I recently read Longbourne by Jo Baker, which is a retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the servants. It’s a great book that I’d actually like to talk about, but that’s not what I’m doing here. It triggered a lot of thoughts about the original instead, and how classism actually worked in those days.
The most telling scene in the book is the confrontation in the Hermitage between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine de Burgh, where Lady Catherine says that Mr. Darcy outranks Elizabeth, and Elizabeth declares that, as he is a gentleman, and she’s a gentleman’s daughter, they are equals, which Lady Catherine acknowledges is the truth as far as her father goes.
Mr. Bennet is a gentleman – he is landed gentry, and he makes his income from the family estate, which he inherited from his father, and would have passed on entire to an eldest son, except there wasn’t one. That’s the basic definition. Mr. Darcy is exactly the same in that respect, except for five times the income. There ARE other gentlemen in the novel, but other than Mr. Hearst (of whom we know very little), they’re only that by courtesy. Mr. Collins is a clergyman, Mr. Wickham is an officer, and Col. Fitzwilliam is an officer AND the younger son of an earl.
And then we have Mr. Bingley. Mr. Bingley is wealthy with an excellent income, but he gets it through investments made by his father, who was in TRADE. He has no land and no gentleman’s profession, so while he’s called a gentleman, and treated as one, and acts like one in the best sense of the word, is he one? Note that the other well-behaved man in the novel is Mr. Gardiner, who is in trade and lives in sight of his own warehouses, and is the source of Lady Catherine’s disapproval.
Because that IS one of her objections towards Elizabeth, other than her not being Lady Catherine’s daughter Anne, whom she intended to marry her nephew – Elizabeth has unimpeachable background from her father, but her mother is the daughter of an attorney (not a solicitor or a barrister) and the sister of a man in trade. She’s MIDDLE CLASS. In fact, in the realm of gentry, while technically of the same class, they are on opposite sides – HER mother’s family is middle class, HIS mother comes from titled nobility.
And if Elizabeth is tainted by her mother’s relations, then Bingley must be more so by his own parents. It’s actually a wonder why Darcy picked this much younger man, no matter how sweet-natured, to be his friend. He struggled with Elizabeth’s relations for his first proposal – and did not use that as an argument against Jane for Bingley.
My suspicion is that Darcy and Bingley met in public school, where Bingley was Darcy’s “fag” – underclassman servant, and Darcy cherished an affection (go with that where you will) for him, and thought of him as a gentleman. But I somehow doubt he’d think Bingley, however sweet and gentlemanlike, was good enough for his sister. I certainly think that Miss Bingley was playing out of her league, despite her wealth and lady’s maid. Lady Catherine, who never met the Bingleys (also telling how he didn’t bring them to his company starved aunt) would have been even more mortified. The children of a man in TRADE! Unthinkable.
Yet, no one brings this up in the novel at all. Maybe she assumed her readers would understand – and also understand how his wealth and independence would help raise Bingley’s class in most ways, and that he could complete it by purchasing an estate of his own. Because while birth is everything, money can help a lot IF you are also well behaved. Maybe that’s the key. Lady Catherine and Mr. Darcy can behave poorly because of their aristocratic rank or connections, but the Bingleys and the Gardiners must behave perfectly to be accepted.