-The 19th Century-
-The importance of social class-
~The middle class~
Victorians worship success and money. The dream of businessmen is to join the
aristocracy, but first they aspire to send their children to public schools, to acquire
country houses and to marry into the landed gentry.
In 1850, the middle class is a fairly small group of professionals, factory owners,
businessmen, merchants and bankers. There is a deep gulf between this group and the
working classes. As Mrs Isabella Beeton's 1861 Book of Household Management
shows, you need lots of servants to prepare lavish meals, clean houses heated by filthy
coal and generally work with few labour-saving devices.
Over the next 50 years, the middle class not only expands very rapidly, it also splits into
two different layers.
~The upper middle class~
This is divided between professionals and industrialists. The professionals – doctors,
lawyers, clergy and top civil servants – are educated at public school and university.
They live in suburban villas and their ethos is hard work and no play.
By contrast, the industrialists usually send their children to be 'educated' in the family
firm, or train them to become engineers, although some now prefer public schools. A
few end up working in banking rather than running factories. Others go abroad and
run the empire. Some old aristocrats fear the 'monarchy of the middle classes', but in
practice, they tame 'trade' by marrying into it.
~The lower middle class~
After the 1850s, the bosses of industry are less likely to be self-made men who pass on
the business to their families, and more likely to be part of the new class of professional
managers. As government passes more laws, civil servants – working in both central
and local government – multiply. The growth of shopping offers women more chances
In London, especially, there comes into being a whole army of city clerks, who are
trained at the new polytechnics, read the Daily Mail, founded in 1896 by the
Harmsworth brothers, and commute to work by train and the newer tube, which links
central London to the even newer suburbs where the clerks live in neat terraced houses.
~The working classes~
Victorians always use the plural 'working classes' when they talk about labouring folk.
The social reformer Charles Booth (1840-1916) – who devotes 18 years to the
preparation of his great survey The Life and Labour of the People in London, which is
eventually published in 1903 – finds six categories of workers:
• high-paid labour
• regular standard earners
• small regular earners
• intermittent earners
• casual earners
• 'the lowest class' (see The poor below).
Regular standard earners make up the largest group (more than the total of the other
five categories combined). These are the people who benefit most from the booming
Victorian economy – their wages rise. From 1860 to 1900, the real wages of the
employed working classes almost double. At the same time, they have fewer kids – thus
defeating all the pessimistic predictions of the Malthusians. The combination of more
money and smaller families means that the respectable working classes have more time
for leisure (see Customs below).
But while life is getting better for the solid working classes, who are popularly known as
the 'deserving poor' and get charity when they fall on hard times, the poor are as
desperate – and numerous – as ever. The 'lowest class' comprises about a quarter of
urban populations. In York in 1901, for example, 27% of the people are in deep
poverty and living in squalid, even deadly slum conditions, according to an
investigation by Quaker philanthropist and chocolate manufacturer Seebohm Rowntree
(1871-1954), published as Poverty: A study of town life.
Some of these people are unemployed, some are criminals, all live a precarious
existence. Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor (1851-62) is
crammed with examples of poor people begging, hawking all manner of goods or even
collecting and selling dog droppings. In his novel Bleak House (1853), Charles
Dickens portrays Jo the ragged crossing-sweeper, a familiar figure in Victorian cities.
Many have no pleasures except for drink. By 1889, Charles Booth is arguing that the
poor are a menace: 'Their life is the life of savages.' Many end up in the workhouse.
Rural poverty is even worse. Poor crofters in the Scottish Highlands try to survive on as
little as £8 a year. On the great farms of southern England, most workers have to join
a gang, led by a task-master. Child labour and poverty are common. Women are
forced to give their children opium so they won't make any noise while their mothers
labour in the fields. When times are bad and work runs out – as it does when the
importing of cheap wheat (following the repeal of the Corn Laws) and of cheap wool
destroys traditional agriculture in the 1880s – these people have no choice. They must
leave the land and migrate to the booming cities or starve. By 1901, the number of men
working on farms has dropped by a third.
-Education for young women in the 19th Century-
interesting paper about women in 19th Century society.
Postcard published in 1906.
-Which jobs were available to women?-
Barred from all well-paid work women were forced into a very small range of occupations. Half
were in domestic service and most of the rest were unskilled factory hands or agricultural
labourers. Almost the only skilled work for women was in the bespoke clothing trade, but even
that was ill-paid and low-status. Seamstresses became a cause célèbre in the 1840s.
Prostitution was rife in Victorian England, the majority being "casual", resorted to only when
there was no alternative. Without the safety-net of a welfare system and with all wealth in the
hands of men, it was to individual men that women were forced to turn and to sell themselves
when desperate for subsistence.
"Slaves of the Needle:" The Seamstress in the 1840s
by Beth Harris
Assistant Professor, Fashion Institute of Technology, State University of
In the early 1840s, lower middle-class, middle-class, and even upper-class women ("distressed
gentlewomen") were increasingly put in the position of having to support themselves. Mrs.
Jameson noted that "attorneys and apothecaries, tradesmen and shopkeepers, banker's clerks
&c, in this class more than two-thirds of the women are now obliged to earn their own bread"
There were three main kinds of dances or Formal Balls of 19th century England as
noted in Jane Austen's novels, and they played a significant role in people's lives.
These balls included: Assembly Room dances that occurred in town, smaller dances
thrown at country inns, and private balls given at a country home by a private citizen.
These social events were used as ways to network as well as give young people an
opportunity to catch a future spouse.
~The Assembly Room Balls~
Assembly Rooms were public venues specifically built for public balls. In his book
What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew, Daniel Pool talks about the Master
of Ceremonies, whose responsibility was to know the background of the young men and
women present, and then introduce them so they could dance, as it was improper for
men and women of the day to introduce themselves. The Master of ceremonies also
made sure that the attendees maintained their propriety and proper etiquette.
Dances at country inns were similar to this, but on a much smaller scale. They were
usually held in smaller communities, organized by locals, and consisted of dancing and
~The Private Balls~
The smallest gatherings were balls thrown at private estates by individuals.These balls
would also consist of dining as well as dancing. The dinner was held very late (around
midnight) and could consist of a few courses to sometimes even eight or ten. According
to Maggie Lane's book Jane Austen's World, the menu consisted of things such as
soup, pigeon pie, veal, cheese, oysters, and trifles, and was typically served with wine or
negus, which was a mixture of boiling water, wine, lemon, spices, and calves-foot jelly.
Mr. Bingley throws one of these balls at Netherfield Park in Pride and Prejudice.
~The Style of Dancing~
As for the actual dances, they were not the dances of couples as we know in the modern
sense. According to Janet Todd's Jane Austen in Context,, the “ladies and gentlemen
[would be] standing opposite each other in a line or a circle." These dances could have
as few as three couples, and upwards of twenty. Because all of the dancers, not just the
couples, were involved with the dancing, the more couples involved with the dance, the
longer a set lasted. This was good for the couples, because if there were a lot of people
dancing, they may have to wait their turn to dance, so they could flirt with their partner.
This is seen at the Netherfield Ball in Pride and Prejudice when Mr. Darcy and
Elizabeth converse throughout their dance. An average dance would last around thirty
minutes, giving the couple ample opportunity to talk.
~The Etiquette of Dancing~
As for the dancing, it was improper etiquette for a woman to dance more than two
dances with the same partner, and if two people did dance more than two dances
together, they were assumed engaged. This is seen in Sense and Sensibility when
Marianne and Willoughby are “partners for half the time” and “were careful to stand
together and scarcely spoke a word to anybody else." According to Pool, ladies would
also carry dance cards to mark the names of men who they had promised dances to, so
as to keep it all in order.
All of these circumstances provided the perfect opportunity to have fun, and if they were
lucky, make a life match.
The copyright of the article Formal Balls in Jane Austen and Regency England in 18th & 19th
Century British Fiction is owned by Sandra Causey. Permission to republish Formal Balls in Jane
Austen and Regency England in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.
Read more: http://victorian-
Another good website- (more directed at American dances, but very similar)