The middle classes

Kathryn Hughes explores the role of the middle class in Victorian society. From economics and social structures to Christian values and life in the home, discover how the Victorian class system operated and what was expected from each level of the hierarchy.

Some rights reserved.  ©  British Library Board / British Library

The Beehive is extraordinary illustration, produced by the graphic artist George Cruikshank in 1840. And it’s this extraordinary kind of cross-section of all the different kinds of people that go to make up British society, from the Queen at the top, who is, Cruikshank says, ‘Queen by lineal descent,’ it’s her absolute right to be there. Then on the next tier you have the Lords and the Commons. And then we go down to other important institutions, like trial by jury, freedom of all religious denominations, these things that make Britain great, Cruikshank seems to be saying.

And then you go further and further down and each strata has a different set of people, all arranged by occupation. So we have medical science, we have lawyers, and further down we have grocers and cheesemongers. Until you get right to the bottom, where we have chimney sweeps, costermongers, people who are literally the lowest of the low.

Now while Cruikshank was in a sense, you know, a radical commentator, he’s also deeply conservative with a small c. He has a sense in which these roles that everybody’s inhabiting, tea dealers, cheesemongers, drapers, are going to be like that forever. There’s no sense in which how you could get from being a sweep at the bottom of the pile, right up to the top. It’s fixed and it’s permanent.

It’s a cliché but I think it’s an absolutely true one, that the Victorians were obsessed with class. They were obsessed with placing people in particular social categories. Now the reason for this was that their world was changing in absolutely extraordinary ways.

There were new kinds of wealth. The rising middle class, which we hear about so much, is something that’s quite different because for the first time people are getting rich in new ways.

They’re getting rich through production, through manufacture, through trading money, through trading articles, through building things, by becoming an engineer, a stockbroker. These are kind of new kinds of jobs, so there’s a worry about where do these people fit? What you get from the beginning of 19th century is this kind of huge movement of population. People are pouring into the newly important cities, especially into London. And suddenly, everybody’s a stranger. And of course you needed some way of placing people, of organising your world, of knowing who you were going to be friends with, who you were going to feel superior to, and who were going to feel in awe of. I think that’s where the obsession with class comes from. This sense of trying to work who are these people, where do they belong, how should I behave towards them, what’s my relationship towards them?

What it meant to be middle class was to hold a whole basket of values. One was a belief in the absolute power of the individual to make their way in the world.  That sense in which, if you work hard enough, if you work harder than the next man, and it would be the next man, not the next woman, you will make it in the world. You can overcome any number of obstacles and make yourself who you want to be. Now of course along with that goes a very particular way of understanding the economy. A belief in free trade, the free movement of goods and services, and actually people as well, was fundamental to the idea of this new middle class.  There were going to be no old-fashioned monopolies. Men and goods and prices and corn and everybody, will find their proper level if only we have free trade.

But of course it sounds wonderful, this idea that you can make yourself into anything you want to be, but along with that comes this slightly judgemental sense, that if you haven’t ‘made it’, there’s something wrong with you. That you don’t really deserve any kind of respect. And we see the middle class imposing that value system on the working classes in a series of legislation in the 1830s, in particular the new Poor Law, which introduced the idea that there were deserving poor and undeserving poor. Now the deserving poor are the very elderly, the handicapped, people who really can’t be expected to help themselves. They are worthy of charity and pity and Christian kindness. But the greatest part of the poor were undeserving people. These are people who are lazy, stupid, just aren’t trying hard enough, and for them there’s to be no compassion at all. They are going to be spirited in to the much hated institution of the Workhouse.

It could feel like an extraordinary burden, this feeling that you had to deserve your good fortune, and it’s something Dickens satirises so well in Great Expectations.  Because if you remember, Pip, who is a young working class boy, finds himself turned into a gentleman by a mysterious benefactor. Somebody is funding his rise through society. He doesn’t know who. In fact, it turns out to be Magwitch, he’s a criminal. But he doesn’t know that. And he starts to feel incredibly guilty because he hasn’t actually laboured for all the wonderful things he has, for the clothes he has, the food he eats, his toff-like ways. He hasn’t really deserved them. And in fact, that’s his undoing in the end. And Dickens was, you know, very, very critical of that idea, that there was something intrinsically wonderful about working for your place in the world.

There is of course another downside to this ideology of making your way in the world. I mean men are supposed to be out there fighting dragons in the sense of getting on in the free market economy, beating the next man, undercutting him, getting a bigger fortune. That’s all good middle class stuff but it doesn’t sit very well with the sort of Christian belief in the sense of brotherhood of man and not damaging anybody else by your actions. And one of the solutions that the middle class developed was by as it were keeping the man out in the world, in the world of free exchange of kind of intense commercial opportunism and competition, but by isolating his wife and his daughters in the middle class home.

Now in the middle class home all is sweetness and light and gentility. There is no competitiveness. I mean inevitably there’s a sort of hypocrisy involved in kind of being immensely competitive in the outside world and coming home and as it were becoming somebody who is, you know, a good Christian, gentle, meek and mild. But perhaps more important than hypocrisy, it must have been a terribly difficult tension to live out in yourself.

Explore further

Related videos

The Governess

The Governess

Kathryn Hughes explains the role of the governess in 19th-century society and literature. - video

Gender in the 19th century

Gender in 19th-century Britain

Kathryn Hughes explores the role of women in middle class Victorian society. - video

Great Expectations and class

Class mobility in Great Expectations

Professor John Bowen discusses class and social mobility in Charles Dickens’s novel, Great Expectations. Filmed at the Charles Dickens Museum, London. - video

Jane Austen - class and marriage

Jane Austen: Class and marriage

Professor Kathryn Sutherland discusses the importance of marriage and its relationship to financial security and social status for women in Jane Austen’s novels. Filmed at Jane Austen’s House Museum, Chawton. - video

Related articles

The middle classes: etiquette and upward mobility

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.

Great Expectations and class

Great Expectations and class

The world of Great Expectations is one in which fortunes can be suddenly made and just as suddenly lost. Professor John Bowen explores how the novel’s characters negotiate and perform class in this atmosphere of social and financial instability.

Costumes of the Navy, Army and other occupations

Status, rank and class in Jane Austen's novels

Questions of status and class are a major preoccupation of Jane Austen’s characters, and of the novels themselves. Professor John Mullan considers both the importance of social status and its satirical potential.

Class in The Time Machine

Class in The Time Machine

Dr Matthew Taunton reveals how The Time Machine reflects H G Wells’s fascination with class division, the effects of capitalism and the evolution of the human race.

Related themes

The middle classes

The middle classes

How were the tensions surrounding social mobility explored in the literature of the period?