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Big Talk: the Nineteenth-Century Anglo-American Novel and the Rise of the Upper Middle Class

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This dissertation charts the emergence of the upper middle class as a distinct group in Anglo-American nineteenth-century culture and, simultaneously, offers a theory of the English-language novel of this era. Following the work of scholars like Ian Watt and Nancy Armstrong, I argue that the Anglo-American novel devoted itself in the nineteenth century to constructing an ideology around and for a particular social echelon—the upper middle class. Beginning in the 1860s, the upper middle class gained popular recognition as a new social group in Britain. Newspapers, magazines, and fiction writers identified the upper middle class as a group of affluent, professionally inclined, metropolitan-leaning, novel-loving men and women. Depending on the political inclinations of the beholder, the upper middle class either emblematized the best traits of the British people or crystallized everything wrong with the nation and its empire. My project insists that the nineteenth-century novel obsessively focuses on the upper middle class and, in doing so, invented the sociocultural meaning for this group. I assert that recognizing the special relationship between the novel and the upper middle class is crucial to understanding the history and theory of the genre itself. I further contend that this novel-born ideology is essential to understanding Anglo-American popular conceptions of class and, I argue, still shapes our discussions of capital and its forms, our definitions of affluence, and the meaning we give to economic inequality. In my introduction and conclusion, I touch on how this class ideology that originated in the nineteenth-century continues to be reiterated in Anglo-American culture of the present—particularly the idea that conversational style validates and justifies affluence.

I show how the nineteenth-century novel characterized the upper middle class as possessing an almost magical ability to generate capital. Nineteenth-century novelists not only cemented a cultural ideal of the upper middle class as affluent, professionally-inclined, metropolitan-leaning, and novel-loving, but they also portrayed this social group as able to conjure money seemingly out of nowhere. Pierre Bourdieu’s 1985 essay “The Forms of Capital” famously identifies three types of wealth—economic, cultural, and social—and this theory forms a central reference point for my project. A century before Bourdieu wrote this essay, I contend, nineteenth-century novelists characterized the members of the upper middle class as sophisticated manipulators of multiform capital, who could skillfully convert between these different forms with preternatural ease. Novelists like Austen, Dickens, Eliot, and James—among others—show their upper-middle-class characters generating capital not through traditional financial means like the stock market, trade, or professional employment, but through their talk. In these novels—some of the most canonical in the English language—conversation functions as an economic technology capable of creating just the right kind of wealth at just the right moment. In each chapter, I analyze how a given novelist (Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Henry James) innovated their era’s definition of “good” conversation by employing previously verboten speech genres—detraction, meanness, masculine and feminine conversational styles, and making another feel de trop—as narrative technique, such as omniscient narration, characterization, generalization, and free indirect discourse.

The first chapter focuses on the work of Jane Austen, specifically her novel, Emma. I examine how Austen’s social origins in the “pseudo-gentry,” the group of genteel rural people who lived like the gentry but did not actually own hereditary estates, provided her with the fodder to invent a proto-upper middle class through her novels. I study how her novels—particularly her famous happy endings—configure and privilege this new echelon. Then, looking at Austen’s engagement with the conduct book literature, I trace this ideology of conversation directed at young girls and women at the time, showing how an ability to have “good” conversations functioned as an indicator of gentility. Paying attention to what this ideology discourages, I examine how the speech genre of detraction—much maligned in these books—gave Austen a model for her omniscient narration.

My second chapter looks at Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. I argue that Dickens’s novelistic project on a whole is preoccupied with the lower-middle-class individual moving into the upper middle class. I begin with the etiquette manual, a genre that first appeared in the 1830s. Intensely preoccupied with capital and its trappings, the genre nevertheless frames capital—who has it, how much and why—as a taboo subject of conversation, terming preoccupation with money “meanness.” I show how the etiquette manual provided a crash course in multiform capital for its nineteenth-century readers and instructed this readership in how to read speech and behavior as indications of social, economic and cultural capital. Like the reader of the etiquette manual, Scrooge receives an education from the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come in multiform capital; he learns the importance of cultural and social capital to true affluence. A Christmas Carol establishes a new multiform affluence in the place of Scrooge’s obsession with economic capital. Furthermore, in his narration, Dickens turns this mode of capital-reading into a method of characterization and, like Austen, creates a new conversational technique from a former prohibition: Dickens repositions this euphemized meanness as another conversational strategy by which the upper middle class imagines and performs its aspirational identity.

The third chapter advances this argument by examining George Eliot’s Middlemarch. I examine Eliot’s own trajectory from a lower-middle-class daughter of a rural estate manager to the artistic and learned ranks of upper-middle-class London. Reading across her novels, I show how, like Austen and Dickens before her, she constructs the upper middle class as an economic and social ideal, particularly in Middlemarch, in which her four central protagonists all embark on upper-middle-class lives in London at the novel’s close. Then, I put Middlemarch in context of John Ruskin’s Victorian conduct book, Sesame and Lilies, in which Ruskin outlines his ideal man and woman of modern, bourgeois society. I trace how, through this text, Ruskin outlines two gendered styles of conversation: women sympathize and, using their superior knowledge and educations, men instruct and generalize. I argue that, in Middlemarch, Eliot both affirms and subverts these gendered styles of conversation by employing both in her narration; she practices what I call “sympathetic generalization,” in which she very quickly switches from feminine-coded sympathy to male-coded generalization.

The fourth and last chapter focuses on Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady and how James uses this novel to test upper-middle-class ideology as a method for reorienting trans-Atlantic and, more broadly, colonial hierarchies. Reading Isabel Archer as the archetypal upper-middle-class seeker, who marries Gilbert Osmond in an attempt to attain that particularly desirable mixture of affluence and moral superiority, I show how the novel ultimately ends up ambivalent about whether this ideology creates a truly trans-Atlantic upper middle class. James’s free indirect discourse replicates the status of the American outsider in British polite society; the narrator makes the reader feel “de trop,” the etiquette manual’s term for feeling extra, unwanted, like a “third wheel” in a social situation. This technique makes the reader experience being an outsider, an interloper, on the intimacy between narrator and character, replicating James’s own status as an American in England as a dynamic between reader and narrator. In using this negative social experience, a normative instance of not excelling in conversation, as a model for his free indirect discourse, James also shows the power inherent in being de trop, as well as the fine line between making another feel de trop and feeling de trop oneself. Through Portrait’s narrative and his iteration of free indirect discourse, James works to collapse the national distinctions between American and English society, trying to position the upper middle class and its novelistic ideology into a truly Anglo-American hybrid.

In my conclusion, I turn to a few turn-of-the-century writers to examine the fate of the upper middle class and the novel—John Galsworthy, Oscar Wilde, Edith Wharton, and Rudyard Kipling. I argue that, by this time, the upper middle class had codified into a broadly recognizable social category, allowing Galsworthy to open his popular novel, The Man of Property, by describing the Forsytes as “an upper-middle-class family in full plumage.” Orwell and Galsworthy’s argued that the upper middle class disappeared after World War I, but I look at how, recently, in the twenty-first century, this social group has reemerged into preeminence, catching the eye of sociologists and, of course, novelists.

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This item is under embargo until August 5, 2023.