Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Middling, trading and industrious people…

… was how Daniel Defoe referred to what we would call the middle classes. The merchants, tradesmen, farmers, lawyers, doctors, who were in comfortable circumstances and perhaps on the fringes of the gentry, but not part of ‘Society’.

The middle classes are sometimes unkindly presented in historical fiction, sometimes overlooked entirely.

In the ‘clog and shawl’ genre the middle classes are often represented by the cruel mill owner, oppressing and exploiting his workers. Or the uncaring landlord, evicting his tenants from their cottages.

No doubt such men existed, but not every mill owner or landlord was like that. Many were philanthropists, who sought to improve the lives of their workers or tenants.

In historical romance, set in the assembly rooms of London and Bath and the ballrooms of great houses, the middle classes are sometimes presented as dull and socially awkward figures of fun. The middle class heroine, often a clergyman’s daughter, perhaps a governess, falls in love with a nobleman.

Yes, middle class young women did and do marry dukes (and even princes!) But why are there rarely any young men of the ’middling sort’ playing the role of romantic hero?

There were increasing numbers of the middle classes in England from the sixteenth century onwards, enjoying rising standards of living.

They employed large numbers of people, on their farms, in their shops, mills and counting houses and in their homes.

They played a vital role in their communities, doing time consuming and unpaid work as parish officers and later as elected members of the many new local government bodies set up in the nineteenth century.

Their daughters benefited from the increasing opportunities for women in education and employment in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Their sons served in the Royal Navy, the Army and the Royal Air Force and in the merchant navy.

Then, as now, most of them probably passed their whole lives without meeting a member of the aristocracy, or caring about their activities.

So can we have more historical fiction written from the point of view of the ’middling sort’, in which they do not merely play a supporting role in someone else’s story, but where their ambitions, their conflicts, their griefs are central to the plot?

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