“Knightley!” exclaims Mrs Elton in Emma, damning herself immediately. “Knightley himself! . . . [He] is quite the gentleman. I like him very much.” Emma, secure at the very top of her local social tree, goes ballistic: “Insufferable woman! . . . Worse than I had supposed! . . . Never seen him in her life before and called him Knightley! and discover that he is a gentleman! a little upstart, vulgar being, with her . . . airs of pert pretension and under-bred finery . . .”
Lawks, as someone in a Dickens novel might say. Calm down, dear. Mrs. Elton is indeed a pretentious idiot but is that really her worst crime? To twenty-first-century eyes, her greater sin is her reprehensible swanking about her brother-in-law’s establishment near Bristol, the laughably named Maple Grove—“My brother, Mr. Suckling’s seat.” Maple Grove is huge and new, with “extensive grounds” and “every luxury.” But Bristol, along with Liverpool, was one of the great slave trading and holding ports, indicating that Mr. Suckling’s wealth has ugly connotations. Which is exactly what Jane Austen intends to portray—a stupidly affected woman who hasn’t even the modicum of sense necessary to refrain from bragging about her sister’s expedient marriage to dirty money.
The Austens, unsurprisingly, were abolitionists. Jane Austen’s views of class, and its myriad divisions, were both of their time and timeless. Her mother was a Georgian and therefore robust in her views of, say, childrearing or domestic management. An expectation of cleverness and practicality would have reigned in the Austen household, and that practicality would have extended to a hearty contempt for those who didn’t have the wit to see that their lack of gifts, or charm, doomed them to a lifetime on whichever rung of the social ladder they had been born to.
Two centuries later, we feel similarly. We applaud those who work assiduously to take best (and most tasteful) advantage of their natural gifts and abhor those displays of crude inanity that seem to be the speciality of some modern celebrities. What would Austen have made of the Kardashians? We will never know.
Mrs. Elton may be the supreme example of aspirant wrong-headedness in Austen’s novels but even if she represents the acme of vulgar aspiration, there are many more characters to be skewered for their pretensions. Mr. Collins, in Pride and Prejudice, grovels before that obtuse old bully, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, merely because his living, as a priest, depends on her titled whim. Sir Walter Elliot, in Persuasion, imagines that his inherited baronetcy entitles him to universal and automatic deference and admiration.
In Mansfield Park, Mr. Rushworth sets about “improving” his grounds because it is the fashion and he has the money to do it. The Steele sisters, in Sense and Sensibility, stifle their antipathy to badly brought-up children in order to ingratiate themselves with a socially superior and affluent household. In each case, there is no excuse—even if there might be a reason, in those perilous economic times—for the social pretension displayed.
Pretension was then as it is now (and here we come to the timelessness) the great social crime. Its opposite virtue, always cherished, is authenticity. We love it that Steven Gerrard only wants to play football for, and live in, his local city, Liverpool, despite his extravagant earnings. Jane Austen champions Jane Fairfax’s stoicism in Emma, for accepting the prospective humiliations of being a governess—and one can imagine only too well how any friend of Mrs. Elton’s would have treated her, particularly as she is pretty and musically talented. Steven Gerrard has infinite money, Jane Fairfax has none, but neither wishes to become someone else because of their circumstances.
We think highly of them both. As we do of those who have the prudence and ability to rise unshowily up the social ranks. Mrs. Weston, in Emma, was our heroine’s beloved governess who married well—but not, unacceptably, too well—and became a model of “propriety, simplicity and elegance.” Staying with the comparison of modern footballers, the Beckhams have quietly put embarrassing wedding thrones and Wag-sized handbags behind them and are now models of good taste and good parenting, the tattoos under David’s impeccable suits only serving to add a little edge.
Mrs. Weston and the Beckhams have marked and learned. Not only is Mrs. Elton vulgar and brash in herself (think Tamara Ecclestone’s bathtub or Roman Abramovich’s yacht), but the money to which she is connected and of which she is so proud is unacceptably made and spent on show, not quality. Snobbery about bling is as alive and well as it ever was.
Here we come to the great interface between class and money. The blithe assumption that authenticity of class, wherever on the scale it was, automatically bred decency and compassion in behaviour was sarcastically challenged by the Roman poet Horace, for one. “O citizens, citizens,” he wrote furiously in his first epistle, “the first thing is to get money: virtue comes after riches.”
Money, in Jane Austen’s day, was largely derived from sugar, which in turn involved slavery. It built many of the lovely houses we admire now and doubtless accounted for Mr. Bingley’s restless and perpetual leisure. He may be awarded Jane Bennet but he is never granted Austen’s approval in the way she gives it to Mr. Knightley and his paternalistic use of his unquestionably old fortune at Donwell Abbey. (Pemberley, I suspect, was built from the profits of the Derbyshire coal mines—and what were the lives of eighteenth-century miners like?)
Sugar profits also produced, in an age of architectural elegance, jerrybuilding in all cities, as well as gems such as the Codrington Library at All Souls College, Oxford. And they produced people to match the jerrybuilding: pleasure-seeking, sensation-hungry, heedless exhibitionists such as Wickham in Pride and Prejudice or Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility. They, despite their fine manners and technical good breeding, are not a million miles away from modern celebrity, in their expectation that life owes them not just a good living but also an exemption from the rules that restrain the rest of us. Money and attention could turn a person’s head every bit as much 200 years ago as they can in 2013. And the general reaction is similar—a surface layer of pity for the foolishness over a solid foundation of sheer distaste.
We have different names for class now, but I’m sure that the underlying attitudes would be extremely familiar to the creator of Lizzie Bennet. When I was growing up, in the 1950s, inherited titles were much respected, even when there was no money attached to them. Now they are neither here nor there and even, sometimes, faintly ridiculous.
We like merit in this day and age. We like to see people having to earn our admiration, by stupendous talent (sportsmen and women such as Jessica Ennis or Chris Hoy), or mental brilliance (thinkers, however controversial, such as Sally Greenfield and Richard Dawkins), or sheer hard graft (all those indomitable entrepreneurs on Dragons’ Den), or by being essentially a more-than-acceptable and benevolent human being (thus far, the present Pope).
This requirement to see people earn their merit, rather than assume it by virtue of birth to wealth, is not very far from Austen’s world and perceptions, in essence: She has no trouble allowing her favoured Captain Wentworth, in Persuasion, his prize money from the capture of enemy ships; or Edward Ferrars, or Edmund Bertram, both Mr Nice Guys, their happy endings at the kind hands of others. She has no titled people in any of her novels who are the models of admirable conduct that her untitled ones could be. In fact, all her titled characters are pretty flawed, and often figures of fun.
Despite the passage of centuries, what she admired and applauded is extraordinarily close to what we admire and applaud today. Why else, after all, would we recogniseso immediatelythat Mrs Elton, in all her offensive glory, is what the present Prince of Wales would describe as that “ghastly woman”?