For someone who hasn’t grown up in the highly stratified social system, all the rules for naming and address may seem labyrinthine. But for Jane Austen, who lived in this system and nomenclature from childhood, it would have been routine knowledge. This tells us that her not including any minor characters higher than a viscount in her major fiction means something.
Members of Aristocracy
Jane Austen’s novels make few mentions of aristocrats. They feature no major aristocratic characters. The term aristocracy refers to the highly stratified group of people with inherited titles that are attached to and passed down along with landed estates. The highest levels of aristocratic titles are dukes and duchesses, who are just below the royal family in rank.
In the aristocratic hierarchy, below a duke in status is the category of marquess and marchioness. Just below that is the rank of earl and the countess. Under that are the viscount and viscountess, and then the baron and baroness.
Austen’s ‘Minor’ Aristocratic Characters
All of the people who hold these titles are referred to by address as ‘lord and lady’. The members of this group are designated as peers and make up what’s called the peerage. Traditionally, male peers were granted seats in parliament, in the House of Lords. This right ended for all but 92 hereditary peers in 1999.
Fictional members of the aristocracy appear only on the fringes of Austen’s fiction. For instance, in Northanger Abbey, Eleanor Tilney ends up marrying the man whose laundry bill Catherine Morland found in the trunk in her room. The narrator tells us that he is a wealthy viscount. This high-born husband for Eleanor pleases her greedy, ambitious father, General Tilney, but the viscount is so minor a character that he gets no more than a few lines of mention.
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Titles to Show Social Status
Persuasion has its minor aristocratic characters, the Elliot family’s snobbish cousins, the Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple and the Honourable Miss Carteret. The word dowager before her title tells us that the viscountess is a widow. And the honorific honourable tells us that Miss Carteret is the daughter of a viscount. The reason they seem to have different last names is that Dalrymple is the name that goes with the title, Carteret is the actual surname of the family, used by both those who hold the title and those who don’t.
There were further ways that status was communicated through naming practices. For example, in Pride and Prejudice, Lady Catherine de Bourgh is styled ‘Lady Catherine’ and not ‘Lady de Bourgh’ because she holds the title as the daughter of an earl or higher, and not only as the spouse of a nobleman.
Being that high born allowed a woman to be known as lady, followed by her first name. Had she only married into high status, she would be called lady, followed by her husband’s last name. An untitled woman who married a man as low as a knight also earned the privilege of being called ‘Lady- His Last Name’.
But for the status-conscious Lady Catherine, it’s incredibly important that she’s not a mere Lady de Bourgh. Her condition at birth and her titled marriage are communicated by how she’s addressed. The term ‘condition’ meant one’s position, their rank, or their supposedly proper place in what was a highly stratified social world, in the novel and the real world beyond it.
Baronets and Knights
The lesser or lower nobility sits just below the ranks just discussed. It includes two groups of the titled. One is the men who inherited the title of baronet. The other is those who earned the title knight, through some service to the crown. The titled people whom Austen regularly deals with in her fiction are almost entirely from this group of the lesser nobility.
Baronets might be thought of as something like a hereditary knight. Knights, of course, are made, not born. But although one title is inherited and one is earned in some way, both types are addressed as ‘Sir’. Their wives, unless themselves highborn, are styled as ‘Lady’, followed by the husband’s surname. Baronets have inherited titles, but they aren’t considered part of the aristocracy. Most are not considered part of the peerage. They enjoy fewer rights and privileges; for instance, baronets didn’t have the right to sit in the House of Lords.
The title of baronet was first devised in the year 1611 as a way to raise money for the crown. This meant that a baronetcy could be bought. As a result, the title of baronet could be looked down on by those who came into grander hereditary titles by birth.
We can see this kind of snobbery at work in Persuasion. Sir Walter Elliot, a baronet, might have been looked down on by the titled in ranks above him. He, however, looks down on those below him. And not just far below him but immediately below him. He dismisses his neighbor, the widowed Lady Russell, as having married ‘only a knight’, a man who was just one step below him on the social ladder.
Even finer distinctions of class snobbery are there to consider. Sir Walter’s daughter, Mary Musgrove, criticizes those who hold newer baronetcies. The fact that her father’s title has been in their family for more than a generation makes her feel superior!
As anyone who has read their Austen closely knows, Sir Walter Elliot, the baronet, and Mary Musgrove, his status-conscious daughter, are among the least likeable characters in Persuasion. This is evidence that Austen’s fiction is especially critical of characters who look down on others through fine distinctions of social class, rather than on character, behavior, education, accomplishment, and other sorts of earned merit.
Common Questions about Aristocracy and Class Distinctions in Jane Austen’s Novels
The term aristocracy refers to the highly stratified group of people with inherited titles that are attached to and passed down along with landed estates.
The highest levels of aristocratic titles are dukes and duchesses. Below a duke in status is the category of marquess and marchioness. Just below that is the rank of earl and the countess. Under that are the viscount and viscountess, and then the baron and baroness.
The title of baronet was first devised in the year 1611 as a way to raise money for the crown. This meant that a baronetcy could be bought.