Joanna Trollope: What Jane Austen knew about class

Pretension remains the greatest social crime – and authenticity the greatest virtue.

“Knightley!” exclaims Mrs Elton in Emma, damning herself immediately. “Knightley himself! . . . [He] is quite the gentleman. I like him very much.” Emma, secure at the very top of her local social tree, goes ballistic: “Insufferable woman! . . . Worse than I had supposed! . . . Never seen him in her life before and called him Knightley! and discover that he is a gentleman! a little upstart, vulgar being, with her . . . airs of pert pretension and under-bred finery . . .”

Lawks, as someone in a Dickens novel might say. Calm down, dear. Mrs Elton is indeed a pretentious idiot but is that really her worst crime? To 21st-century eyes, her greater sin is her reprehensible swanking about her brother-in-law’s establishment near Bristol, the laughably named Maple Grove – “My brother, Mr Suckling’s seat”. Maple Grove is huge and new, with “extensive grounds” and “every luxury”. But Bristol, along with Liverpool, was one of the great slave trading and holding ports, indicating that Mr Suckling’s wealth has ugly connotations. Which is exactly what Jane Austen intends to portray – a stupidly affected woman who hasn’t even the modicum of sense necessary to refrain from bragging about her sister’s expedient marriage to dirty money.

The Austens, unsurprisingly, were abolitionists. Jane Austen’s views of class, and its myriad divisions, were both of their time and timeless. Her mother was a Georgian and therefore robust in her views of, say, childrearing or domestic management. An expectation of cleverness and practicality would have reigned in the Austen household, and that practicality would have extended to a hearty contempt for those who didn’t have the wit to see that their lack of gifts, or charm, doomed them to a lifetime on whichever rung of the social ladder they had been born to.

Two centuries later, we feel similarly. We applaud those who work assiduously to take best (and most tasteful) advantage of their natural gifts and abhor those displays of crude inanity that seem to be the speciality of some modern celebrities. What would Austen have made of the Kardashians? We will never know.

Mrs Elton may be the supreme example of aspirant wrong-headedness in Austen’s novels but even if she represents the acme of vulgar aspiration, there are many more characters to be skewered for their pretensions. Mr Collins, in Pride and Prejudice, grovels before that obtuse old bully, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, merely because his living, as a priest, depends on her titled whim. Sir Walter Elliot, in Persuasion, imagines that his inherited baronetcy entitles him to universal and automatic deference and admiration.

In Mansfield Park, Mr Rushworth sets about “improving” his grounds because it is the fashion and he has the money to do it. The Steele sisters, in Sense and Sensibility, stifle their antipathy to badly brought-up children in order to ingratiate themselves with a socially superior and affluent household. In each case, there is no excuse – even if there might be a reason, in those perilous economic times – for the social pretension displayed.

Pretension was then as it is now (and here we come to the timelessness) the great social crime. Its opposite virtue, always cherished, is authenticity. We love it that Steven Gerrard only wants to play football for, and live in, his local city, Liverpool, despite his extravagant earnings. Jane Austen champions Jane Fairfax’s stoicism in Emma, for accepting the prospective humiliations of being a governess – and one can imagine only too well how any friend of Mrs Elton’s would have treated her, particularly as she is pretty and musically talented. Steven Gerrard has infinite money, Jane Fairfax has none, but neither wishes to become someone else because of their circumstances.

We think highly of them both. As we do of those who have the prudence and ability to rise unshowily up the social ranks. Mrs Weston, in Emma, was our heroine’s beloved governess who married well – but not, unacceptably, too well – and became a model of “propriety, simplicity and elegance”. Staying with the comparison of modern footballers, the Beckhams have quietly put embarrassing wedding thrones and Wag-sized handbags behind them and are now models of good taste and good parenting, the tattoos under David’s impeccable suits only serving to add a little edge.

Mrs Weston and the Beckhams have marked and learned. Not only is Mrs Elton vulgar and brash in herself (think Tamara Ecclestone’s bathtub or Roman Abramovich’s yacht), but the money to which she is connected and of which she is so proud is unacceptably made and spent on show, not quality. Snobbery about bling is as alive and well as it ever was.

Here we come to the great interface between class and money. The blithe assumption that authenticity of class, wherever on the scale it was, automatically bred decency and compassion in behaviour was sarcastically challenged by the Roman poet Horace, for one. “O citizens, citizens,” he wrote furiously in his first epistle, “the first thing is to get money: virtue comes after riches.”

Money, in Jane Austen’s day, was largely derived from sugar, which in turn involved slavery. It built many of the lovely houses we admire now and doubtless accounted for Mr Bingley’s restless and perpetual leisure. He may be awarded Jane Bennet but he is never granted Austen’s approval in the way she gives it to Mr Knightley and his paternalistic use of his unquestionably old fortune at Donwell Abbey. (Pemberley, I suspect, was built from the profits of the Derbyshire coal mines – and what were the lives of 18thcentury miners like?)

Sugar profits also produced, in an age of architectural elegance, jerrybuilding in all cities, as well as gems such as the Codrington Library at All Souls College, Oxford. And they produced people to match the jerrybuilding: pleasure-seeking, sensation-hungry, heedless exhibitionists such as Wickham in Pride and Prejudice or Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility. They, despite their fine manners and technical good breeding, are not a million miles away from modern celebrity, in their expectation that life owes them not just a good living but also an exemption from the rules that restrain the rest of us. Money and attention could turn a person’s head every bit as much 200 years ago as they can in 2013. And the general reaction is similar – a surface layer of pity for the foolishness over a solid foundation of sheer distaste.

We have different names for class now, but I’m sure that the underlying attitudes would be extremely familiar to the creator of Lizzie Bennet. When I was growing up, in the 1950s, inherited titles were much respected, even when there was no money attached to them. Now they are neither here nor there and even, sometimes, faintly ridiculous.

We like merit in this day and age. We like to see people having to earn our admiration, by stupendous talent (sportsmen and women such as Jessica Ennis or Chris Hoy), or mental brilliance (thinkers, however controversial, such as Sally Greenfield and Richard Dawkins), or sheer hard graft (all those indomitable entrepreneurs on Dragons’ Den), or by being essentially a more-than-acceptable and benevolent human being (thus far, the present Pope).

This requirement to see people earn their merit, rather than assume it by virtue of birth to wealth, is not very far from Austen’s world and perceptions, in essence: she has no trouble allowing her favoured Captain Wentworth, in Persuasion, his prize money from the capture of enemy ships; or Edward Ferrars, or Edmund Bertram, both Mr Nice Guys, their happy endings at the kind hands of others. She has no titled people in any of her novels who are the models of admirable conduct that her untitled ones could be. In fact, all her titled characters are pretty flawed, and often figures of fun.

Despite the passage of centuries, what she admired and applauded is extraordinarily close to what we admire and applaud today. Why else, after all, would we recogniseso immediatelythat Mrs Elton, in all her offensive glory, is what the present Prince of Wales would describe as that “ghastly woman”?

Joanna Trollope’s “Sense & Sensibility” is published by HarperCollins (£18.99)

Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma.

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

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France’s burkini ban could not come at a worse time

Yet more legislation against veiled women can only further divide an already divided nation.

Since mayor of Cannes David Lisnard banned the full-body burkini from his town’s beaches, as many as 15 French resorts have followed suit. Arguments defending the bans fall into three main categories. First, it is about defending the French state’s secularism (laïcité). Second, that the costume represents a misogynistic doctrine that sees female bodies as shameful. And finally, that the burkini is cited as a threat to public order.

None of these arguments satisfactorily refute the claims of civil rights activists that the bans are fundamentally Islamophobic.

The niceties of laïcité

The Cannes decree explicitly invokes secular values. It prohibits anyone “not dressed in a fashion respectful of laïcité” from accessing public beaches. However, the French state has only banned “ostentatious” religious symbols in schools and for government employees as part of laïcité (the strict separation between the state and religious society). And in public spaces, laïcité claims to respect religious plurality. Indeed, the Laïcité Commission has tweeted that the ban, therefore, “cannot be based upon the principle of laïcité”.

While veils covering the entire face such as the burqa or niqab are illegal, this is not to protect laïcité; it is a security matter. The legal justification is that these clothes make it impossible to identify the person underneath – which is not the case for the burkini.

 

By falling back on laïcité to police Muslim women in this way, the Cannes authorities are fuelling the argument that “fundamentalist secularism” has become a means of excluding Muslims from French society.

Colonial attitudes

Others, such as Laurence Rossignol, the minister for women’s rights, hold that the burkini represents a “profoundly archaic view of a woman’s place in society”, disregarding Muslim women who claim to wear their burkini voluntarily.

This typifies an enduring colonial attitude among many non-Muslim French politicians, who feel entitled to dictate to Muslim women what is in their best interests. Rossignol has in the past compared women who wear headscarves through choice to American “negroes” who supported slavery.

Far from supporting women’s rights, banning the burkini will only leave the women who wear it feeling persecuted. Even those with no choice in the matter are not helped by the ban. This legal measure does nothing to challenge patriarchal authority over female bodies in the home. Instead, it further restricts the lives of veiled women by replacing it with state authority in public.

Open Islamophobia

Supporters of the ban have also claimed that, with racial tensions high after recent terrorist attacks, it is provocative to wear this form of Muslim clothing. Such an argument was made by Pierre-Ange Vivoni, mayor of Sisco in Corsica, when he banned the burkini in his commune. Early reports suggested a violent clash between local residents and non-locals of Moroccan origin was triggered when strangers photographed a burkini-wearing woman in the latter group, which angered her male companions. Vivoni claimed that banning the costume protected the security of local people, including those of North African descent.

Those reports have transpired to be false: none of the women in question were even wearing a burkini at the time of the incident. Nonetheless, the ban has stood in Sisco and elsewhere.

To be “provoked” by the burkini is to be provoked by the visibility of Muslims. Banning it on this basis punishes Muslim women for other people’s prejudice. It also disregards the burkini’s potential to promote social cohesion by giving veiled women access to the same spaces as their non-Muslim compatriots.

Appeals to public order have, occasionally, been openly Islamophobic. Thierry Migoule, head of municipal services in Cannes, claimed that the burkini “refers to an allegiance to terrorist movements”, conveniently ignoring the Muslim victims of recent attacks. Barely a month after Muslims paying their respects to friends and family killed in Nice were racially abused, such comments are both distasteful and irresponsible.

Increased divisions

Feiza Ben Mohammed, spokesperson for the Federation of Southern Muslims, fears that stigmatising Muslims in this way will play into the hands of IS recruiters. That fear seems well-founded: researchers cite a sense of exclusion as a factor behind the radicalisation of a minority of French Muslims. Measures like this can only exacerbate that problem. Indeed, provoking repressive measures against European Muslims to cultivate such a sentiment is part of the IS strategy.

Meanwhile, the day after the incident in Sisco, riot police were needed in nearby Bastia to prevent a 200-strong crowd chanting “this is our home” from entering a neighbourhood with many residents of North African descent. Given the recent warning from France’s head of internal security of the risk of a confrontation between “the extreme right and the Muslim world”, such scenes are equally concerning.

Now more than ever, France needs unity. Yet more legislation against veiled women can only further divide an already divided nation.

The Conversation

Fraser McQueen, PhD Candidate, University of Stirling

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.