Prejudices in Regency and Victorian England

Bachelor Thesis 2012 36 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature









1. Introduction: Prejudices in Regency and Victorian Society

According to the Oxford English Dictionary the term ‘prejudice’ means a “preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience” and, more specifically “an unreasoned dislike, hostility, or antagonism towards, or discrimination against, a race, sex, or other class of people” (OED Online n.pag.). This second definition is very close to my own specific meaning of the word in this thesis. However, a slight modification is being made: when I mention ‘prejudice’ I use it as a collective term to describe various forms of dissentions and differences in the respective society. These forms include besides the traditional term ‘prejudice’ negative feelings such as aversion, dismissive attitudes, judgements, perceptions and contrasts in social, gendered and regional contexts.

In my thesis I am thus going to analyse prejudices in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Both novels employ a wide range of prejudices which I will compare in categories such as gender, space and class. The thesis basically investigates the constitution of prejudices in the two novels. Moreover, it explores their causes and how the characters eventually overcome them. My aim is to draw a concise and structured overview of the prejudices in North and South and Pride and Prejudice as well as to compare the characters’ ways of dealing with them.1

Although NS and PP were both written in 19th century England, they are set in different literary and historical eras. Whereas Austen lived in Regency England at the beginning of the century, Gaskell is considered a Victorian writer. Nevertheless, I chose to compare NS and PP because I noticed some striking similarities in their construction, and especially in their use of prejudices. Some literary critics consider NS as “deflty refashioned Pride and Prejudice” (Barchas n.pag.) or even a “Victorian Pride and Prejudice” (Hopkins 139), and there is a general awareness of their similarity among scholars. In spite of that, there does not exist a coherent analysis nor a comparison of prejudices in the novels until today.2 With my thesis I thus try to provide a brief contribution to the discussion.

As a means to a better understanding of my argumentation I will begin with a brief presentation of Regency and Victorian society focusing on their conventions and value systems. In this context I want to inform about the strictly organised class system, the role of women, as well as regional ideological differences between the North and South of England in both eras which resembled each other to a great extent due to their historical proximity. Beginning then with the practical part of the thesis, I first focus on NS and then on PP; in both cases the interpretation of prejudices is performed based on three categories: class, gender and space. Corresponding to each novel individually, I explore these subgroups on account of their relevance within the book. That is, analysing NS I first refer to the spatial dimension, simply because, in my view, the contrast drawn between North and South England is the starting point for all other types of prejudices in this novel. The same principle applies to PP, where all prejudices emanate from the class hierchary presented by Austen; hence I start discussing the social dimension. To conclude my thesis there will be a thorough comparison of both novels with regard to the presented prejudices.

In 1810, King George III’s son George August Frederick “was established by Parliament as Prince Regent” due to his fathers’ incapability to reign the kingdom (Richardson 3). This relatively short period of reign as “quasi-king” ended with the death of George III in 1820 and the Prince Regent’s subsequent crowning as George IV (3). By this time the Industrial Revolution had already left its mark in England: An agricultural society gave way “to an industrial, capitalist economy” (4). Manufacturing and trade as well as profits from the colonies caused a considerable economic expansion and promoted the rise of the middle-class. Having gained a high amount of wealth, some businessmen now strived to ascend the social ladder by buying “estates and country homes that rivaled aristocratic mansions in splendor and luxury” and thus established themselves as a part of the upper class (3). However, one has to keep in mind that not everybody was so priviledged: no more than two percent of the English belonged to the upper classes. The majority of the population consisted of working-class servants, soldiers, agricultural and factory workers and housekeepers. Among them unemployment and poverty led to strikes and social unrest (3).

In short, the Regency class system was composed of three major groups: the working- class, the middle-class and the upper-class. The latter consisted of members from the “old hereditary aristocracy” and the landed gentry (Richardson 5).3 The middle-class, in contrast to the upper-class, needed “to generate an income from some kind of active occupation(s)” but distinguished itself at the same time from the working-class “by their possession of property [...] and by their exemption from manual labour” (Seed 115). The merchants, professionals and business owners, or simply the “middling sort”, as Daniel Defoe called them, were not “exposed to the miseries and hardships, the labour and suffering of the mechanic part of mankind, and not embarrassed with the pride, luxury, ambition and envy of the upper part of mankind”.4 Social mobility in this fixed class system was difficult to find. The upper-classes were determinded “to keep the lines between the classes firmly in place” in order to secure their elite status (Richardson 6).

Women in Regency society were exceedingly disadvantaged. They hardly had legal rights and were not allowed to own property, rather they were considered as property of either their father, brother or husband (Richardson 5). Marriage was therefore “not only a social preoccupation but a neccessity” to attain financial security, especially in a society where any male family member was preferred to a daughter when it came to inheritance issues (5).5 The couples’ affection for each other was secondary and happiness in marriage depended upon luck. Once married, women were deemed to live a passive life at home. It was their task to raise the children, manage the household and submit to their husbands (5). Upper-middle- class and upper-class women were expected to be “accomplished”, that is, to be able to sing, draw and play the piano among other things (5). The reputation of a woman was of essential importance in Regency England. Unmarried women were considered “morally corrupt” if they behaved inappropiately towards men (5). To sum up, moral conventions and gender expectations controlled Regency society and determined whether a person was accepted in the community or regarded as “a social outcast” (9). Individuality was subordianted to the values of society (9).

Queen Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837 and ruled until her death in 1901. The period of her reign is called Victorian Era and is generally known for the establishment of the British Empire, the Industrial Revolution as well as its conservative moral conception. First of all, the ideology of the so-called separate spheres existed - a basic distinction in the 19th century English society between public and private sphere. The former was assigned to men and the latter to women (Elliot 26). According to this, the public sphere was “an aggregate of diverse activities and interests encompassing government, education, business, manufacturing, science, and the arts” (26). In contrast, the expression private sphere implied “the privatized and feminized home as a separate sphere and a refuge from the hostile public world of men” (26).

The Victorian class system and women’s status strongly resembled the Regency society structure. Middle-class members had become wealthier and more conscious of their social rank: they looked upon the working-class as inferior and thought them “inherently less moral, less delicate, more physical, and more capable of strenuous labor” (Langland 1992, 295). Class lines were drawn even clearer than before and as a result social mobility became more limited (Briggs 17). The Victorians liked to categorize society: next to the “bifurcation of human beings into servant and master classes” existed the female and male segregation in the Victorian home (Langland 1992, 295). While, for example, dining rooms, smoking rooms and bachelor suites were connoted masculine, drawing rooms and sitting rooms were feminine (295).

With regard to women Joan Bellamy states that married women had no property rights, not even in the proceeds of their own earnings, they had no rights in the custody of their own children, divorce from a husband was practically impossible, they had no vote, they were utterly excluded from the universities and the professions, except the teaching of the very young and of older girls. (131)

The Victorian icon “Angel in the House” was a convergence of the typical “class and gender ideologies” (Langland 1992, 290). The phrase was adopted from Coventry Patmore’s narrative poem of the same title which was published in 1854 and established the basis for the ideal of a Victorian wife. In the first book of the poem (Canto IX) the expected relationship between men and women becomes clear: “Man must be pleased; but him to please / Is women’s pleasure” (Patmore n. pag.). The image also implied the women’s role as the mistress of the family home, or, rather as slave of the private sphere.6 Women were perceived as “sensitive, even frail and easily lead”, their sexuality was ignored (among the upper classes) and to call them strong-minded was rather an insult (Bellamy 133, 134). Against this image of the dependent, passive and submissive female, by and by women started to call for change (135). They began “to campaign for rights regarding property and divorce, developing more professional philanthropic organisations, seeking new areas of employment for working women, raising the demand for higher education, and for the vote” (135). Another social role that Victorian women adopted apart from the “Angel in the House” was to visit the poor working-class people in their homes; these women were named “female visitors” (Langland 1992, 296). Their social calls were a means to strenghthen middle-class superiority and “to promote morality and domestic happiness” (Elliott 31). They were also considered “important and neccessary to harmonious class relations” and to teach Victorian values (31). Social responsibility was thus of great importance to the Victorians. Langland describes both social roles, the Angel in the House image and the female visitors, as instruments to “mediate class differences” (296). Nevertheless, one has to keep in mind that women in Victorian society were repressed and it was not until the end of the era that feminist movements emerged.

Asa Briggs defines work as a crucial Victorian value which constituted “the centre of most Victorian experience” (15). In fact, two kinds of work were distinguished: on the one hand work that was regulated by orders and discipline and on the other hand there was “creative work” (14). In contrast, “an enormous amount of idleness” characterised Victorian society (15). Especially in the upper-class environment, values prior to the Indutrial Era such as extravagance still existed and built “an alternate complex of values to the values associated in industry with work” (15). An essential reference to Victorian values is Samuel Smile and his book Self-Help which was published in 1859 and promoted thrift, character and duty as further ideals (15).

In Regency as well as Victorian England the Industrial Revolution had a huge impact on society. Significant changes in the economy affected particularly the North of England since the gradually expanding railway system helped to establish the cotton industry mainly in Manchester and its surroundings (Pocock 63). As a result “a new class of merchants and manufacturers arose, together with a new, much larger class of industrial workers” (63). A contrast between North and South England emerged: John Seed distinguishes “a northern industrial middle-class and a southern commercial middle-class” (125). In addition to that, Briggs mentions that there existed “a sense of North and South” (19) and different value systems between the country and the cities (20). Donald Horne formulates the dichotomy of values between North and South England very aptly:

In the Northern Metaphor Britain is pragmatic, empirical, calculating, Puritan, bourgeois, enterprising, adventurous, scientific, serious, and believes in struggle. Its sinful excess is a ruthless avarice, rationalized in the belief that the prime impulse in all human beings is a rational, calculating, economic self-interest.

In the Southern Metaphor Britain is romantic, illogical, muddled, divinely lucky, Anglican, aristocratic, traditional, frivolous, and believes in order and tradition. Its sinful excess is a ruthless pride, rationalized in the belief that men are born to serve. (22)

This contrast between the capitalist North and the intellectual South, so Pocock, “had been present from the beginning of industrialization” (66).

To sum up, society in 19th century England was strictly organised. There were explicit moral standards and conventions for social as well as gender relations. Given a hierarchical character and predefined social roles in Regency and Victorian society, violating the system by not following its rules was a highly scandalous behaviour and not tolerated. It was likely that a person who did not conform to the established expectations of society had to face prejudices.7 In the following I will analyse two 19th century novels in order to prove this suggestion.

2. Prejudices in North and South

Elizabeth Gaskell lived from 1810 to 1865 and was born as daughter to a Unitarian minister. She was raised in Knutsford, “a small country town near Manchester” but moved to Manchester city after her marriage with William Gaskell, who was a minister like her father. The writer had a strong sense of humanity and was herself a female visitor as she felt “the need for social reform and reconciliation among the English classes”. After the success of her first novel Mary Barton Gaskell started to write for Charles Dickens’ periodical Household Words. Beginning in 1854, NS was published “in twenty-two weekly parts” until January 1855 (Gaskell n.pag.).8

The novel tells the story of the Hales, and especially of the heroine Magaret Hale, and their moving “from pastoral south to industrial north” as a consequence of the father’s abandonment of his ministry (Brass 60). In the course of the plot Margaret is experiencing a whole new world of machines, poverty, cotton and death in Milton-Northern. Her initial prejudices against the city and its inhabitants gradually give way to her understanding of its values as she gets to know people from different social classes (Robinson 72).

Pocock remarks that although NS has a “strong territorial correlate” it is “portraying primarily a social dimension” (64). He may be right with this statement in describing the novel in general terms, but in my opinion the contrast presented between North and South England is the basis for the characters’ construction of prejudices. Therefore, I will begin by investigating the prejudices resulting from this disparity and then go on analysing social and gendered prejudices that result from it.

2.1 Space: Industrial North and Traditional South

As the novels’ title implies, Gaskell presents a clear opposition between North and South England. Characters explicitly express their aversion to either the southern or the northern environment over and over again. Yet, before analysing the prejudices there should be a short description of how both regions are portrayed in the novel.

The readers’ perception of southern life is shaped through Margaret’s point of view as well as the narrator’s descriptions.9 At the very beginning of the novel Margaret depicts Helstone, her southern childhood home, as the most idyllic place in a conversation with Henry Lennox, her cousin’s brother-in-law:

'Tell me about Helstone. You have never described it to me. [...] Is Helstone a village, or a town, in the first place?' 'Oh, only a hamlet; I don't think I could call it a village at all. There is the church and a few houses near it on the green—cottages, rather—with roses growing all over them.' 'And flowering all the year round, especially at Christmas—make your picture complete,' said he. 'No,' replied Margaret, somewhat annoyed, 'I am not making a picture. I am trying to describe Helstone as it really is. You should not have said that.' 'I am penitent,' he answered. 'Only it really sounded like a village in a tale rather than in real life.' 'And so it is,' replied Margaret, eagerly. 'All the other places in England that I have seen seem so hard and prosaic-looking, after the New Forest. Helstone is like a village in a poem—in one of Tennyson's poems. (Gaskell 9)

Brass argues that Margaret establishes Helstone as a pastoral place because she wants to escape from the reality of her busy city life (64). When Margaret returns to Helstone after having lived with her aunt and cousin in London for years, the reader gets an impression of the beauty and wilderness of nature in the New Forest (where the imaginary Helstone is situated). The “warm scented light”, “dark, full, dusky green” trees, “wild, free, living creatures” and “the beautiful, broad, upland, sunstreaked, cloud-shadowed common” are only some of the picturesque expressions the narrator uses to create a pastoral setting (Gaskell 15,16). Throughout the novel Gaskell uses mainly imagery language and adjectives to present Helstone as peaceful and beautiful, although not “as inherently perfect place” (Brass 76).10

Henry Lennox, as seen in the excerpt above, has a prejudiced view on Helstone. He mocks Margaret’s description by his satirical statement that the roses are “flowering all the year round, especially at Christmas” (Gaskell 9). He does not know the village but creates his own ironic fairy tale-picture of it: “Only it really sounded like a village in a tale rather than in real life.” (9). Anyway, when he finally visits Helstone he is forced to admit its beauty and the truth of Margaret’s account of it:

What a perfect life you seem to live here! I have always felt rather contemptuously towards the poets before, with their wishes, "Mine be a cot beside a hill," and that sort of thing: but now I am afraid that the truth is, I have been nothing better than a cockney. Just now I feel as if twenty years' hard study of law would be amply rewarded by one year of such an exquisite serene life as this—such skies!' looking up—'such crimson and amber foliage, so perfectly motionless as that!' pointing to some of the great forest trees which shut in the garden as if it were a nest. (Gaskell 28-29)

In one of the first conversations with Margaret, Mr Thornton expresses his disdain for the southern way of life. He, proud as he is “belonging to a town”, dismisses the life in the South as “dull”, “prosperous” and “aristocratic” (Gaskell 93). His arrogant attitude is overly prejudiced; he indirectly contrasts the southern “slow days of careless ease” where “one may be clogged with honey and unable to rise and fly” with his northern industrial life and implies that people in the South are rather lazy (93). Mr Thornton’s pride for Milton as well as for his position as wealthy mill-owner seem to be the reason for his exaggerated negative view on the South. His mother Mrs Thornton is probably the proudest character in the novel. She even outdoes her son in her esteem for Milton and Marlborough Mills, the families’ cotton mill. Consequently, it is no wonder that she likewise looks down upon the South. The narrator informs us what Mrs Thornton thinks about Margaret: “True, she was sadly prejudiced, and very ignorant; but that was to be expected from her southern breeding” (248-249). It is hard to repress a smile when one notices the clever way Gaskell uses irony to deride the character’s statement: Mrs Thornton believes Margaret to be prejudiced and ignorant but she indirectly associates these characteristics to herself by blaming the “southern breeding” Margaret supposedly displays. Regarding the fact that Mrs Thornton has never been to the South it seems quite strange that she ought to know something about the southeners and their ways (113). Nicolas and Bessy Higgins, the working-class father and daughter with whom Margaret becomes friends, are more tolerant than the Thorntons. He admits that he does not know anything about the South but that he “heerd they're a pack of spiritless, down-trodden men; welly clemmed to death; too much dazed wi' clemming to know when they're put upon” (156). In answer to this, even Margaret, who always defended her beloved South, acknowledges that there is “a deal to bear” as the people have to endure “very hard bodily labour [...] with very little food to give strength” (156). But this statement can hardly be designated as prejudice because she does indeed know the South. Rather, it shows her change of perspective and the resulting change of perception (see Brass). However, Higgins later considers going to southern England “where food is cheap and wages good, and all the folk, rich and poor, master and men, friendly like” (363). This naive and unrealistic judgement may stem from Margaret’s description of the South, but due to the fact that Higgins has never been there (he does not know “how far off it is”) it can be designated as a favorable prejudice (363). Bessy also fosters a kind of positive prejudice against the South. It is her wish to live there and it seems as if she imagines it to be idyllic and peaceful: She accuses Margaret of having “lived in pleasant green places all your [her] life long, and never known want or care, or wickedness either” (161), ignoring Margaret reminding her of the fact that “there’s good and bad in everything in this world” (157).

On their journey to Milton, the Hales notice “a deep lead-coloured cloud hanging over the horizon in the direction in which it lay” (Gaskell 66). Getting nearer and nearer they sense “a faint taste and smell of smoke” in the air (66). The landscape of Milton is described as a system of “long, strait, hopeless streets of regularly-built houses, all small and of brick” (66). Every now and then this uniformity is broken by “a great oblong many-windowed factory” that stands “like a hen among her chickens” (66). The reader receives these first impressions of the northern industrial town through Margaret’s eyes. After the beauty and nature of Helstone this new surrounding is quite a shocking contrast for the Hales.

Margaret is devastated when her father confesses his resignation from the Church of England and the family’s need to go to the North. Soon it becomes clear that she has “almost a detestation for all she had ever heard of the North of England, the manufacturers, the people, the wild and bleak country” (Gaskell 42). The heroine is obviously very prejudiced against the North considering that she had only heard about her future residence and had never been there. Arriving in the North, Margaret is aware of its strong contrast to the South. To her “everything looked more ‘purpose-like’” and the people seem to have “a busy mind” (65). What is more, for Margaret “the colours looked greyer - more enduring, not so gay and pretty” (65). Margaret’s first impression of the North is therefore mainly negative. The heroine’s conversation with Mr Thornton, which I already mentioned above, further shows her disapproval of the northern industrial environment. The manufacturer’s expression of his opinion with regard to the South causes a strong emotional reaction from Margaret:

'You are mistaken,' said Margaret, roused by the aspersion on her beloved South to a fond vehemence of defence, that brought the colour into her cheeks and the angry tears into her eyes. 'You do not know anything about the South. If there is less adventure or less progress—I suppose I must not say less excitement—from the gambling spirit of trade, which seems requisite to force out these wonderful inventions, there is less suffering also. I see men here going about in the streets who look ground down by some pinching sorrow or care—who are not only sufferers but haters. Now, in the South we have our poor, but there is not that terrible expression in their countenances of a sullen sense of injustice which I see here. You do not know the South, Mr. Thornton,' she concluded, collapsing into a determined silence, and angry with herself for having said so much.


1 In order to facilitate the reading of this thesis I will from now on use the abbreviation NS for North and South and PP for Pride and Prejudice.

2 While there are some essays about prejudices in PP, such as from Fox (1962), Dooley (1965) and Zimmerman (1968), there is no explicit study about the theme in NS. Barchas (2008) and Robinson (2011) do indeed compare both novels but not with a focus on prejudices.

3 The expression landed gentry’ refers to those upper-class members who owned estates in the country and basically lived of the rents they received from their farmers (Whalan n.pag.).

4 Cited from Seed 121 and taken from P. Earle. The World of Defoe. London: 1976, 166.

5 Regarding to this, the so-called „entailment“ was the usual means to resolve “how property would be passed through several generations within a familiy” (Richardson 5).

6 Langland mentions the “Angel of the House“ ideal in order to show that Victorian middle-class women “actually performed a more significant and extensive economic and political function than is usually perceived” (290-91). She argues that they helped their husbands to secure the families “social and poilitical stauts” by managing the household which was made up of one or several servants (who were part of the working-class). Hence, so Langland, by interacting with these servants middle-class women regulated “their behaviour in the interest of maintaining middle-class control” (295). Yet, however logic and interesting this argumentation might be, it can not conceal the fact that women in Victorian England were discriminated against.

7 When I refer to the term ‘prejudices’ it always has to be remembered, as mentioned above, that I mean not necessarily the strict sense of the word but connotations such as negative judgements, aversion etc.

8 All of the information in this paragraph is taken from the introduction to the North and South edition which I use in this thesis. This introduction is a two page information about Gaskell’s life and there are no page numbers.

9 In NS Gaskell uses an „omniscient third person narrator“ (Brass 62).

10 Brass’ article “Defining Pastoral in North and South“ is a very interesting reading. It suggests that Margaret continuallly changes her perception of Helstone as she moves between different spaces. She readjusts her image according to the other places she lives in and visits. Therefore the presentation of Helstone is in fact pretty complex: At the beginning she idealizes it on the basis of her childhood memories but once in Milton acquires a more realistic point of view. However, I cannot detail Brass ideas for the aim of this paper is not to describe the novels’ settings but the prejudices against them.


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Title: Prejudices in Regency and Victorian England