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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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.