In Britain privilege still means power, but power no longer means class. The British ruling class is long since dead. Its day was over when neoliberal think tanks dethroned liberal-humanist intellectuals and nobody was any longer interested in how to combine Adam Smith with the Bible, or the rule of the many with the wisdom of the few. Yet literature gives back what history has erased. In fact literature - Galsworthy, Woolf, Waugh, Wodehouse, Nancy Mitford, Compton-Burnett - has made this Victorian hybrid, the 'ruling class', so familiar that we forget how brief its existence was. A cross between a gentrified bourgeoisie and a professionalised aristocracy, it ranked as 'upper-middle' in the hierarchy of class. Mismanagement of the Crimean War in the 1850s provoked a crisis of confidence in the nation's leadership, compelling the landed oligarchs to improve their performance and share their power. Politics were gradually democratised; civil service appointments and - eventually - army commissions reserved to merit; the ancient universities opened up to Nonconformists and agnostics. The bourgeoisie took advantage of the opportunities thus created and became a pillar of the establishment. They switched to careers in government service and education; sent their sons to public schools and Oxbridge; patronised the arts and the London Season; and propounded traditional Christian values in highbrow journalism and popular fiction - even when they were racked by religious doubt.
LRB 25 February 2010 | PDF Download