By Ted Bushman (appearing as Fitzwilliam Darcy in BYU’s production of Pride and Prejudice)
Mr. Darcy’s haughtiness can seem not only bizarre but unnecessarily rude until one looks a little at the climate from which he emerged.
Social class was a huge factor in Regency era life, and birth was decisive in determining one’s social standing. For some, especially the eldest son and heir, their standing was established with an inherited title and fortune. For others, especially younger sons, inheritance of land or fortune and occupation played a primary role. For most women, their place in society was determined by the status of the man they married.
The whole society was divided into various classes. The individuals of the different classes were associated with different types of professions and they got different ranges of salaries.
Upper class/aristocracy: The upper class was composed of the members of the royal family, the spiritual lords, high profile officers of the state and all members above the degree of a baronet. Titled peers in all their various forms occupied the top of the social ladder.
Second class: The members of the second class included baronets, country gentlemen, knights and others with high incomes.
These were the landed gentry. Though definitely part of the upper class, they were definitely lower ranked than the peers even though their income might exceed that of peers who might be saddled with debt or other financial difficulties.
The landed gentry was distinct from the middle class because they were landowners who might live entirely off rental income. Oftentimes the estate lands surrounding a country house amounted to a large agrarian business consisting of a home farm and numerous rented (tenanted) farms and cottages. Revenues from agricultural enterprises and rents were the primary source of gentleman’s income.
Like the peers, the landed gentry was divided into various ranks, positioning some firmly above others. Within the landed gentry were:
Baronet. A position created by King James in 1611, giving the person a hereditary title that passed to the eldest son, and the right to be addressed as “Sir” but not ranked as a peer, therefore could not sit in the House of Lords.
Knight. Originally a military honor, it was increasingly used as a reward for service to the Crown. An address (formal speech of respect or thanks) to the monarch was a frequent means of attaining the honor of knighthood. This was not a hereditary title.
Esquire/squire. Esquire was an informal title, often given to gentlemen, especially prominent landowners, who had no other title. Originally a title related to the battlefield, it included a squire or person aspiring to knighthood, an attendant on a knight. Later it was an honor that could be conferred by the Crown and included certain offices such as Justice of the Peace. A squire was often the principle landowner in a district.
Gentlemen. This started as a separate title with the statute of Additions of 1413. It is used generally for a man of high birth or rank, good social standing, and wealth, especially the inherited kind. Mr. Darcy would fit into this category—as landed gentry, he would have no outside career other than the managing of his estate.
Third class: The third class consisted of doctors, bankers, clergyman and various large scale manufacturers and merchants.
Fourth class: This class included merchants and manufacturers of second class, lawyers, teachers, ship owners, artists, builders and shopkeepers.
Fifth class: The fifth class included shopkeepers, innkeepers, publicans and persons of miscellaneous occupations.
Sixth class: This class included craftsmen, working mechanics and the agricultural laborers.
Seventh class: The seventh class included paupers, vagrants and gypsies.
Army and Navy: This class of the Regency period social hierarchy consisted of commissioned officers, non-commissioned officers, soldiers, seamen, marines and pensioners.
Mr. Darcy and all gentlemen had particular demands placed on them socially as well as economically. As one lecture given during this period puts it:
… it is almost a definition of a gentleman to say that he is one who never inflicts pain.
The true gentleman…carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast — all clashing of opinion, or collision of feeling, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern being to make everyone at his ease and at home.
He has his eyes on all his company; he is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd; he can recollect to whom he is speaking; he guards against unseasonable allusions, or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome. He makes light of favors while he does them, and seems to be receiving when he is conferring.
He never speaks of himself except when compelled, never defends himself by a mere retort; he has no ears for slander or gossip, is scrupulous in imputing motives to those who interfere with him, and interprets everything for the best. He is never mean or little in his disputes, never takes unfair advantage, never mistakes personalities or sharp saying for arguments, or insinuates evil which he dare not say out.
From a long-sighted prudence, he observes the maxim of the ancient sage, that we should ever conduct ourselves towards our enemy as if he were one day to be our friend. He has too much good sense to be affronted at insults, he is too well employed to remember injuries, and too indolent to bear malice. He is patient, forbearing, and resigned, on philosophical principles; he submits to pain, because it is inevitable, to bereavement, because it is irreparable, and to death, because it is his destiny.
It’s interesting to see how Mr. Darcy’s behavior compares to this description. But I won’t come to conclusions for you. You’ll have to think critically.
“”The Definition of a Gentleman”.” Definition of a Gentleman. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Feb. 2014. <http://www.his.com/~z/gentleman.html>.
“Gentlemen, Gentry and Regency Era Social Class.” Random Bits of Fascination. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Feb. 2014. <http://randombitsoffascination.com/2013/09/22/gentlemen-gentry-regency-era-social-class/>.
“Regency Period Social Hierarchy.” Hierarchy. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Feb. 2014. <http://www.hierarchystructure.com/regency-period-social-hierarchy/>.
“The Gentleman.” The Gentleman. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Feb. 2014. <http://www.victorianweb.org/history/gentleman.html>.