Friday, December 9, 2011

Mr. Beard's Regency Tour Day 11: Not Getting Your Hands Dirty, A Proper Gentleman

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?


mooderino said...

very interesting. is the modern eqiuvalent of this the owning of an iPad2?


J.A. Beard said...

Well, they both definitely are potential signaling mechanisms. :)

Sophia Rose said...

Thank you for the informative post.

The class system is really harsh toward new money even when that new money industrialists/city business owning group are the ones keeping everyone afloat.

linda collison said...

Very good post, sir. The word gentleman has evolved to mean a polite fellow of any means (or no means) who opens the door for his date! (I fear the commoners and middlin' sort have seized the very word and made it their own.)

Debra Brown said...

A great post, JA, I am really enjoying your series.

J.A. Beard said...

Thank you all for stopping by and leaving a comment.

Class distinctions are always so fascinating to me. It's so interesting to see how people decide they are better than each other.

Anomander said...

Thank god for the Industrial Revolution!

Lauren Gilbert said...

Excellent article!

J.A. Beard said...

Thank you.

M.M. Bennetts said...

It's a curious thing--but I should not rely on Miss Austen exclusively for the definition of a gentleman. I realise to say so is heresy, but an examination of the personages of the period reveals a degree of social climbing (and falling) which is undeniable. The pinnacle of Society and of that which was deemed gentlemanly or not, was Mr. George Brummell, himself the arriviste son of a self-made man--his father had been factotum to Lord North, the Prime Minister, and had made his fortune, basically, taking political bribes and backhanders. No one considered him a gentleman. Yet of course, it was Brummell who was the greatest snob in the land toward the world of business.

Lady Jersey--the uber-snob Patroness of Almack's--was the daughter of a banker, who had eloped to Gretna Green, with Lord Jersey...Sir Spencer Perceval, the Prime Minister assassinated in 1812, was a lawyer by training--and although he has fallen from sight, he was (Byron's snarky comments notwithstanding) well-respected and well-liked at the time, and his wife was titled.

J.A. Beard said...

While I often quote Austen in these entries, that should not be construed as me only relying on Austen. I only quoted Austen because its the Georgian depiction that most people, on both sides of the pond, are most likely to be familiar with. :)

A wide variety of things from people's interest in things like Burke's Landed Gentry (an entirely separate project from his peerage work), the law, and other non-Austen primary and secondary sources of the period are strongly indicative of what I've discussed here.

Yes, the Georgian era wasn't a inescapable caste system, so there was some flexibility, but that was the exception (and there are always exceptions in any social hierarchy), not the rule, and as I noted it was a time of transition in the Regency because of the rise of the industrial revolution. Plus things like marrying well, et cetera, are great ways to begin to earn some respectability.

Obviously, the word and the accompanying status ends up changing because by even the end of the Victorian age, it had become more a statement of generalized class (which it had originally been in the pre-Georgian era) rather than specific land ownership and accompanying status.

The people you cite, particularly Mr. Brummel who was unusual and fascinating in many ways (which is why he's remembered so well and I'll be speaking about eventually, as I briefly mentioned him during my Byron entries), and I'd suggest are more indicative of the transition we begin to see during the Regency rather than some fundamental invalidation of a primarily land- and titled-based social hierarchy.

One of the reasons I find the Regency/Late Georgian period so interesting is because it was a time of transition where, in many ways, the old order was starting to break down.

J.A. Beard said...

Your comments, though, make me think I should discuss Mr. Brummel sooner than later. He's such a fascinating person. I'll have to think about that.

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