Class is attitude above all

Class remains by nature vague and ill-defined, one of society's necessary mythologies. Class is defined not by a lowly start, nor money nor region, but ultimately as attitude, confidence and absorbed rather than learned values.

Geoffrey Heptonstall
12 November 2013

Lorna Sage’s Bad Blood is an engaging memoir, a surprising but deserved success. Out of the academic confines the name of its author became widely known. Of course it was too late. Lorna Sage died far too soon. Her name, and her childhood especially, live on through her account of the shaping influences of family. There has been some misunderstanding of those influences because Sage’s childhood was not particularly comfortable. Her father struggled to make headway in business. It was a small business in that area of Britain where North and South meet, and London is far away. Provincial and relatively poor, Lorna Sage’s childhood easily may be misread by the uninformed. It is easy to glance at her situation and then draw the wrong conclusion. Bad Blood is not about the escape from working class deprivation through education, not when you consider the whole story. The facts are that her mother was an Anglican clergyman’s daughter, her father had been Sandhurst-trained. Seen in that light, it was the epitome of an English middle class upbringing.           

I include in that the lack of money, at least in the early days of the marriage. It is easy to forget that young children are not brought up by judges but by struggling young barristers who one day take silk and then rise to the bench when their children are no longer children. Eminent surgeons marry as housemen. Professors were once assistant lecturers. You get my point: unless you are born a Rockefeller those early years are likely to be in the rented cottage or the small flat. There’s a struggle to pay the bills. Somehow there’s never enough money, not to begin with, not for a long time. The class difference lies in the eventual rise to something better, in the knowledge that development is possible and likely.

The class difference is one of attitude. The educated have the resources to imagine how their careers and lives may be enriched by making the right choices. What is education but a broadening of perspective? Skills may play their part. Money will enter the equation somewhere. But the essential difference is in attitude. Confidence is the key. It is neither a commodity nor a genetic inheritance: it is a nurtured advantage.

Today we speak of gender and race. These are the signifiers of personal identity in the social world. Today they dominate the conversation, as if the question of class had been resolved, or at least as if it were subordinate to the more immediate markers of identity. The substructure is abandoned. We float freely among obvious, tangible things. All we need is a sense of togetherness to cohere our lives into an organic whole. Social history, the mechanism of a functioning society, is abandoned in favour of consumer choice. We are free. We are not shaped by anything beyond personal desire. It doesn’t matter where you begin.

Oh yes it does. An approach to life is primarily acquired by the osmotic absorption of family and community. There is a way of being that seems natural. It is assimilated rather than learned by rote. It is not taught by instruction but by example and influence. There are choices to be made in life. There are choices that money alone cannot make. There are tribal rites for deciding these matters.

Education can be expensive, but the middle classes are adept at finding ways to accommodate their needs. They choose either the best schooling in the state system, or they draw upon future inheritance. They seek out scholarships. They move closer to the chosen school. They divine ways that others cannot imagine. They do not accept disadvantage as their lot in life.

Something the middle classes understand is money, and how it may stretch and twist and turn. Money is not a morally neutral agreed means of exchange. It has a flexible character that may be harnessed to all manner of purposes. Money requires careful handling. It is not inanimate like the paper on which it is printed. In that promissory note lies a moral force that shapes destinies. The bourgeois habit is to invest in the future. They may lack ready cash. They do not lack access to prosperity. They have the privilege of knowing how these things work.

Privilege in modern society succeeds by stealth. It advances by not advertising itself. It is privilege with a demotic style. Much of the current debate about society really concerns style. The question is how existing structures are to be managed. There is scope for debate within those confines but not beyond them. Liberal democracy considers style rather than structure. The debate is about means rather than ends. The agreed end always is for change to be absorbed. The dynamic of liberal progress is based on an accommodation with unavoidable change. The core of values may remain in place, but there are differences of manner and accent, of race and culture.

The middle class is not static in its composition. It must accommodate social change for its survival. It can welcome such change because it is generous to those who can bring new vitality. A progressive liberality is requisite to a refuelling of the engine. That is how the future is secured.

We are in the realm of things understood. The ease of understanding is the denominator of class. It is almost impossible to learn the treacherous routes of navigation through the network of class. You are not taught these things. You know them. And you reject them at your peril because a liberal culture can tolerate anything except what it finds intolerable – that is, any questioning of its fundamental values. Saying aloud what is whispered is regarded as intolerable. The usual method of deflecting the challenge is through ridicule. The usage is insidious, the method implicitly violent. The laughter is not joyful. Behind the laughter is the fear of exposure, the fear of the fate of a privileged class when the climate of feeling in society is jolted from the complacent assumptions of precedence.

It is, to repeat, a question of attitude. It is in the nature of the attitude to deny the attitude. The privilege does not exist. People recount their early struggles, their hard work to seek advancement, and the struggle to meet all the continuing financial demands. They don’t feel privileged, and as individuals they may not be.

The point about class is that it is not a method for categorizing individuals: it is a means of describing movement in the broad sweep of social history. Who said that? Marx. He was right because there are so many anomalies in anyone’s personal history. Very few of us are unequivocally of one stratum on the ladder of ascendancy. Self-definition plays its part in identifying membership of a class. Within certain limits each of us has some leeway, perhaps more than we think, in determining our social position.  

Defining anyone’s exact position in class terms is always contentious because of variables in determining the parameters. A tendency to confuse region with class is a common error. Our relation to metropolitan culture is not the sole arbiter of our position in society. Possessing a local identity may be a matter of pride especially among the commercial or industrial middle classes.

Intuition plays its part in comprehending the experience of class. The point is that the experience resists delineation. If asked to say exactly what I mean by ‘middle class’, my response has to be that the term is intentionally vague, and that the class system works by its amorphous and ambiguous nature. It is not a caste system, nor a quantifiable structure of objectively determined positions. A class is a network of affinities.

Even apparently objective characteristics are subject to variable interpretations of circumstance. Think of a village postman, married to a library assistant, who sings in the church choir and reads a quality newspaper. The context is socially higher than for his counterpart, married to a supermarket shelf-stacker, in a depressed post-industrial wasteland. To understand these things we have to consider people’s lives in all their intricacies.

When Fielding spoke of the novel as ‘a public ordinary’ he surely had this in mind. It is in the web of social exchange, especially in metropolitan life, that personal experiences are communicated. Lives are not lived in isolation. The interdependency of lives creates society. A life described is a part of society examined not as an abstraction, but as a living organism.

To understand social experience there has to be a measure of living that experience. The great social novelists, like the great social observers, magisterially portray society through the characters they create or re-create. Understanding the nuances of social hierarchy is requisite. The typical social novel portrays a socially ambiguous person (Jane Eyre, David Copperfield) negotiating his/her progress in society mainly by native wit and charm of character. The fiction lies in the legerdemain in which social ambiguity is ironed out by luck and capability. The true fate of David Copperfield is to remain in the blacking factory. That would be wholly unacceptable to a readership seeking approval of its values. The genius of Dickens is to make the unlikely credible. The foundation of that genius is a keen observation of the truth, even a truth that cannot be told.

It was Shaw’s genius to recognize how superficial the demarcations of hierarchy are. Pygmalion is also masterpiece of legerdemain. The relationship of Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle is one of love and the mutual respect that transcends social boundaries. Eliza realizes her inherent potential self. But the process of her becoming is a fantasy. The problem is that the apparent superficialities of accent and manner are woven into a web that would easily catch an unwary flower girl. On the one hand it is a matter of pronunciation. On the other hand it is the myriad number of unteachable gestures and habits. Eliza’s initial ambition of speaking well enough to work in shop is the best that could be offered in the real world. Although she is indeed naturally polite and gracious, her transformation into a lady lies wholly in the art of Shaw the master dramatist.

It is in the realm of ambiguity that the creative imagination can work in its description of the social world. Partly it is a matter of reader identification. We can see ourselves reflected through the narrator who is in, but not entirely of, the milieu depicted. The middle class guest at the aristocratic soiree is accepted but is not entirely accepting. The ironic distance in his narrative acts as intermediary. We, the readers, find a way in. A door firmly closed opens for us. We look inside.

To some extent the middle class is defined by what it is not. It is not the elite of the rich and powerful, nor of those ‘born to rule’. There may be an element of the self-made about the middle class. This will be true especially of commercial and industrial experience. Joan Bakewell’s memoir The Centre of the Bed is especially useful in this regard, for both her father’s rise from apprentice to managing director and her own rise from the suburbs to the higher echelons of public life. Of course such ascendancy is gradual and, in part, happenstance. The failure of a fictive account like Room at the Top is in its crude, over-indicated descriptions of processes that in life are subtly nuanced.

The final line of the film of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, scripted by Alan Sillitoe himself, is indicative. ‘I won’t change,’ says the proletarian free spirit visiting a new housing development with his fiancée. Of course we know he must change. The pressure of social development demands it of him. Popular culture will enable him to articulate his new ‘classless’ life. He’s a hard worker, proud of the raw life from which he came. Part of him can never leave it. The rest is a matter of choice.

How the independence is retained, whether it is a creative advance or a negative refusal, is speculative. Society does not encourage independence. Society requires a degree of acquiescence in the myth it has of itself. In matters of class society relies on a self-image of classlessness, although the complete attainment of this ideal is perpetually deferred by a series of economic crises and continual maladministration. The best that can be hoped for is a sense of community. Anything more radically defined than a vague aspiration is too idealistic for a cynical age.


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