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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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.