Welcome to my eleventh post on late Georgian/Regency England. If you haven't a clue what I'm talking about, please check out this post.
"In marrying your nephew, I should not consider myself as quitting that sphere. He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman's daughter; so far we are equal.''
"True. You are a gentleman's daughter. But who was your mother? Who are your uncles and aunts? Do not imagine me ignorant of their condition.''
Elizabeth Bennet and Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Pride and Prejudice
To many modern readers it might seem curious that Lady Catherine de Bourgh had such contempt of Lizzy's relations. One uncle, Mr. Gardiner, was a successful businessman. Her aunt, Mrs. Philips, had married an attorney. They weren't exactly working as scullery maids. Lizzy's own father's wealth was rather modest compared to Mr. Darcy or Mr. Bingley. If she could tolerate the idea of Lizzy's father, why the sneering condescension about the "condition" of her aunt and uncles? It was simple really, they had a rather unfortunate affliction: they weren't gentlemen or married to gentlemen.
Not gentlemen? Were they rude and coarse individuals lacking in any sort of manners or proprietary? There's no real indication of this. The issue is where they got their money. A proper gentleman owned land and made their income came from land-related rents. While having a higher income was valued, it wasn't the amount of money that was important here as much as the fact that the gentleman owned the land, and it was his primary (if not only) source of income.
To put this into stark relief, consider two cases:
A) Mr. Preston holds a very modest estate.
B) Mr. Wade is a businessman considerably more wealthy than Mr. Preston. He only recently came into his wealth as a result of clever and industrious business dealings, but he doesn't own an estate.
By Regency standards, Mr. Wade is Mr. Preston's social inferior. In fact, Mr. Wade, despite his wealth, would be denied the right to vote until legal reforms in 1832. Even those reforms still had some provisions for some mild amount of land ownership (though the amount was so trivial that any mans of means could easily acquire it). The members of Parliament would, for the most part, both be and be selected by landholding males.
As these men had a steady income from rents and were often not even all that involved in the low-level management of their lands, they had more time to attend to the complicated web of social engagements that could take up so much time. It also afforded them the time to partake in various idle forms of recreation if they so chose. Having to work for a living was a sign of inferiority. In fact, a man who owned land but personally farmed it would not being considered the same status of a man purely collecting rent even if the relative value of their lands were otherwise equal.
This isn't to say, though, that they were not involved in managing their land, though they typically had assistance. The relative level of industriousness varied among gentlemen just as did it among other classes; they just had the benefit of a relatively stable income course that allowed them, potentially, to not have to pay as much attention to how they got their money.
Note that being a gentleman was not the same thing as holding at title, which I will discuss in a future post. Although title holders, as a matter of course, typically held land as well, the term "gentleman" was associated with commoners until well-past the Regency.
This obsession with land was at the basis of primogeniture--an inheritance pattern where the eldest son inherited either entire estate or the vast majority of the state. This was primarily intended to prevent the division of property into smaller chunks and the possibility of these smaller portions being otherwise lost or sold. Younger brothers would be shunted off into a small number of various "respectable" professions such as the military or clergy. Despite Lady Catherine de Bourgh's implied disdain for Mrs. Philips, the law was potentially other area of respectability, but it varied by the location and relative rank (London judge vs. country lawyer). In general though, this meant that younger sons would never have the full prestige of their eldest brothers.
The explosion in wealth accompanying the Industrial Revolution threw a lot of these social relationships into disarray. Men gaining wealth from mere "trade" seeking respectability could try to somewhat cleanse the "taint" by buying an estate and settling down into the life of a true gentleman. Even if they couldn't manage it, their children or grandchildren likely would. Of course, the age of one's estates could always grant more prestige. Part of this, though, would be to remove themselves and their income from non-rent sources.
This mismatch between land and wealth also provided opportunities for daughters of wealthy tradesmen to gain social respectability by marrying into a landed family, particularly those with lower relative wealth. Sure, having land was, at a fundamental level, more important than having money, but having money and land was still the best combination.
While this is a Regency entry, I can't help but quote a similar sentiment from a much different setting:
"You ain't no kind of man if you ain't got land."
Delmar O'Donnell, O Brother, Where Art Thou?