Vol. 16 No. 5 · 10 March 1994
Craig Brown’s remark, cited by Frank Kermode (LRB, 24 February), that Mark Boxer always ‘homed in on the hair’ in those enjoyable caricatures of his made me think of Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations to Morte Darthur and wonder whether ‘Marc’ might have been directly influenced in this by Beardsley. Then Morte Darthur led me to wonder why it should ever be supposed, as Tom Shippey, in the same issue, tells us it repeatedly has been, that a man who put the words that Sir Thomas Malory did into the mouth of Sir Launcelot could not be both a knight and a rapist himself: need we look further than the words put into the mouth of Sir Meliagrance confronting Queen Guenever (in the edition which Beardsley illustrated. ‘As for all this language, be it as it may, for wit you well madam, I have loved you many a year, and never or now could I get you at such an advantage as I do now, and therefore I will take you as I find you’)? And Malory then led me to wonder whether P.N. Furbank seriously disputes that in 20th as in 15th-century England there are systematically observable inequalities of economic, ideological and political power to which the contemporary rhetoric relates in all sorts of still understudied ways.
Trinity College, Cambridge
Vol. 16 No. 6 · 24 March 1994
Lord Runciman asks (Letters, 10 March) whether I would seriously dispute that in 20th as in 15th-century England there are ‘systematically observable inequalities of economic, ideological and political power to which the contemporary rhetoric relates in all sorts of still understudied ways’. The answer is that I certainly would not – how could I? To be honest, I do not understand why he asks, and wish he would explain.
Vol. 16 No. 8 · 28 April 1994
P.N. Furbank (LRB, 24 February) might not have needed elucidation of my letter in the previous issue if the editor hadn’t cut out of it a phrase about ‘the slippery rhetoric of class’. Furbank’s review of Michael Argyle’s The Psychology of Social Class seemed to me to imply that the rhetoric is, in effect, the reality, and that academic sociologists and social psychologists who try to measure ‘class’ objectively only succeed in making themselves look foolish. Of course we don’t always get it right. But I am relieved that Furbank agrees (if he does) that our efforts are not inherently misconceived.
Trinity College, Cambridge
The final sentence of W.G. Runciman’s letter (Letters, 10 March), in its original version, ran as follows: ‘And Malory then led me to wonder whether P.N. Furbank, whose remarks about the slippery rhetoric of “class” can be as well illustrated by reference to Malory as to anyone, seriously disputes that in 20th, as in 15th, century England there are systematically observable inequalities of economic, ideological and political power to which the contemporary rhetoric does indeed relate in all sorts of still understudied ways.’
Editor, ‘London Review’
P.N. Furbank writes: I was puzzled by Lord Runciman’s original letter, but his new one makes all clear, and I am afraid his worst suspicions are confirmed. I do think that, in the matter of social ‘class’, the rhetoric is the reality, and that (to be brutal) academic sociologists and social psychologists who try to ‘measure’ class objectively only succeed, as he puts it, in making themselves look foolish. Let us put the matter this way. The language of ‘class’ only began to be employed in Britain round about the time of the first Reform Bill, being then taken over a decade or two later, to very different effect, by Proudhon and Marx. Now, the uses to which this language was put, and is still put, is a very rich and important study, but one needs to be clear about what one is studying. It is, in the first place, not something objectively ‘out there’, in the world, nor is it something which it makes sense to speak of ‘measuring’. To use ‘class’ language is a form of social (and often also political) action; for it is inherent in the concept of ‘class’ that to classify others in this way is automatically also to be classifying oneself, it being an absurdity to imagine one can both use the system and yet stand outside it. In using ‘class’ terminology one is manoeuvring socially or politically against one’s fellow citizens. Thus, a sociologist or a social historian is bound in logic to give up any idea of using ‘class’ terminology in his profession (what he does in his private life being quite another matter). All he can do, by way of studying ‘class’ scientifically, is to examine what is going on when ‘class’ language is used (i.e. analyse it as a belief system and form of rhetoric). This, to my mind, is a most important study, much neglected; and, as I argued in my review, a great deal of it can best be done by introspection. In this respect the student of ‘class’ has an advantage over the ethnographer, who is less likely to share the belief-system of the community he or she is studying. But to imagine you can use the language of ‘class’ scientifically, and even (as some social historians do) use it about people who did not use it themselves and employed a quite different language, strikes me as a hopeless illusion.
I can’t help feeling that P.N. Furbank must be missing the point. The letter from Lord Runciman to which he refers was surely a brilliant parody? Even if we are not so sure of the exact target.
Vol. 16 No. 10 · 26 May 1994
The exchanges between P.N. Furbank and Lord Runciman about the use of ‘class’ as a term for describing social inequalities, past and present, leaves unsettled, indeed undiscussed, the problem of what language could replace it (Letters, 28 April). In his review of Michael Argyle’s The Social Psychology of Class (LRB, 24 February), Furbank argued that the deployment of ‘class’ categories could never claim to be ‘scientific’: the term and its variants were too treacherously rhetorical. Lord Runciman’s attitude to this charge is not easy to describe. Pained bafflement, perhaps, at coming upon such distressing stuff from an LRB reviewer? A fuller answer than he so far has given would be valuable. Meanwhile, the question remains: how should social inequalities be described – unrhetorically? Furbank suggests that since ‘class’ language only emerges in the 1830s, the social historian for earlier periods should use the language of the time. So, when Richard Holmes asserts that, in 1811, Harriet West-brook’s father was ‘achieving that most difficult piece of English social navigation: moving from the lower middle class to the upper middle class’ (Shelley: The Pursuit), the terms are anachronistic. But what others were available? Shelley himself was ‘gentry’ (son of a landowner, knight and MP). Mr West-brook, having made money in ‘trade’ and retired to a house near Belgrave Square, though not ‘gentry’, would have surely thought himself ‘a gentleman’, indignantly rebutting any suggestion that young Harriet was other than a ‘lady’. Hadn’t he educated her at that expensive Clapham school attended by Shelley’s sisters? Yet he would have had to agree that the young man with whom she eloped was socially her superior, and even perhaps his.
Turning to fiction, there was the Bennet family and their friends, shortly to enter public life. The Bingley sisters, carefully forgetting that their late father’s fortune derived from ‘trade’, sneer at the Lucases for their all-too-recent commercial connections. Elizabeth rejects, with confidence, Lady Catherine de Burgh’s assumption of social superiority to her family, Mr Bennet also being a landowner, if on a far smaller scale. But the ‘gentleman’ idea in Austen’s work, here as elsewhere, refers not to the ownership of property, nor to where the money comes from, but to social style, easy manners, a ready flow of small talk, together with the self-discipline required by codes of etiquette, and (presumably) also to dress. This seems to be the force of ‘gentlemanlike’, as in: ‘Bingley was good looking and gentlemanlike; he had a pleasant countenance, and easy, unaffected manners.’ The implied similitude – ‘gentlemanlike’ – is a little puzzling. Does it point to a reservation? Despite Wickham’s scoundrelly behaviour, his qualifications as a ‘gentleman’ are not brought into question. On the whole, in interesting contrast with Victorian usage, ‘gentleman’ seems to have little or no ethical or intellectual content. Bingley’s brother-in-law, the empty-headed Hurst, ‘merely looked the gentleman’. Austen, that is, is less interested in social stratifications, save as an observable fact about the world she depicts, than in the moral and intellectual qualities that particular ‘gentlemen’ might or might not possess. For all its keen and detailed observation of early 19th-century Home Counties life, her novel thus offers no general language for describing social changes that were in process, and which Richard Holmes attempts to describe in his remarks about Shelley’s father-in-law. Becoming ‘Lady Shelley’ would have been thought by Harriet, as also by her circle, as socially advantageous a move as Mrs Bennet thought Elizabeth’s marriage to Darcy. If the language of ‘class’ is anachronistic as a general description of such events, the language of the period (as used by Austen) is no substitute. Furbank’s argument thus seems to condemn the social historian, if not to silence, then to the mere accumulation of detailed cases incapable of being generalised.
The other aspect of his analysis (that to use ‘class’ language is always to engage in rhetorical manoeuvring) is harder to cope with. For if ‘class’ is allowed its full claim, the user is contemplating our species as a botanist or zoologist contemplates plants or animals, allotting him or herself the authority of a more powerful ‘kind’, and – here is the rhetorical move – inviting readers to share the flattering illusion. But ‘class’ is commonly used to mean no more than ‘group’, rough-and-ready perhaps, but usage often is.