Mobility between the English Classes Explained
Dr Keith C Marshall
Hon. Secretary, The Anthony Powell Society
These notes are intended to help elucidate and explain the diagram above.
Please note that this chart and these notes are not a statement of personal belief; nor of how I think society should be arranged. It is purely as a reflection of how it seems to me things are; a statement of history.
- The chart is somewhat simplified. The aim is to provide a broad overview of the English classes and the mobility between them. Doubtless there are other portals through some of the boundaries, but they are either, in my opinion, relatively minor or they are subsets of the portals shown. However I make no pretence that this is a complete representation.
- In drawing up this chart I have been thinking predominantly about class as it would have applied in the early novels of Anthony Powell’s 12-volume sequence A Dance to the Music of Time, that is during the 1920s and 1930s. Even today (2004) the English have not abolished the class system; although mobility between the classes, at least the lower classes, is probably somewhat easier (thus smudging the boundaries) a large part of this model is still true – just nowhere near so rigid as it was prior to World War II. The exception to this is the Upper and Upper Middle classes where inter-class mobility remains, in my view at least, rare.
- At birth everyone takes on the class of their parents.
- In theory, on marriage the woman takes on the class of her husband. However this is not always the case as an Upper Middle class man marrying an Upper Class wife may be accepted as Upper Class.
- Remember too that we are talking about the days when the working wife, let alone the working mother, was a great rarity. Working wives and mothers didn't start becoming at all commonplace until the 1970s. The exception to this is the Working class in the towns and cities, where wives and mothers often did work (from necessity), even if only as casual labour. And of course women worked much more during times of war.
- If you are born into the Upper or Upper Middle classes you remain there by birthright. It is almost impossible to fall from them.
- If you are born working class, again you are kept there by your birthright. However you can rise by being lucky and getting into the right profession (eg. medicine, the church, the law, academia) or by being a good businessman. You can fall from grace, too, by being a bad businessman or having major health problems.
- There is much more mobility between the Middle and Lower Middle classes. Birthright is not enough to maintain one’s status; one remains there on one’s own merit – by having the right profession, or being a sufficiently astute, hard-working or wise businessman. Equally by getting these things wrong one can fall from grace.
- Interestingly one never seems to come across the Lower Middle Class
falling to be Working Class.
This is probably for two reasons:
(a) there is a cultural divide between Lower Middle and Working Classes and
(b) the Middle Classes all seem to have more support from family.
- What can happen however is that if they come upon great misfortune (especially in business) the Lower Middle Class can fall into destitution and the Workhouse.
- Again there is a cultural divide between the Middle Class (usually upwardly mobile and self-made men) and the Upper Middle Class. However good one’s profession someone of Middle Class will not get to be Upper Middle Class unless he is also perceived to be "the right sort of chap" or "one of us". Or possibly by making a good marriage into the Upper Middle Class.
- There is a very definite "glass ceiling" between the Upper Middle and Upper Classes. The only available portal through this "glass ceiling" is marriage, and even then the portal is not always open – one still has to be perceived to be "the right sort of chap".
- In addition the Upper/Upper Middle and Upper Middle/Middle boundaries are unidirectional. If one manages to traverse upwards across these boundaries, to attain the higher class, one keeps one’s new class -- there is effectively no way down. Once one is accepted, one is accepted forever even if one falls upon extremely hard times and destitution.
- For another view of the English classes of circa 1975, see Class by Jilly Cooper.
I am indebted to Noreen Marshall for some social historical insights, especially the role of working women.