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Marginal Notes

Show a Little Class


Ruth and I are binge watching Downton Abbey at the moment – and, yes, Maggie Smith’s Dowager is even more fun the second time around. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, it draws much of its drama from the slow collapse of the class system at the end of Edwardian Britain. This isn’t too far back in our history – many people grew up hearing stories of that time from their parents or grandparents – but it’s still a little hard to imagine a world in which your entire life was shaped by which strata of society you were born into.

So hard to imagine that writers of historical fiction often get it wrong. I’ve run into too many historical novels in which the main characters ran around the world without a care, when in real life they would have needed a retinue of servants to keep up their lifestyles. I’ve seen other characters who had servants but treated them with a familiarity that’s commonplace today but unheard of in centuries past. Or characters who were servants but chafed against the restrictions of their station in life in a way earlier generations couldn’t imagine.

Jo Baker’s Longbourne, which tells the story of Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the servants, opens with Sarah, a maid, doing the week’s laundry. As she struggles with frigid water from the pump, slippery floors, and lye soap that eats into her hands, she is acutely aware of the everyday smells and hardships that an ordinary servant of the day would have grown up with and taken for granted. And when she thinks that “really no one should have to deal with another person’s dirty linen,” she is clearly seeing her world from the point of view of someone who owns a washing machine. Did she really expect the quality to scrub their own small clothes?

So make sure your historical characters are living in the history that actually happened. Lower class people in earlier ages doubtless resented their masters when those masters were cruel – there were peasant’s rebellions from time to time. But it never would have occurred to them to question the hierarchical system that had maids doing the dirty work for the aristocracy. For one thing, class distinctions were something you could see – and smell. As Sarah knew, it was a lot of work to boil water to wash clothes, so the lower classes didn’t change as often as we do today. Even as late as the nineteenth century, shirts had detachable collars and cuffs, so you could swap out the parts most likely to get dirty and wear the shirt another day – or several.

Bathing became more accepted over time – it was nearly nonexistent between Rome and the Renaissance – but required nearly as much work as laundry, so it was a luxury that the lower classes rarely experienced. Soap was harsh and expensive, shampoo and toothpaste largely unheard of, and the substitutes for toilet paper don’t bear thinking about. Not to put too fine a point on it, the peasants were revolting.

As well as better hygiene, the upper classes got better nutrition – meat was a relative rarity on tables outside the manor house. As a result, the aristocracy were taller, stronger, and generally healthier than the peons. Even during the First World War, British society was shocked when the American Doughboys arrived. The corn-fed farm boys who made up the army seemed like giants compared to the British lower classes, who had spent the last few generations ill-fed and ill-housed.

But there was more to the class system than just forelock tugging and malnutrition. I’m not familiar with how the rest of the world did it (though I suspect this was true in China and Japan, as well), but I know that in Europe, the strict hierarchy that shaped life on earth echoed the structure of life in heaven. The celestial sphere was full of crisp, inviolable divisions of power – archangels and angels, cherubim and seraphim, all under an omnipotent God. The earthly realm, with an all-powerful king or pope, emanating authority down through dukes and earls, cardinals and bishops, brought the divine structure to the human realm. Even the elements that made up the physical world were filed in descending order – heavenly fire, followed by air, water, and lowly earth.

If you were born into a system like this, you might not like where you were, but it would never occur to you to better your life by overthrowing the system. The class system was literally the natural order of things – society structured on earth as it was in heaven. How could you overturn a system God had built into the very bones of creation?

And accepting your station in life wasn’t entirely reason for despair. Living on the same land for generations also led people to identify with the local lord in a way that’s hard to imagine in today’s mobile society. When the aristocrats strode in splendor to take their places in the front of the cathedral, the peasants in the cheap seats were more likely to feel reflected pride than resentment. These were their lords and ladies, after all.

Writers of historical fiction aren’t the only ones who don’t pay enough attention to class. Granted, it’s no longer true that you are stuck in the station you were born into, and a lot of the snobbery that kept the aristocracy from mingling with the literally unwashed masses is no longer justified. But we humans have been dividing ourselves into social strata since the beginning of history – which was, after all, invented to record the stories of kings. That urge hasn’t gone away, even if it’s no longer fashionable to talk about it.

So as you create your cast of characters, bear class in mind. Do all of them live in the same sort of housing? Do any of them have to worry about money? Or keeping a job? Or having a job? Or finding something presentable to wear? Granted, there’s nothing wrong with writing a novel whose characters are all from the same class. But tossing in a few characters from different classes gives you more chances for conflict, for misunderstandings, for apparently irreconcilable differences – for drama, in short.

And how does a sense of class fit into the makeup of each character? How do they judge others, particularly when they first meet them? You’re much more likely to get a job if you come to the interview well dressed and well spoken. You’re even more likely if it turns out you went to the same school or belong to the same clubs as one of your interviewers. Are your characters aware of their own class markers – of what people will think when they see their car, or watch, or shoes? We may not talk about it any more – because we’re all equal now, right? But class consciousness still plays a role in our society.