Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Now, Class...


Princess Elizabeth at age thirteen
by an unknown artist.

She could both speak and read French, Italian, Latin and Greek at that age.

One the weekend I came away from one of those dog-and-flog Church rummage sales with a box of books. Among the Heyers and Hornblowers - which I fell upon like a border collie selecting sheep - to replace my tattered copies, I acquired British English A to Zed (Harper Perennial, 1987) by Norman W. Schur.


Opened at random, the word class leaped out.

{class, n. University term. In America, one's college class is the year of graduation. In Britain one's class at university is the place in the honour's examination, e.g. a first, an upper or good second or lower second, or a third. Class is understood.}

It leaped out, as I said, because recently I read a quote somewhere claiming that one thing missing from many American stories, particularly mysteries, was the reference - character identifications - by class, ie. social class.

Having been brought up with an egalitarian , damn-your-eyes attitude, I have enjoyed those class-based nuances by British writers such as Agatha Christie, nevertheless, and I suspect the comment is by and large correct.
To tweak the entry:Class is understood.
We on this side of the pond just don't utilize class in fiction in the same way. We make use of money or education to differentiate our types. We tend to define our strata by different criteria, though we do reference regionalism. The reasons may be partly philosophy, partly history, and partly sheer comparative size.

Interesting analysis, just the same.

19 comments:

Jeannie said...

I think the whole idea of class has fallen away over the past few years in the gung-ho quest for money above all other things. While we don't have a rigid "class" system here, dignity, manners and character were a way to define a person's class. So one could be impoverished yet still classy. It is the lack of "class" that lands many celebrities in the tabloids. The Paris Hiltons and Britney Spears invite us to laugh at them because even with all the money and designer clothes, they are nothing more than trailer trash.

Rich people like these are envied more than admired because they really aren't so special after all.

writtenwyrdd said...

I remember when I realized that how class was perceived in Britain was different than in the US: It was when Prince Charles got engaged to a kindergarten teacher. My American reaction of wtf was based on her apparent social standing because of her job/perceived economic status.

Bernita said...

Hmm, Jeannie, off the top of my head, "trailer trash" was about the only distinction in use I could come up with.
I do think we place more emphasis on the character of the individual than on their background and this is naturally reflected in out fiction.

Yes, Written, the Spencers were a power in Britain before those upstart Wettins.
I always thought there was more class mobility in England than in continental countries, however.
I had to laugh once - I was sneered at by a Macedonian because I let my children play in our back yard in bare feet, like peasants!

Bonnie Calhoun said...

In schools they discourage the use of class, so as not to offend or make anyone have low self-esteem.

Yahoo...I've got DSL! Finally!

Charles Gramlich said...

Exactly. I always grin when I hear people tell me that there's no class system in America. It's there, just tweaked a bit from what people usually think of.

Steve G said...

If there is a class distinction by folks, I would say it has to do with that all important location. What city do you live in? What neighborhood? Where do you vacation?

Bernita said...

I usually think of "class" as a collection of students or a unit of instruction, Bonnie.
Good.
You still take forever to load.

And we hear comments about "old money" and "new money," Charles, the "right" college. We still have status tickers - just different ones.

Bernita said...

Urban vs. hicks, Steve.
So do we place much emphasis on "landed gentry?"
Desirable neighbourhoods, I have seen used to effect in N.A. fiction to indicate money...er...class...

sex scenes at starbucks said...

In one of my books, class is very important to the subculture in which they live(of a british cultural basis). My largely American protags are thrust to the top of this social-strata and blunder around not expecting
"proper respect", nor giving it.

It's one of the subtle themes of the work: seeing worth beyond social status.

Bernita said...

The addition of how sub-groups qualify or react to "class" is a subtle thing , SS.

raine said...

Althought there is still SOME distinction made, we do place more emphasis on a person's character (and achievements) than background, yes. Part of our revolt against the British, perhaps...

Dave said...

There most certainly are "class" distinctions in the USA. Just a few examples:
- DWB
- mixed race marraiges (yes, it still is considered bad by some)
- country western music lovers
- classical music and opera lovers (turn that record over dearie)
- Baptists looking down on Mormons
- People who like Monster Truck Shows and studio wrestling get looked down upon by those who don't.
- Gun owners and gun haters
- white collar and blue collar workers
- Walmart shoppers and anyone who won't set foot in the damn store!
- Those who love Jerry Springer, Howard Stern and Don Imus and well, those who know better

Should I go on?

It's class distictions as a form of prejudice or the ego building "I'm better than them" attitude.

If we want to make a character interesting, as writers we can put them in a group and let them experience that glorious ego trip (or suffer it).

Bernita said...

I wonder, when constructing our plots and characters, Raine, if we even consciously think if it.
In older British novels,(been reading a bunch of Oppenheim's) class was a clue, it indicated often how a character would react, speak, and dress, as if characters were both individuals and representatives of their class.

Bernita said...

Class defined then, Dave, on the basis of tastes or activities. Associated with lower economic status?
And yes, that's a good way to add another layer of conflict.

Gabriele C. said...

Class is a given in the settings of my novels.

It's still a given here, too, much as politicians would like to egalise - on the lowest common denominator. My brother considers a private school for his daughter.

Bernita said...

Certainly necessary in anything historical, Gabriele.
The plots of many romance novels are based on a disregard of or a triumph over class differences.

LadyBronco said...

"- mixed race marraiges (yes, it still is considered bad by some)"

As one half of a mixed-race couple, I am here to tell you that you are right on the money there. When my husband and I go shopping with our boys, it is amazing the looks some folks give us down their big-ass noses - never-mind that both our parents have 'money' or that we both are educated and well-spoken.

It really pisses me off sometimes.

spyscribbler said...

Believing in a class system defies the American Dream.

I know some people who believe class is defined by how much money you spend, what kind of car you have, and how well you keep up with the Joneses.

But, in general, I think Jeannie said it best. Class is dignity and characters and manners.

Bernita said...

Sheer ignorance and bigotry, Lady B.
And a touch of resentment of the "handsome stranger stealing our wimmin" type.
Sometimes "class" is all about conformity.
And I don't blame you for being pissed.

That's the true definition, Natasha, principles and conduct.
Historically, one could argue that the basis of class, later codified by inheritance/blood, was money which is power which was based on land.