By Francis H Powell —
In Britain and many other countries there is this crazy obsession with the class system. When I say crazy I mean it is nonsensical…why is it that people need to judge and class others? However, the subject presents rich pickings for authors.
The class system is something that fascinates me and certainly plays a part in my stories. Foreigners are confused and intrigued by the British class system. A TV series like Downton Abbey, which feeds off the social divide of the masters upstairs and the servants below, has an unprecedented worldwide appeal. The show is perhaps nostalgic rather than objective.
The class system has been embedded in British history, and became even more pronounced after the Industrial Revolution which meant a new bourgeois emerged and the power of the old aristocracy shifted. The Middle classes grew and became more numerous and influential. Writers have fed off the theme of the class system. I remember at school (one of the positives that came out of my education) I was introduced to William Makepeace Thackeray and an archetypal social climber called Becky Sharpe, who in some ways is a very modern type of woman. She knows how to play the system to get to where she wants, this includes manipulating not so sharp men, who fall under her spell.
Stories by Charles Dickens were also a great social commentator and significantly shed light on the plight of the working classes and poor and how education and social class effected people.
Oscar Wilde also used the theme of social class, for example in his satirical play “The Importance of being Earnest” he characterized the superficiality of the higher classes. He also portrayed characters from the distinctive different social strata. Oscar Wilde succeeded in giving his character’s incredibly witty lines; parody and humor are such powerful weapons.
In my book of short stories, the class system also pokes its head. One of my short stories is simply named “Duke.” It is a story about someone who conceivably might not even be a real Duke, but a man who has all the airs and graces of a Duke…unfortunately for him he is in prison, and worst still for some unspecified crime he has been sentenced to death. A big inspiration for me is a film that is one of my all-time favorites…it is a film that dates back to 1949 called “Kind Hearts and Coronets.” It is a story about a man who ends up in prison having systematically killed off all the relations who stand in his way of claiming the Dukedom.
In my story the Duke is totally unconcerned by the hangman’s rope and is full of arrogance and frivolity, as he gets all the prison warders to service his needs, his lifestyle in prison mirroring his previous life. It comes to light that he is a fraud, just using the title…public opinion turns against him.
With my story “Little Mite” I chose to set the story in America…I am not sure why… The story begins with two families being united by marriage…
The Dashvilles, an established family from the upper echelons of high society, trace their roots back countless generations. The Johnstons, lacking the Dashville’s credentials, were considered nouveau riche. They lacked the Dashvilles’ credentials, but welcomed their fraternity. The Johnsons were rolling in money, while the Dashville fortune was decidedly on the wane, due mainly to Mr. Dashville’s lack of business acumen and a streak of ill-advised business ventures. Dwindling old money met new, and in the process, Little Mite’s older sister, Hannah Dashville, became engaged to Jed’s older brother… Unfortunately the proposed marriage goes horribly wrong, after an intervention by the future bride’s younger sister, “Little Mite” who succeeds in gluing the future groom’s young brother to a coffee table.
The class system does not lay stagnant, it shifts and throws up new terminology…for example “Chav” which can be defined as usually a young person, whose way of dressing, speaking, and behaving is thought to show their lack of education and low social class.
Would Thackeray or Oscar Wilde have written about “Chavs” if they were writers reincarnated in the modern era… we will never know. Apparently the American equivalent of Chavs is a cross between gangbangers, trailer trash and hicks.
We can’t talk about three social classes (working class, middle class and upper class in Britain these days), we need to talk about seven, including “elite,” “new affluent workers,” the poorest of the poor being classes such as “Precariat, or precarious proletariat.” Things are getting more and more complicated.
I suppose writers often vent their dislikes for certain classes, maybe they have had bad experiences with certain types or simply have a natural hostility for a certain class of person. Don’t invite me to a dinner party full of hunting, shooting, and fishing types.
When we all shuffle off this mortal coil, we are all the same, the class system nothing more than a ridiculous charade.
This article is written by Francis H Powell. With a degree in painting and an MA in printmaking, he is an artist, musician, writer, and video maker. He currently lives in France. Find Francis on his blog or on Twitter.