One of the funniest scenes in the whole of early Victorian literature comes at the moment in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford (1853) when Miss Betty Barker sits down to arrange a tea party for half a dozen of her female friends. Almost immediately it becomes clear that the selection criteria are horribly skewed, and that the proud hostess is driven not by her personal liking for the genteel middle-class ladies who stray beneath her gaze but by the question of their social origins.
As a former lady’s maid turned high-class milliner (in which situation she bans farmers’ wives from the shop and confines her attentions to condescending gentlefolk), Miss Barker has a hawk’s eye for social distinctions. It turns out that the tea party is to be patronised by a local potentate named the Honourable Mrs Jamieson, which instantly raises her into a seventh heaven of snobbery. Miss Jenkyns, as a clergyman’s daughter, is a sine qua non. A certain Miss Pole, too, makes the cut, although precedence ordains that Miss Jenkyns (“the rector’s daughter, Madam”) shall be asked ahead of her.
And so Miss Barker winnows on, effortlessly separating patrician corn from arriviste chaff. There is space for the widowed Mrs Forrester, on the grounds that “Although her circumstances are changed, Madam, she was born a Tyrrell, and we can never forget her alliance to the Bigges, of Bigelow Hall.” Inevitably a line has to be drawn somewhere, and it is finally scratched in the sand before the ambiguous figure of Mrs Fitz-Adam – a woman for whom Miss Barker has the greatest respect, she explains, before pronouncing sentence: “I cannot think her fit society for such ladies as Mrs Jamieson and Miss Matilda Jenkyns.” Mrs Fitz-Adam’s crime is to be the daughter of a farmer named Hoggins.
The distinguishing mark of Miss Barker’s effort at party planning is how often something very like it recurs in the novels and short fiction of the 1840s and 1850s, whose drawing rooms positively throb to the sound of people calculating, in desperate earnest, whom they will and won’t sit down to supper with. Sometimes the situation is presented in reverse – seen, that is, from the perspective of those keen to decline the entertainment to which they are so cordially bidden. There is an equally terrific moment, for example, in Thackeray’s extended short story “A Little Dinner at Timmins’s” (1848), a deathless exposé of middle-class social pretensions which owes more than a little to the world of Vanity Fair.
Here the rising young barrister Fitzroy Timmins, buoyed by an unexpected windfall and urged on by his ambitious wife, decides to give an evening party in their modest London drawing room with the aim not of giving pleasure to their friends but enhancing their social status. An invitation is sent to the local MP, Mr Topham Sawyer, at which an outraged Mrs Sawyer informs her husband over the breakfast table that she “doesn’t know where things will end” and that “the most dangerous and insolent revolutionary principles are abroad”. Mr Sawyer concedes that the invitation is “damned impudence” but counsels acceptance on the grounds that “they are my constituents and we must go”.
The significance of Thackeray’s and Gaskell’s – and to a certain extent Dickens’s – dispatches from the front line of middle-class mores lies in how deviously they tamper with the standard notion of snobbery, traditionally conceived as top-down but in their hands much more bottom-up. Early Victorian fiction boasts a fine old cargo of upper-class snobs and status-mongers whose outlook on life largely consists of despising those people beneath them in the pecking order – think of Dickens’s the Honourable Mrs Skewton, the grand aristocratic dragon of Dombey and Son (1846), or Thackeray’s Major Pendennis dancing delighted attendance on the Duke of Wellington in the course of his morning stroll.
Quite as abundant, though, are the legions of middle-class characters anxious to carve out space for themselves in the worlds through which they move by exaggerating their very slight superiority to the people with whom chance or professional circumstance forces them to associate. Tuft-hunting Mrs Timmins, who christens her son Bungay de Bracy Gashleigh and would prefer it if his name could be spelt “Tymmyns”, may never be able to persuade a duchess to set foot in her house, but the knowledge is not enough to prevent her from trying to impress the other barristers’ wives.
In focusing their attention onmiddle-class drawing rooms, social aspiration and upward mobility, pasteboard invitation cards and hired butlers, the novelists of the early Victorian period were making an important point about some of the demographic realities of their era. For this, as social historians remind us, was a middle-class age, in which political power had begun its slow migration from the land. The future lay in an emerging bourgeoisie tethered to such up-and-coming professions as law, journalism and the City, and symbols of this transformation could be found in milieux as distinct from each other as Buckingham Palace and Fleet Street.
In Queen Victoria, who disapproved of aristocratic excess and could be seen in both her habits and family life to exemplify the advantages of meek domesticity, this new social grouping had a moral symbol, and in the weekly magazine Punch, founded in 1841 and a huge hit with its middle-class readership, they had what amounted to a house journal. Punch might mock middle-class pretensions – one of its early hits was the novelist Albert Smith’s account of the deeply pretentious Spangle-Lacquer family – but equally none of its readers would have been in any doubt that the old social order was changing, and that they themselves were a part of the newer and more meritocratic tide that was sweeping it aside.
The tradition of minutely particularised middle-class interiors dominated British literature for nearly a century and a half, and can still be seen at work today. One of its abiding characteristics was an ability to colonise entire social landscapes that had previously existed some way beneath its original focus. Most of HG Wells’s early social-realist fiction can be seen as studies in what might be called the search for lower-middle-class identity. They are full of humble characters striving desperately to maintain their social positions and convince themselves of their ascendancy over the people around them – a struggle that nearly always involves them in a complicated balancing act of disdaining those on the upper rungs of the social ladder while aiming endless volleys of mockery at those who might be supposed to occupy the echelons below.
Kipps (1905), the story of Art Kipps, a draper’s apprentice who inherits a fortune and tries to ascend into a new social world, spends countless paragraphs outlining some of the practical consequences of this outlook on life for the lower-middle-class people actually living it. The orphaned hero’s aunt and uncle, in whose care he originally resides, are retired shopkeepers, of whom Wells pointedly remarks that “they were always very suspicious about their neighbours … they feared the ‘low’ and they hated and despised the ‘stuck up’ and so they ‘kept themselves to themselves’, according to the English ideal.”
The senior Kippses lives are consequently founded on a series of fine social distinctions, so fine that you sometimes feel that it would take an anthropologist to tease out the full extent of their implications. Thus, when their nephew returns from the bitter thraldom of the draper’s shop for his first holiday and enquires about the fate of the Pornick family, whose daughter Ann he secretly loves, it is to be told that “She’s gone as help to Ashford.” But even the departure of a neighbour’s daughter to domestic service can’t go ungarnished or fail to be pressed into service as a stick to beat what is seen as social pretension. “Help!” the elder Kipps disparagingly glosses. “Slavey is what we used to call ’em, but times are changed. Wonder they didn’t say lady-’elp while they was about it. It’ud be like ’em.”
And so, taking its cue from these barbed intimations of social outrage, the Thackeray-derived snob novel – mostly comic, at other times descending into outright tragedy – ploughs on, through Orwell (whose ear for social placement is as keen as you would expect from a man who considered himself to be born into “the lower-upper-middle class”), Somerset Maugham, JB Priestley and Angela Thirkell to Kingsley Amis, Simon Raven and such unlikely modern heirs as Margaret Drabble, whose early work nearly always features well-educated and liberal-minded young women who spend their time bewailing the advantages bestowed on them by their superior upbringings while filing patronising remarks about the people they have the misfortune to sit next to in hospital waiting rooms.
Naturally enough, this particular branch of the domestic novel has never lacked critics. Walter Bagehot once complained that Thackeray spent far too much of his time in a quest to demonstrate, as he put it, “that ninth-rate people were 10th-rate”, just as, nearly a century later, John Updike criticised Kingsley Amis’s novels for their “fussy social judgments”. To which one might reply that the greater part of life consists of social judgments, that everyone is, to a greater or lesser degree, a snob, and that what we believe about our position in the world is an essential part of our search for an identity. Mr and Mrs Timmins, Miss Betty Barker and the senior Kippses are all busily burnishing and refining that most vital of existential accessories: the personal myth.
If rather fewer class comedies get written in the early 21st century, the explanation can be put down to fracturing demographics. A social scientist recently calculated that, strictly speaking, there is no such thing as “the middle classes”, merely a dozen or so socio-economic categories with some kind of affinity to what used to be thought of as the essential tenets of bourgeois life. All this sets those novelists bent on writing amusingly about class the almost insuperable difficulty of establishing their terms, and – even more problematic, perhaps – convincing readers of the accuracy of their judgments. The defining mark of the Grossmith brothers’ Mr Pooter in The Diary of a Nobody (1892), after all, is that he is “middle class” at a time when to be middle class meant something. He is as convinced of the sanctity of his clerical job and his rented house in Holloway as he is of the Earth’s periodic transit around the sun.
No modern fictional character could have Mr Pooter’s certainty, his amour propre, or, it might be argued, his particular brand of comic potential. Life is too complex for that, too multi-layered – and even Mr Pooter, come the Diary’s final stretch, is lamenting the arrival of “new people” in society who can’t properly be placed or accounted for according to the old yardsticks.
But domestic fiction lost something when old-style bourgeois life became too complicated to examine in the round, and the critics (and the readers) who sometimes protest that the trouble with contemporary novels is that they aren’t actually about anything are really only noting the fact that when it bade farewell to fussy social distinctions, the English novel also said goodbye to one of its principal subjects.
• DJ Taylor’s The New Book of Snobs is published by Constable.