For this, and my next several posts, I will be focusing on an arc of subjects pertaining to an upcoming work. As we get into the posts, you’ll begin to get some glimpses of some of the main themes in that work, which will serve to give you some idea of how the story will shake out. It’s a two-book set, the first of which is tentatively scheduled for August, though it’s entirely possible (and at this point, perhaps probable) that the schedule will slip by a month. It is also something completely different and will take us to places I have never gone before.
Before I continue on in this post, however, I would be remiss if I did not give a shout out to J.W. Garrett, who not only proposed the idea and offered it to me, but also provided support in the way of encouragement and ideas as I was building the storyline. It’s sat a bit as I focused on other projects, but now, a year and a half after we began talking about it, the story is about to become a reality. Thank you very much for the idea and your support!
The subject for today’s post is the different ranks among the gentleman class, and, more particularly, how much they associated with those lower than them on the scale. As many of you already know, the class system was well entrenched at the time (and still is in many ways), and to a certain extent the upper classes were insular. Not that it was not impossible to move up if you possessed the means to do so—rather, those within a certain class were not eager to accept newcomers to their ranks. Within the gentry, which is our main focus, there were several ranks, which included the following:
Baronet—A baronet was a hereditary title bestowed by the king but was not considered nobility. The highest level of gentry, the baronet was not entitled to sit in the House of Lords.
Knight—Knights were lower than baronets and the title was not hereditary. There were various means by which one could have a knighthood bestowed on them, and among them service to the crown or an address to the king in thanks or praise. Thus, though his origins were decidedly common, Sir William Lucas was higher on the scale than Mr. Bennet due to his knighthood.
Squire—A squire was historically a precursor to one become a knight. In Regency times the squire was often the principal landowner in a neighborhood, and could hold certain offices, such as a magistrate. We’re never told Mr. Bennet’s exact status, but it’s possible he was a squire.
Gentleman—The rest of the gentry fell into this last category. In essence, the gentleman was a landowner, a man of good standing and a certain level of wealth. Perhaps most important, however, was that a gentleman did not work his own land—he leased parts of it out to tenants who farmed it in his stead.
The gentleman class as a whole was a small segment of the population, perhaps as much as 2% in total, and were what we would call the wealthy class—those higher than middle class, but not of the peerage. Their status was tied in large part to the ownership of land, which was essential to being a part of the class. In addition, gentlemen derived a certain status from their history—the length of time their ancestors had been gentlemen—their accumulated wealth, and those who they could claim as friends and, especially, family. This is why Mr. Darcy status was higher than the Bennets, for example. He was not only wealthy, but his mother had been the daughter of an earl, and, though we are not told, it is likely, given his wealth and estate, and the fact that his father, a gentleman, had married into a noble family, that he came from a long line of gentlemen.
As I said previously, movement between the classes was not unheard of, though it came with several conditions. As the scion of a wealthy man of business, Charles Bingley was tasked with raising the family’s fortunes and purchasing an estate. Bingley’s origins, however, meant that his acceptance would be reserved, at least at the beginning. In time—usually about five generations—his descendants would receive full acceptance. There were also instances of wealthy tradesmen’s daughters marrying impoverished gentry, or even nobility. While this elevated the woman to the gentry and helped her family gain a certain measure of acceptance, a woman was still looked down on, as she still “smelled of the shop,” as the saying went.
But what of the relations between the classes? There was, of course, a certain amount of contact between the classes, especially in the areas of business, banking, and so on. But socially, the upper classes did not hobnob with the lower. Darcy’s friendship with Bingley in Pride and Prejudice was not common, due to Bingley’s background, though there was a certain mitigating effect because of Bingley’s intention to purchase an estate. Still, Darcy’s friendship with him proves him to be a liberal man, despite what Elizabeth thinks of him. This friendship with Darcy provided a certain level of acceptance and respect for Bingley, though it was likely others looked on Darcy with a certain jaundiced eye—he might be considered eccentric to be associating with a man such as Bingley.
Friendships between those of the nobility and those of Bingley’s status were ever rarer. The nobility thought very well of themselves, indeed, and it did not matter if they were newly ennobled or came from a longstanding family of the nobility. Though society had begun to change, and within twenty years of Jane Austen’s time, voting rights would be granted to those who were not landowners, at this time, the rules were still pretty much established.
Thus, a group of friends from different backgrounds and social standings was nigh unheard of. Attitudes, however, began to change as the years passed, and soon the landed gentry and those higher began to understand that the wealth of the world, which had always been tied to land ownership, was moving into the creation and marketing of goods. Therefore, I believe it is not a stretch that certain enlightened and intelligent individuals might begin to come together in friendship and common interest.
That’s it for this month! Stay tuned for next month, as we’ll delve into a different subject.
P.S. I had a question about the second book in the Courage Always Rises trilogy. I’ve learned a valuable lesson from this experience: have the entire set mapped out before releasing the first book! The duology I referred to above is completely outlined and only needs to be written. I didn’t do that with CAR, and I’ve paid the price for it. To any who want to know what the status is, I can tell you I’m making slow progress on it, but there’s nothing imminent in the writing or release of the second volume. If I had to guess, I would say that I hope to release the second book next year, but I cannot state anything with any surety at the present. Stay tuned, for I will give progress updates as they happen!