Friday, January 3, 2014

Wandering Thoughts from Reading an Old Book

I just finished an oldie but goodie book, The Nonesuch, by Georgette Heyer. It is one of her many Regency Romances (a genre she basically invented). Set in the late 1700s to early 1800s these books feature characters from Britain's upper classes. They are witty, often funny, and a complex interweaving of the lives of a group of people within a certain social group. Of course, by the end love triumphs.

Thinking about the book I just finished and other books by this author, brought my thoughts to how glad I am to have been born in the U.S. Although this nation had its beginning as an English colony, its European immigrants came mostly from the "lower" classes. Although we have always had our elites, the ambition that drove so many to seek a better way of life by crossing the ocean formed a new kind of elite class, based upon accomplishment rather than by birth.

The characters in the Heyer books are of a class that believed themselves superior simply because of their lineage. A person's bloodlines were all-important. A person could be a wastrel, immoral, and foolish and still be socially acceptable because of his family ties. Wealth should be old wealth based on titles, land, rental of land to others to farm, and investments. The upper class must never, never work for a living. Wealth gained by personal work or commerce did not grant a person entry into the social circles of the elite. Because of this disdain for the working class, the elite spent their time finding ways to spend their time! Visiting, travel, dinner parties (with very strict adherence to rank in seating, etc.--it was important to be aware of every person's placement within their system of ranking), handicrafts for women, sporting events for men, going for rides, going for strolls, playing cards and other parlor games, and so on. There was a constant search for entertainment. (Well, that does happen today, also.)

Of course, there were upper class people who found worthwhile things to do with themselves, from charitable works to writing to politics. But the real, progress engendering, social changing work came from people who had to work, whose creative juices were not stifled by class strictures.

Okay, that's the impression gained from reading books, and not to be taken as the result of any kind of study or expertise! There are always exceptions. Think Florence Nightingale and her work that eventually made nursing a skilled and respected field.

America inherited people desperate to work, to improve things, to change their lives for the better. Class meant little, accomplishment meant a lot.

Of course, some of these workers created things that made them very rich indeed and a new class of elitism grew up based on wealth. It seems to be an element of human nature that once a family has wealth, they become separated from whatever their roots may have been.

But I do like that a person is less apt to be judged by his family these days, if he has lived a decent life. Accomplishments of all sorts are admired. A person can become "somebody" by his own effort, no matter what his background is. (Yes, I use "he" or "his" in the longstanding generic sense. So much less complicated than the awkward his/her or the increasingly common use of "their" rather than generic "his" or "his/her"--which creates a grammar problem with singular/plural.)

This is not to minimize the growing non-working class that is supported by the working class. Every stage of social development seems to produce its own problems. No perfection here; the U.S. is not Utopia.

But I am glad not to live in a time and place where the first thing others must know about a person is his antecedents, so they can judge where he "fits."

I do enjoy a Georgette Heyer book from time to time. They are a pleasant read, they show a certain time, place, and social order that is interesting to visit. And the author has a sense of humor. She also did very extensive research into the period in which she set her stories. The slang expressions used by the characters are a hoot.

Hmmmm...this blog wandered around to places I did not mean to go, and in which I certainly have no expertise. I started out just thinking about how my ancestors came to America from different places and times and found their own ways to make a living and to develop their own social circles. The ancestors I found in building a family tree on have all come from the British Isles. They were not from the titled and upper classes! Through the years some have prospered, some have not. Inherited wealth has not been a factor, as far as I know. Everybody has worked.

1 comment:

  1. Sometimes, though, I think how nice it would have been to choose each day what I'd like to do, rather than always rushing off to a job. Oh wait, I will. That's what retirement is about, right?