The major categories that organized the upper echelons of Britain’s social hierarchy in Jane Austen’s era were royalty, aristocracy, nobility, and gentry. They constituted the educated classes—the middle classes and above. It’s important to remember that whether one was educated in this era stemmed from who their parents were to an even greater extent than it does today.
The Working Class
Below the elite and the middling classes in rank were what we’d now call the working or laboring class, such as tenant farmers, like Robert Martin in Emma. It included servants, such as Mrs. Reynolds, Mr. Darcy’s housekeeper in Pride and Prejudice. But those two characters were at the more privileged end of the working classes. They would have been able to read and write, and keep accounts. It was possible, although not likely, that they could rise higher through merit or marriage.
But few among the working class had the benefit of an education. Approximately half were thought to be illiterate, unable to read or write or both. Austen’s fiction occasionally mentions the presence of servants, but she rarely gives them names or lines of dialogue.
Social Class Mobility
There was some mobility in personal or family wealth in this period, but there was very little social class mobility available to an individual. A tradesman could gain a knighthood, or purchase a baronetcy, and hope to gain status and respect. As Austen’s fiction shows, however, that move did not usually end up impressing those above.
In practice, status and wealth then were imagined as largely separate, although they certainly intermingled and sometimes even desperately sought each other out. Upwardly mobile families enjoyed new wealth gained through war and commercial opportunities, often made possible by exploiting others, through imperialism and colonialism.
It’s meaningful that Austen’s fiction is often as dismissive of the newly rich as she is of the old nobility. In Emma, Mr. Elton’s bride, the heiress Augusta Hawkins, is a case in point. She has 30,000 pounds—a significant fortune of about 1500 pounds a year—but she’s shown to be vulgar and bossy. She’s dismissively described as having brought to the marriage no name, no blood, and no alliance.
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Social Class a Birthright
Miss Hawkins is described by the narrator as “the youngest of the two daughters of a Bristol—merchant, of course, he must be called” in a line of trade described as “very moderate”. The word ‘moderate’ here is an insult, and the implication may even be that her father made his money in some way having to do with the West Indies and slave-run sugar plantations, as Bristol was known as a port for business with the West Indies.
If Elizabeth Bennet is presented to readers as the right kind of upstart, Mrs. Elton is presented as the wrong kind—presuming and obnoxious.
Certainly, this has everything to do with each woman’s character. But it also has to do with fine distinctions between wealth and class. Social class was presented as a birthright—even as something preordained by God. One’s birth was thought to determine one’s place in the natural order of things. To some minds then, if one was born with a title, they deserved their privilege.
Austen Questioned Social Class
In many ways, Austen’s fiction rails against the strict determinism of rank and its supposed connection to worthiness. Her novels most often reveal members of the nobility to be faulty leaders. They dispense bad and self-serving advice or no advice at all. In her novels, the elite rarely lead the rest of the community by good and proper example, as they were supposed to do.
At the same time, Austen’s fiction shows the middling classes to have a higher claim to social worth than was generally thought. Persuasion’s Colonel Wentworth is an honorable, self-made man, born without rank or fortune. He’s also true to his name. He went out into the world and proved his worth. He enjoyed a military rank but he made a fortune in wartime. He married Anne Elliot, the caring and selfless middle daughter of a selfish baronet. The baronet, Sir Walter Elliot, is shown to be nearly worthless. The novel’s outcome turns the tables on the period’s presumed hierarchies of rank. Austen seems to be advocating for reforms in how rank was valued—or overvalued—in her culture.
Austen’s most admirable characters gain position or status not by inherited titles or estates but by demonstrated character, behavior, growth, and achievement. The real world functioned a lot less like a meritocracy than a novel did, which Austen understood perfectly well. What her novels show is that she doesn’t entirely accept it. Her books may close with happy marriages, but they open up difficult, significant questions about social class, especially among the middle class to the elites.
Common Questions about Distinctions between Wealth and Class in Austen’s Novels
During Austen‘s time, while there was some mobility possible in personal or family wealth, there was very little social class mobility available to an individual. While a tradesman could gain a knighthood, or purchase a baronetcy, and hope to gain status and respect, it usually did not end up impressing those above in the social hierarchy.
Social class was presented as a birthright—even as something preordained by God. One’s birth was thought to determine one’s place in the natural order of things. To some minds then, if one was born with a title, they deserved their privilege.
Austen’s most admirable characters gain position or status not by inherited titles or estates but by demonstrated character, behavior, growth, and achievement.