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The nineteenth-century Victorian gentleman is a complex one, but necessary if you want to understand him. Even though I’m writing in an alternate steampunk world, I still think it’s necessary to analyze our history in order for me to get that steampunk flair.
Members of the British aristocracy were gentlemen because of their birth. However, birth alone could not make a man a gentleman. He would have to act like one. New industrial and mercantile elites tried to get into that inner circle of aristocratic gentlemen because of their growing wealth and influence. Other Victorians — clergy belonging to the Church of England, army officers, members of Parliament — were recognized as gentlemen by virtue of their occupations, while members of numerous other eminently respectable professions. Engineers–for example—were not.
The concept of the gentleman was not merely a social or class designation. A moral component was also inherent in the concept, which made it difficult for the Victorians to attempt to define, though there were several attempts, many of them dependent upon the revival of a chivalric moral code left over from the feudal past.
Sir Walter Scott defined this concept of the gentleman repeatedly in his Waverley Novels, and the code of the gentleman — and abuses of it — appear repeatedly in Victorian fiction. “The essence of a gentleman,” John Ruskin would write, “is what the word says, that he comes from a pure gens, or is perfectly bred. After that, gentleness and sympathy, or kind disposition and fine imagination.” Ruskin also maintained that “gentlemen have to learn it is no part of their duty of privilege to live on other people’s toil.” However, many “gentlemen” did precisely that.
Charles Dickens, (not to mention Rudyard Kipling), was an author of humble origins who desired to be recognized as a gentleman, and insisted, in consequence, upon the essential dignity of his occupation. Great Expectations is a portrait or a definition of Dickens’s concept of the gentleman and a justification of his own claim to that title. Thackeray, on the other hand, insisted (and the two old friends quarreled over this matter) that a writer of novels could not be a gentleman. The debate over just what constituted a gentleman raged on in many situations, but nowhere was it contested so fiercely as within Victorian literature itself, appearing in works as different as Tennyson’s In Memoriam and the novels of Dickens and Thackeray.
Eventually, the Victorians settled on a compromise: by the latter part of the century, it was almost universally accepted that anyone who had a traditional liberal education based largely on Latin at one of the elite public schools — Eton, Harrow, Rugby, and so on — would be recognized as a gentleman, no matter what his origins had been. In what ways would such a compromise help to maintain the English Class system?
D. Cody (2011). The Gentleman. Reference from http://www.victorianweb.org/history/gentleman.html .
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