Good morning, mesdames et messieurs. I do hope that this night finds you well and, at this time, likely asleep.
An interesting thought that has been bouncing around within my skull of late has been one of classism: then and now. Everyone acknowledges the Victorian period one in which classism was rampant, strong, the way of life. There are occasional comments that in this modern world classism has nearly been defeated or destroyed or some-such but I find that this is not so, and others agree very loudly. With this in mind let us take a comparative look, shall we?
Yes indeed, the Victorian period was one of societal and economic classes. There were the lower, the middle and the upper classes. Additionally one could be in a ‘class’ based on employment particularly if it was familial/generational in nature. The rules were rigid but were also fairly well defined and this is an advantage that we do not currently enjoy. I did indeed say ‘enjoy’ and if you read the rest of this examination then you may see the sense of it, or I may just be misguided and in need of further education.
To get this particular burr out of the way being a woman was nearly as much a class as it was a gender. The Victorian period still saw women as person within the family unit who ran the home, raised the children and handled many of the social and economic responsibilities of the family. Within the upper class the role of women was somewhat broader. During this period more women were accepted into the working population but only in certain areas of employ.
Within nearly every class most jobs were almost perceived as hereditary. If your father was a clerk or a smith, a merchant or a machinist, a carriage painter or a mason it was oft expected that the son [usually the firstborn but often more than one] would enter the same or a related field. Apprenticeship, sometimes within the family, was often a way of life and on the passing of one’s father the son could and often did inherit the family business. The expectation was to have a life slightly better, slightly more comfortable than one’s parents. A member of the lower class would expect to remain in that class, working as a chimney sweep or a household servant as did his father before him. There was some movement among employments but there was nearly as much progression in a generational manner.
There were two or three easy ways to shift to a couple of positions that were both within the class system and outside of it: the military, the priesthood or through higher education.
Within the military there were two classes: those with commissions [the officers, usually drawn from the gentry] and the non-commissioned [your fighting man or soldier, and certain low levels of officers]. The allure of the military, particularly for the lower classes, was that it offered consistent access to food and a roof of some sort over one’s head as well as a possible pension if one lived out his term.
The priesthood did not have a recognizable class structure but advancement and access to perks was based as much on politics and social connections as the movement within any other class. During the Victorian period, however, it was not the sole source of education.
Universities grew remarkably during this time period and were taken advantage of by certain peoples which both created new members of the middle and upper classes as well as allowing people who knew how the system worked to shift their own position upwards; one very excellent example is the explosion of Scottish engineers during the Victorian age.
And knowing the system? Ah, here we come to the advantage. When there is a set of established and acknowledged rules then there are those who can find the little ways and means to skip around the system using these very rules and the loop holes that they do not completely cover or hide. There are many stories from the Victorian period of those of both genders who rose up in the ranks through fame or fortune, through the military or through education, or by learning the ‘rules’ and utilizing them. Of course it took risk and intelligence to even try and thus many did not, accepting their futures as their parents had before them.
And while everything I have said so far is true of periods preceding the Victorian it was during this particular age that the greatest movement happened, though even that was more an exception than a rule.
The Steampunk world truly takes this system and its advantages and spreads it wider and larger, introducing women adventurers and mechanics, spies and pilots and quite a number of ‘folk of humble means’ who became heroes.
Now let us examine the modern age. The classes still exist though in most parts of the world and very truly in North America the middle class has been nibbled away at until it is a slender portion of the population with a greater segment being defined as the upper class, to one extent or another, and a very large group now firmly ensconced in the lower class. Movement among the classes does still happen but it is more risky, more chaotic and a single person can rise and fall several times in their own life in a fairly easy manner, particularly in the falling.
The problem as I see it, and this is merely this writer’s own opinion, is that during the Victorian period each of the classes had their own rules, knew the rules of the other classes, and even if they were not written out [though in some cases some small publications did address these rules] they were there, they were accepted, and they were rather rigid. In our modern world it is really only the upper class that accepts that there are rules with the middle and lower classes rebelling through ignorance or denial. The rules are amorphous and poorly defined, subject to change usually at the whim of the upper class, and difficult to understand. Thus one can climb and claw upwards only to find that the cliff face has suddenly changed to a treacherous sheet of ice mid-scramble. It has become more of who you know and less of who you are, which is extremely evident when one compares the relative proportion of written contracts versus verbal/hand-shake agreements during the two periods and the pervasiveness of those employed in the legal fields in our current age versus those in Victorian times. Acceptance and trust have both lessened greatly though it’s a big of a ‘chicken and egg’ issue as to which came first, honestly. I think they’ve fed off each the other.
Like many other socio-political/economic topics that are focused on by various people and groups in the Steampunk community, such as gender roles [which I will touch on another day when my skin is thicker as I will no doubt be shouted loudly at], colonialism, imperialism, industrial advancements and other hot-button topics it must be noted that people do like to focus on the negative to the exclusion of the positive and I feel, myself and personally, that while the opportunities of the Victorian class system were not often nor well used there were some very strong advantages over the class system of today.
That and, given the nature of man, a truly classless system is a utopian ideal which will never work nor occur. But that is a topic which is part of a greater discussion and best left for another time.