BBC News


Page last updated at 14:27 GMT, Friday, 10 April 2009 15:27 UK

Class and prejudice

Dickens Austen
Are the characters portrayed by Dickens more real than Austen's cast?

It's tempting to use social class as a shortcut to judging people we don't know. But it's crass and lazy, as Laurie Taylor - writing in his weekly column for the Magazine - once found out to his cost.

"So which novels are you reading for your A-levels?" It was such a straightforward question that I found myself stuttering for a moment. I'd been prepared for something much tougher. "Well," I said, "I'm reading Charles Dickens. Oliver Twist and Great Expectations."

"Excellent," said Professor Gregory. "And you're enjoying Dickens?" "Oh yes," I said. "He's a very good novelist. Very, very good."

Professor Gregory nodded enthusiastically as though this was the first time that he'd encountered such a positive opinion. "And why do you consider Dickens to be such a good novelist?"

I was prepared for this one as well. As soon as I received the letter inviting me for an interview at Birmingham University I'd made a point of going to see my sixth form English teacher, Mr Mercer, and asking about likely questions.

Laurie Taylor
Hear Laurie Taylor's Thinking Allowed on Radio 4 at 1600 on Wednesdays or 0030 on Mondays

"Well," I said with slowly mounting confidence, "What is so good about Charles Dickens is his realistic treatment of social conditions. He tells us about poverty and deprivation and disease and crime and the working class. He's very realistic."

"Realistic," repeated my interviewer. "That's right," I said. "Very realistic". That seemed to have put Dickens to bed because the professor now leaned back in his large swivel chair and asked about my other A-level work in English. Who else had I been reading?

"Jane Austen," I said promptly. "Pride and Prejudice. But I've had a look at Emma even though it's not on the syllabus! I think Jane Austen is very good as well."

My hope that this evidence of extra curricular reading would earn me a modest congratulation was rather dashed by the professor's sudden change of mood. He stopped smiling and sat up straighter. "So," he said, "you think that both Jane Austen and Charles Dickens are very good." I nodded. "So perhaps you'd like to tell me which of these authors you most favour?"

Unreal bourgeoisie

"I prefer Charles Dickens," I said firmly. "And why?" said my interviewer. "Well," I said "I don't think that Jane Austen is as realistic as Dickens. She doesn't write about poverty and deprivation and disease and crime and the working class. She's much more middle-class."

Monty Python sketch
Stereotypes challenged Python style: The working class playwrights sketch

I'd rehearsed this argument on the train down from Liverpool. It had sounded all right to me in the carriage but now that it echoed around this book-filled room it seemed oddly unconvincing.

My apprehension was only increased by the changed expression on Professor Gregory's face. Whereas before he'd seemed almost benevolent he now looked like a man who had finally trapped a troublesome rodent.

"So," he said, "Let me get this right, you think that it's only possible to be realistic about the working class. You think that a writer like Austen who wishes to record the sentiments of more middle class subjects is necessarily unrealistic?

I sensed a trap door slowly opening beneath my feet. "Well," I said, "The working class are more real because they do all the real work. They don't ride around in carriages and go to balls. They're… erm."

"The salt of the earth?" said Professor Gregory glancing across his desk to a pile of application forms as though already anticipating his next interview.

I smiled weakly. "Sort of," I said.


"Well, thank you for coming to see us," he said slightly rising in his chair. "We'll let you know our decision in a few weeks. But in the meantime I think it might be a good idea if you spent a little time separating your political views of class from the literary representations of class. There are rather more things in class than your philosophy allows."

And that was that. My rejection letter arrived within a fortnight. I told Mr Mercer and my parents that I'd failed because my interviewer was a snob who had no time for Charles Dickens' realism about the working class.

At the time Mr Mercer tried to cheer me up by pointing out that Gregory had only managed to sound so erudite because he'd been paraphrasing Hamlet. "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy" - but that consolation didn't work at the time and it never works now when I'm tempted to make any generalisation about the nature of social class. I know there will always be more things in class than my current knowledge allows.

Print Sponsor



Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific