The middle classes: etiquette and upward mobility

Professor Kathryn Hughes describes how the expansion of the middle classes in the 19th century led to a new emphasis on upward mobility, etiquette and conspicuous consumption.
For centuries the aristocracy had been the most powerful section of British society. But from the last quarter of the 18th century, the middle classes began to grow in power and confidence. Land was no longer the only source of wealth. Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, it was now possible to make a fortune from manufacturing and trading goods. There were all sorts of new professional, technical and clerical roles that required a high degree of education and training. The number of people who counted as middle class began to swell, and men became defined by their jobs rather than their family background. In 1840 the graphic artist George Cruikshank produced a caricature entitled ‘The British Beehive’ which showed English society divided up by class and occupation, with the royal family at the top of the hierarchy, a broad middle section including booksellers, mechanics, weavers, jewellers, glaziers, tea dealers and inventors; and at the bottom the cabmen, shoeblacks, coalheavers, sweeps and dustmen. By using the image of the Beehive, with its rigidly organized layers, Cruikshank was celebrating the class divisions at work in British society and also depicting them as natural and unchanging.

The British Bee Hive

George Cruikshank's British Bee Hive, sketched in 1840, depicts a range of Britain's professions within a strictly divided pyramid-based social hierarchy. In the 19th century the bee was a popular symbol of industry and co-operation.

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Copyright: © Trustees of the British Museum

Up and down the country middle-class men managed factories, traded stock, wrote in ledgers, oversaw building sites, and sparred in the law courts. They made their fortunes and tested their metal by competing with their colleagues. Even before Charles Darwin’s ideas about natural selection started to circulate in the 1860s, the middle classes understood that life was essentially one long competition.

Rising up the social ladder

In order to ensure that the aristocracy no longer had an unfair advantage, the middle classes campaigned energetically for electoral reform and free trade. By creating the conditions for healthy competition, the Victorians believed it should be possible, in theory, for any man to succeed in the world through his own efforts no matter how humble his origins. Author Samuel Smiles coined the term ‘self-help’ which he used as the title for his best-selling book. Self-Help (1859) had chapters such as ‘Application and Perseverance’ and contained scores of inspirational case histories about men who had risen from humble beginnings to become captains of industry. In Great Expectations, Charles Dickens tells the story of Philip Pirrip (Pip) who is transformed from blacksmith’s apprentice to Gentleman. However, since Pip hasn’t worked for his wealth, he finds his new position unsatisfying and his sense of guilt is woven into the plot. Even a radical Victorian like Dickens believed that self-help and hard work were essential to a person’s emotional well-being.

Self-Help by Samuel Smiles

Self-Help by Samuel Smiles [page: [xii-1]]

Published in 1859, a year before Great Expectations, Samuel Smiles’s best-seller conduct book Self-Help (1859) promoted self-education and perseverance as the route to social mobility.

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This sounds exhilarating, but the price of failure was very high. People who didn’t rise in the world were assumed to be at fault. They were seen to be lazy, extravagant or proud and therefore responsible for their own poverty. Only those who were too old to work or held back by disability deserved help; for everyone else there was the dreaded workhouse, which was created by the New Poor Law of 1834. Conditions inside the workhouse were deliberately harsh in order to deter any but the most desperate. Families were split up, the food was meagre and the inmates were expected to work several hours a day breaking stones and unpicking old rope. In 1838 Charles Dickens published Oliver Twist partly to publicise the desolation of the workhouse, especially for unfortunate pauper children.

Chart listing workhouse tasks in 1852

Chart listing workhouse tasks in 1852 [page: 309]

Table showing the kinds of employment performed by workhouse inmates, including breaking stones, grinding barley and cutting wood. 1852.

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‘How to Behave’

Even if a middle-class man did achieve worldly success, it did not necessarily mean that he was socially secure. Indeed rapid upward mobility could cause all kinds of anxieties. Class distinctions actually became more important now, as a way of distinguishing the ‘old’ middle-class of professional men such as lawyers and doctors from the ‘new’ businessmen and technocrats. With so many more people living in the cities, it became important to position people according to their exact place in the social hierarchy. Men who had risen from humble beginnings worried about fitting in. To help negotiate their new lifestyle they could chose from scores of manuals with titles like How to Behave and Hints from a Gentleman. Here you would find everything you needed to know: when to shake hands; how to bring a conversation politely to an end; how to sit and stand gracefully; what was meant by ‘RSVP’; how to deal with dirty nails or bad breath; how to style your beard; or how to conduct yourself at a dinner party, a picture gallery or church. Armed with one of these books, the newly-hatched middle-class gentleman could avoid making any social gaffes in polite society.

Suburbs and servants

Following social rules was even more important for middle-class women. Unlike men, they couldn’t draw status from their jobs. While husbands commuted to work every day, wives were left at home, often in one of the newly-built suburbs that were beginning to fringe the major cities. Semi-detached houses had names such as ‘Blenheim’ or ‘Windsor’ and were designed to ape the stately homes of the aristocracy. Not only was paid work for the middle-class woman frowned upon, she was also discouraged from doing housework, which was left to a growing army of specialised servants including housemaids, nursemaids, cooks and footmen. Even women at the bottom of the middle class, the wives of clerks and schoolteachers, expected to have a maid-of-all-work to do the dirtiest tasks like scrubbing the steps and peeling the potatoes.

Conspicuous consumption

The real function of a middle-class wife was to display her husband’s financial success by stocking her home with material possessions – what’s been called the ‘paraphernalia of gentility’. Carpets, pianos and paintings, the fancier the better, were all advertised in the new women’s magazines such as Sam Beeton’s Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine and sent a message not only about their owners’ wealth but also their patriotism. Buying luxury goods boosted domestic trade and bound the growing British Empire together through the importation of precious materials and expensive fabrics from the other side of the world. Being a consumer had become a civic duty.

The lady of the house herself became a walking billboard for her husband’s material success. She might change her clothes several times a day, wearing different outfits for breakfast, making calls and dinner. Her body, too, conveyed an important message about her social class. Her smooth white hands and cumbersome crinoline skirt hinted that she had not been busy with housework.

At first glance this kind of conspicuous consumption ran contrary to Victorian values such as humility and thrift. However, the lady of the house played an important part in resolving these tensions. According to Sarah Stickney Ellis, author of the very popular The Women of England, Their Social Duties, and Domestic Habits (1839), women were morally superior to men. It was their job to create an oasis of calm and quiet virtue to which their husbands could return at the end of the day. In the process men would be washed clean of the immoral taint of the market place, absolved from the sins of greed, envy and even lust that they had displayed in their struggle to get on in the world. If they were rich enough, they might also salve their conscience by investing some of their fortune in philanthropy, building houses for the working classes so that they too might experience the benefits of a happy home life.

The Women of England

The Women of England  [page: 52-53]

In The Women of England, Their Social Duties, and Domestic Habits (1839), Sarah Stickney Ellis suggests that women are responsible for the moral welfare of the nation.

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Other female advice writers accepted that women were obliged to inhabit a ‘separate sphere’ from their husbands, fathers and brothers, but still found ways of empowering women. In her famous Book of Household Management 1861, Mrs Beeton opens with the famous statement that the mistress of the house should consider herself as ‘the commander of an army’, the Victorian equivalent of a C.E.O. (ch. 1). Mrs Beeton’s intention was to make middle-class women feel that the domestic sphere was just as important as the public world to which their husbands returned each morning after breakfast. Women may have been different from men, said Mrs Beeton, but they were definitely equal.

Beeton's Book of Household Management

Beeton's Book of Household Management [page: facing p. 141]

Illustration from Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861).

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  • Kathryn Hughes
  • Kathryn Hughes is Professor of Lifewriting and Convenor of the MA in Lifewriting at the University of East Anglia. Her first book The Victorian Governess was based on her PhD in Victorian History. Kathryn is also editor of George Eliot: A Family History and has won many national prizes for her journalism and historical writing. She is a contributing editor to Prospect magazine as well as a book reviewer and commentator for the Guardian and BBC Radio.

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