It’s generally accepted that the English are obsessed with social class. How people relate to people of a different social class, how people carry their origins from birth and from generations back – these are subjects that have consistently interested English novelists.
Mrs Elton, in Jane Austen’s Emma, is condemned as vulgar for calling her husband “Mr E” and Mr Knightley “Knightley”. In Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, the nouveau riche Rex Mottram reveals his social class and is roundly condemned for drinking brandy out of too large a glass.
Anthony Trollope’s Doctor Thorne, the third of his Barsetshire Chronicles, is one of his most penetrating and disillusioned investigations into social position.
Now Doctor Thorne has been dramatised by Julian Fellowes for ITV. Fellowes’s previous dissection of the English class system in the incredibly popular Downton Abbey was backwards-looking and imagined, erroneously, a harmonious patriarchy where servant obeyed master with unwavering devotion. His adaptation of Doctor Thorne doesn’t contain the same rose-tinted view but suggests that our understanding of social class and Trollope’s are startlingly different.
In the novel, the heroine, Mary Thorne, is the illegitimate daughter of a dissolute gentleman and a working-class woman. Before her birth, the brother of the woman murdered the father. The woman abandoned the child to be brought up by her lover’s brother, Dr Thorne. She is raised as a lady, and is accepted for most purposes by the nearest family of gentry, the impoverished Greshams. The Gresham heir, Frank, needs to marry in accordance with his position; he also needs to marry money. Is Mary good enough?
She will always be illegitimate, but what nobody but Dr Thorne knows is that she may be the heir of the man who murdered her father; in the past 20 years he has made an immense fortune through building railways and even, it is intimated, a proposal for a canal through Panama. How do conventional notions of social class address this intricate puzzle?
One of the striking things about class as the 18th and 19th century conceived of it was that it was determined very largely, and often permanently, by ancestry and position of birth. People could raise their social position, but it was a momentous thing, not easily accepted as proper.
Trollope, like most mid-Victorians, was acutely aware of the increase in social mobility that industrial growth and innovation was bringing, but his world view was largely based on the sense that position was a thing determined at birth – some of his novels definitely regret the possibility of the nouveau riche. But in the years to come, social class would increasingly be seen as revealed not by the facts of birth and parentage, but by intricately observed behaviour. Although the Victorians were obsessed with behaviour and manuals of etiquette, it would be left for the 20th century to use observed behaviour and speech as clues to an individual’s status.
This obsession seems to reach a high point when social mobility is at its most energetic – the late Forties and Fifties produced Waugh’s baroque studies of aristocratic behaviour, as well as Nancy Mitford’s U and Non-U, which taught a generation not to say “pardon” or “settee”. It’s the conviction that external behaviour marks social class that distinguishes Trollope’s Doctor Thorne from Fellowes’s.
There’s no suggestion in the novel that Lady Augusta Gresham’s suitor, Moffat, is vulgar, though he is the son of a rich tailor – the suggestion is that he is effeminate and not drawn to women. Miss Dunstable, the immensely rich and amusing heiress to an ointment fortune, one of Trollope’s most likeable inventions, is mysteriously turned into an American, as if the newly moneyed could be only appealing if they come from right outside the social structure. Sir Roger Scatcherd is certainly vulgar in the book, but Trollope pays a good deal of respect to the manner in which he makes his fortune: you would have to be very alert to Fellowes’s adaptation to hear a reference to the railways, and he extends his prison sentence from six months to 10 years, barely allowing the plutocrat any time to make his money. It is as if a man of working-class origin could become rich only by a stroke of luck, and not by the repulsive but compelling genius that Trollope is fascinated by.
In many ways, social mobility has become easier. But Fellowes’s adaptation shows it has become more intricate for anyone wanting to rise in society. Trollope is clear that once you’ve made your fortune, your behaviour, or your children’s behaviour, is going to be the same as any Lady Alexandrina de Courcy’s. In 2016, it is odd that anyone is proposing that you and your children will never have the same grace, accent or ease as someone descended from William the Conqueror, and that anyone walking towards you will be able to distinguish that fact.