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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Liz McInnes MP: I voted to keep Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader - now I'm backing Owen Smith

I furiously opposed the vote of no confidence. But Corbyn should have listened and resigned. 

We’re deep into one of the most intense periods in British politics. The phrase “A week is a long time in politics” and the old Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times” are becoming clichés in their overuse. As the Labour party embarks on another leadership contest, it’s useful to think about how we got here.

I haven’t been an MP for very long.  I was elected in 2014 in a by-election and came into Parliament after a long career in the NHS as a healthcare scientist. In the 2015 leadership contest I supported Andy Burnham to be our leader because I agreed with his policies and views on the NHS and also because I had been a workplace rep for Unite and Andy had given us a great deal of support.

I believe Jeremy won because for many people he was the only candidate who appeared committed to socialist principles, and the only candidate who seemed to fully oppose austerity and welfare cuts. I strongly disagree that is actually the case, but that’s how it was allowed to appear. The turning point in the campaign was the decision of the party to instruct MPs to abstain on the second reading of the Welfare Reform bill last July. Jeremy was the only candidate to vote against the plans, along with 47 other Labour MPs – myself included. It was the right decision to vote against the bill, and I believe that was the moment which convinced many to vote for Jeremy.

Although I hadn’t supported Jeremy in the leadership contest, when he was elected by an overwhelming majority I spoke with him and told him that he had my support. His large mandate from members and supporters had given him the right to lead our party, and it was important to give him the opportunity to prove himself up to the job.

I was very pleased and quite surprised to be asked to serve on Jeremy’s front bench as part of the Communities and Local Government team and I accepted the honour. Having also served as a local councillor I felt that this was a team I could get really involved in. Since September and until just a few weeks ago, I fully supported him.

At the beginning of this piece I said that we are deep into one of the most intense periods in British politics and I believe that this began with the murder of our friend and colleague, Labour MP Jo Cox. I cannot begin to describe the shock that reverberated around the Labour Party, indeed around the whole country, that somebody so giving and so vibrant could be wiped out by a senseless act of violence as she went about her business, in the normal way, on an ordinary day, in the constituency she loved so much.

MPs, and particularly female MPs, have been fearful since then. Security and safety is being improved, for ourselves and for our staff. Yet the psychological effect remains and the process of grieving is a slow and painful one.

We then had the shock of the referendum result. Suddenly our place in the world had changed. I personally felt an acute sense of loss and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in that.

Following the referendum result, I learnt of the motion of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn because of his handling of the Remain campaign. I was furious. At a time when as a Labour Party we should have been taking the Government to task over the fallout from a referendum which they had called, we had instead chosen to create divisions amongst our own party.

I made my feelings clear at the meeting of the parliamentary Labour party on the Monday following the referendum result. I said that I didn’t blame Jeremy for the Brexit vote and I still don’t. I actually agreed with his message that the EU isn’t perfect, but that we were better off remaining members with the ability to influence from within, rather than standing outside with no influence and facing an uncertain future.

I said that in my opinion, the people of the UK were receiving a mixed message from the Labour party because a minority of our MPs had chosen to appear on platforms with the likes of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, prominently on TV hustings, and one even on a boat with Nigel Farage during the ridiculous Thames flotilla. It’s not surprising, given these antics, that the public were confused about Labour’s message.

I voted against the motion of no confidence in Jeremy’s leadership. However, 172 of my colleagues, 80 per cent of the parliamentary Labour party, from all wings of the party, voted for it. I fully expected Jeremy to stand down because of such an overwhelming result. If I had received a vote of no confidence of that magnitude as a union rep, or as a councillor, then I would have stepped aside. I would have recognised the situation as being totally unworkable and I would have accepted with a heavy heart that it was time to go and let someone else take things forward.

It came as a massive surprise to me to see Jeremy refusing to go. It made no sense to me that having had it confirmed that he was unable to lead an effective opposition in Parliament, that he still chose to remain as leader, knowing that he could only be a totally ineffective leader. The job description of the leader of the Labour party is to lead the party in Parliament and it had been very forcefully pointed out to him that he was unable to do his job.

I could not understand Jeremy’s reaction. His position was untenable yet he was refusing to go. I had no choice other than to resign from my shadow ministerial role. I could no longer serve a leader who appeared to be putting his own interests ahead of the party.

Since then, and with Jeremy hungrily clinging on to power, I have watched gaping holes appear in the front bench and shadow ministerial structure following the resignations of capable colleagues all exasperated at the stubborn refusal of Jeremy to accept reality. I have colleagues who were still willing to serve a dysfunctional leadership holding down two or more roles. Every day I have seen the Tory Government mocking us, laughing at our inability to oppose them. They relish our disarray, and make no mistake about it – they are desperately hoping Jeremy stays.

Since my resignation I have been bombarded with conspiracy theories from some of Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters. I would like to confirm that I was not bullied into standing down, as some would have it. I have not been offered a job/promotion or any other incentive, another favourite conspiracy theory. Nor was I "got at" by plotters, indeed I am unaware of any plot ever having existed. The series of resignations appeared to be an organic process triggered by the sacking of Hilary Benn, leading to members of the shadow cabinet considering their own position and making their own decisions. Some of them, like my colleagues Lilian Greenwood and Thangam Debbonaire, have since written very eloquently about their own experiences of Jeremy’s leadership. Their accounts are shocking and, knowing both Lillian and Thangam, I have no reason to doubt them.

I have become concerned about his failure to condemn protests outside MPs’ offices, showing scant regard for the atmosphere of fear and grief that Jo Cox’s tragic death has created. Just this week I have supported and signed a letter to Jeremy from female Labour MPs, started by my colleague and friend Paula Sherriff, expressing our concern about his failure to protect us at a time when we are most in need of it. His refusal to support a secret vote at the National Executive Committee meeting was a mistake and seems to suggest he really doesn’t understand the intimidating and threatening atmosphere his leadership is allowing to fester.

I have completely lost faith in Jeremy. He has the worst personal poll ratings of any opposition leader in living memory, Labour have been consistently behind in the polls since he took over, and in May we had the worst local election results of any opposition party in 40 years. Even William Hague won seats – Jeremy lost 18. Jeremy claims credit for overturning some Tory policies since September, when the truth is that he had little to do with any of it and the credit should go to individual ministers like Owen Smith and their teams, as well as to Baroness Smith and the Labour Lords, who have worked tirelessly and effectively with apparently little involvement from Jeremy or his office. After failing to get a response from him, former shadow Health secretary Heidi Alexander had to stage a sit-in outside Jeremy’s office in order to get answer from him on a question of NHS policy.

Jeremy is good at slogans and nobody can disagree with him when he identifies inequality, neglect, insecurity, prejudice and discrimination as blights on our society that must be tackled, but the challenge for our party is to come up with practical policy solutions to those issues and be competent and popular enough to enact them. Jeremy and his team have been short of policies since he became leader. He did announce one at his campaign launch yesterday about forcing businesses to publish equal pay reports – but it later turned out this had been a pledge in our 2015 manifesto. And he refused to answer whether he would publish such a report for his own office. This isn’t good enough.

Those who want Jeremy’s leadership to end need to do more than simply say he’s "unelectable", even though that’s what the evidence suggests, and we need to do more than point out he’s incompetent, even though that’s what the evidence suggests. We need to make it clear that Jeremy and his most loyal supporters are not the only ones who care about fighting austerity, they aren’t the only ones who care about a free and public NHS, and they aren’t the only ones who care about tackling inequality and discrimination.

We need a leader who can articulate those values that all of us in Labour believe in but also a leader who can translate fine words and speeches into action and practical policies. And it is absolutely critical that we have a leader who can carry out the basic duties of a major political party competently and effectively. We need a leader who can unite our party, our members, trade unions and MPs, so that instead of fighting ourselves we all work together towards a common goal – to win the next general election and start putting right the many wrongs which years of Tory rule have inflicted on our communities.

I believe that Owen Smith is that leader. He has the principles of the Labour Party at his core and he has the ability to lead and unite. Above all, he is a principled man who I know would never put his own self-interest above that of the party. I have utmost confidence in him and that’s why I’ll be supporting his campaign.

I love the Labour Party and I know that Owen does too. Neither of us want to see it split and we’ll be working hard to make sure that doesn’t happen. I want everybody who loves the Labour party to join with us in unity so that we can go forward together for the good of the country and the millions of people who need us to be up to the job.

Liz McInnes is Labour MP for Heywood and Middleton.