fourteen dragged protesting from their lessons and set to work at dismal jobs. It seemed to me dreadful that the doom of a ‘job’ should descend upon anyone at fourteen. Of course I know now that there is not one working-class boy in a thousand who does not pine for the day when he will leave school. He wants to be doing real work, not wasting his time on ridiculous rubbish like history and geography. To the working class, the notion of staying at school till you are nearly grown-up seems merely contemptible and unmanly. The idea of a great big boy of eighteen, who ought to be bringing a pound a week home to his parents, going to school in a ridiculous uniform and even being caned for not doing his lessons! Just fancy a working-class boy of eighteen allowing himself to be caned! He is a man when the other is still a baby. Ernest Pontifex, in Samuel Butler’s Way of All Flesh, after he had had a few glimpses of real life, looked back on his public school and university education and found it a ‘sickly, debilitating debauch’. There is much in middle-class life that looks sickly and debilitating when you see it from a working-class angle.
Note how this corrects the mistaken North American misunderstanding that the proletariat pines in frustrated envy for the values of the middle and upper middle classes. As an exemplary aside, I often observe students and professoriat alike stating that some group or another of fellow citizen are "deprived" of a university education: making, that is, university attendance a quality of universal worth. Too flagrantly pretentious and distastefully preening, I believe, to insist that one's own accidental preference or aptitude must be the sine qua non of social worth.

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