By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University
The bulk of Jane Austen’s fictional characters sit below the lesser nobility. Some of them are quite wealthy. However, their class status falls below that of royalty, aristocracy, or nobility, and, for most, below the lesser nobility, regardless of their wealth. Most of Austen’s characters fall within this category styled the gentry, signifying a landowning but untitled class.
Pride and Prejudice’s Sir William Lucas
A knighthood was an honor given by a sovereign, in return for services rendered to the crown. It was a way to confer privilege and to elevate someone socially, who was not otherwise born to a title. A knighthood was a lifetime honor that couldn’t be passed down to one’s children.
The most notable knight in Austen’s fiction may be Pride and Prejudice’s Sir William Lucas, the genial neighbor of the Bennets. The narrator continuously pokes fun at harmless Sir William for the pride he takes in having been made a knight.
He was a successful tradesman and small-town mayor who was given a knighthood in recognition of an address he made to the king. But the narrator tells us that “the distinction” of the knighthood “had perhaps been felt too strongly”. It had given him a disgust to running his business, and to his residence in a small market town. After being knighted, he removed his family to Lucas Lodge, “where he could think with pleasure of his own importance, and, unshackled by business, occupy himself solely in being civil to all the world”. This is hardly an endorsement of the social value of a knighthood! But it is only gentle ridicule.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Life and Works of Jane Austen. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Landowning Class
The gentry, or landowning class, in the early 19th century England consisted of approximately 30,000 families. In Austen’s novels, the families in this category include the Woodhouses and the Knightleys of Emma, General Tilney in Northanger Abbey, John and Fanny Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, and Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.
The gentry class were, in effect, landlords. If their estates were well managed, their families would have been able to live off of the proceeds and rents of their land, rather than engaging in labor or trade themselves. Their land would have made money for them, without their having to engage in other work. Many hired estate managers, for instance.
But gentry families were seen as communally and socially responsible and important. They had duties, of a kind. Some oversaw legal aspects of the community, as magistrates or judges. Some of the gentry devised or oversaw charitable schemes. These were expected forms of giving back to the community, as a landowner, but they were not compulsory.
One of the ostensible roles of the nobility and the gentry was to guide the less privileged by moral example. However, Austen’s fiction often shows us members of the nobility and gentry who turn out to be moral failures, not exemplars.
Below the gentry in rank were the younger sons and daughters of the gentry. They had to earn their living by work of some kind, or by advantageous marriages.
People in Trade
The next rung lower on the ladder of social class was made up of those in trade. People who were in the trades ran businesses that made and sold goods and services, like furniture and clothing. Many also employed skilled laborers from the working class. Today we would call most of them small-business owners, although some ran quite large businesses and might be imagined as more akin to a CEO.
Anyone who made a living in trade—no matter how much money they made—was likely to be looked down on by the traditional elite. It was considered an unrefined way of making a living. Pride and Prejudice’s snobbish Caroline Bingley was surprised that Elizabeth Bennet’s uncle, Mr. Gardiner, could live “by trade, and within view of his own warehouses”, yet still be “well-bred and agreeable”.
Austen’s novels give the phrase ‘well-bred’ a more open definition, one that goes beyond inherited wealth and elite birth in determining what is polite and good. We can see how important that project is to her fiction by noticing that the last lines of Pride and Prejudice mention the Gardiners—the well-bred tradespeople—very prominently. Mr. Darcy, in growing close to them, has moved very far away indeed from the snobbery of his aunt Lady Catherine and from Mr. Bingley’s sister Caroline.
Those Who Worked for Others
On the rung of the social ladder below those in trade were those who worked for people in the professions such as clerks or governesses or tutors. They could come from high status families, down on their luck, or from lower status families, managing to climb up the social ladder. They had to have somehow gained an education. They often had a liminal position in a household or organization, not quite a servant, but not quite an equal.
In Emma, Jane Fairfax famously likens a governess being hired to something like the slave trade—a trade in human flesh. This isn’t fair, of course. Governesses were not bought and sold as enslaved people were. Governesses had freedom. But her exaggerated comparison was meant to shock and to emphasize the profession’s economic and social dependence and relative powerlessness to set the terms of their own modestly paid labor.
Common Questions about the Popular Social Classes in Austen’s Novels
A knighthood was an honor given by a sovereign, in return for services rendered to the crown. A knighthood was a lifetime honor that couldn’t be passed down to one’s children.
The gentry, or the landowning class, were, in effect, landlords. Gentry families were also seen as communally and socially responsible and important.
The gentry families had duties, of a kind. Some oversaw legal aspects of the community, as magistrates or judges. Some of the gentry devised or oversaw charitable schemes. One of the ostensible roles of the nobility and the gentry was to guide the less privileged by moral example.