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How to Use Class in Historical Settings, Part 2

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The Prince and The Pauper

The Prince and The Pauper, by Mark Twain. In which pauper Tom accidentally swaps places with Prince Edward and thereby gets VERY far above himself.

In most times and places in history, class and status have played much larger roles in people’s sense of self, place and behavior than in our democratically inclined modern times.  I wrote about the nature of class and how it framed people’s lives historically in an earlier post.  In today’s post I’ll suggest some guidelines for introducing class-conscious behavior and its related tensions into fictional settings.

Class Consciousness

When paying more attention to class in our settings, the first thing to do is to cultivate a consciousness of class and status in yourself, as the writer.  This is most easily done by an exercise of the imagination, and bringing this class consciousness into the foreground of your thoughts. The fact is that most of us have experienced power disparity and a feeling of obligation or duty that is expected of us in some aspect of our lives, and this gives us a basis for empathy for what it must be like to live in a more class-oriented society.  Life bounded by class strictures is akin to these things, only writ large and encompassing much more of one’s life.

A good way to start thinking like this is to put yourself in the imaginary shoes of someone whose life is defined in that manner. The more acute you can make this sense, the better. I recommend writing something in first person from the viewpoint of a character who lives in the place/time you are interested in. Have him or her talk about what they are allowed to do, what they are expected to do, and what they can never hope to do, because it is above or below their place in life.  This will of course also be shaped by the culture you have adopted or created for your setting, and so is a good way to start to get a feel for the boundaries of class and opportunity in your world.

What’s important to focus on here is how society is stratified and how aware individuals are (or aren’t) of their class and status. That is to say, class typically becomes an invisible subtext, believed to be such a ‘normal’ thing that people take it for granted unless they have a particular reason to pay attention to it. They won’t usually remark on “class” per se, but they will let the reality of it form the outline of their lives, unthinkingly.

For instance, life in a primitive village will be grounded in a foundation of bloodline relationships, probably manifesting as clans and other more tribal kinship affiliations (like with a group considering itself related because they share the same totem animal).  Where one fits into this web of kinship defines one’s class and status. In contrast, in a traditional western European setting  people will define themselves and have strong affinity to one of the three classic “estates” of commoners, nobles, or clergy (as discussed in previous post in this series).

If you take this to the next level with the imaginary conversation exercise mentioned above, we might find, for example, something very simple on the list of what a character is not allowed to do: perhaps a commoner may not look into the eyes of nobles they pass on the street. lest it be read as disrespectful or challenging . Some limits are quite blatantly tied to class and even reinforced in law, like a serf not being allowed to own land.  One of these things affects the character’s social comportment, the other their ambitions for future prosperity, but in either case, details like this give you a good feeling for how class frames a person’s life. Reading about social history can help you determine some of the class-related limitations and opportunities in historical settings, but if you are working with an invented culture one of your best resources is your own imagination. It can supply you with helpful answers if you ask it the right questions. (And the more you know about things like cultural anthropology and other social sciences, the easier it will be for your imagination to gain traction with these questions.)

Mistress and Maid

Mistress and Maid in the market - from Versailles Christmas-Tide by Mary Stuart Boyd, 1901

In any case, the point here is that the class niche a person occupies in their (non-modern, non-democratic) society forms a large part of their sense of self. It defines not only their behaviors (what society considers acceptable behaviors, at any rate) but also their very identity.  A primitive tribesman rests secure in the knowledge of exactly where he fits in the extended network of clan, kin, and family. He knows who are his brothers, who he can rely on, and who depends on him for assistance or has claims of obligation on him.  In short, he is aware of where and how he fits into the world around him, and knows that barring unusual events this is a position he is likely to occupy for most of his life.

Likewise in the medieval setting: the baron’s wife knows that her husband’s liege lord is her social superior, and that the maids and household staff are her inferiors.  She knows where her husband draws his power from: from his lord who has granted him lands and authority. Sharing the aura of her husband’s authority, she expects to be well-treated by inferiors and is entitled to privileges that are her due simply because of the station she holds and her birth, which is thought to be of “better blood” than the lesser persons in her household employ.  Her situation and how she sees the world reaffirms for her a sense of her station in life, and her entitlements and obligations in that station.

Introducing Dramatic Conflict

Once we have a sense of class consciousness, and what’s allowed and what isn’t to a given class, then we can get into areas that create useful dramatic tension, whether that is a chance encounter or a major plot thread. When people get a firm understanding (and expectations) about their “place” in the world,  it becomes relatively easy to create tension from these expectations. We have only to establish what are the expected behaviors, and then have our characters do something (or want to do something) that is at variance with what is acceptable for their class.

“Don’t Get Above Yourself”

What happens when a person aspires to greater things, but all the world around him thinks he is reaching too high (no matter how short his grasp) simply because he is trying to step outside the mold he was born to? However you answer that question, that dilemma in itself is a common one in class-based societies, and contains the core of dramatic tension and conflict by its very nature.

In the 1868 Journal of Education from Ontario, Canada, a “pithy sermon” advises young men, “Do not practice excessive humility, you can’t get above your level.”1 This aphorism explains that practicing unnecessary humility was not an effective way to gain preferment, or put more bluntly in modern terms, “There’s no point in sucking up since you’re stuck in the station to which you are born.”

The sense that one is meant to be (and stay) in the station of one’s birth is quite widespread in more class-conscious societies. While this provides a sense of social stability, with everyone in a predictable place, it can also create subtle or overt social and personal tensions. In the Maid in Britain documentary (embedded in Part 1),  one of the interviewees, author Alison Light, says of the domestic servant culture that used to exist in Britain, “It’s actually very deep in the English psyche. You know, it’s about deference, it’s about belligerence, and resentment, and it’s about envy.”

George Orwell illustrated class-based hurt and simmering resentment in an essay about his time in boarding school in the years just before World War One. Attending on a scholarship, he was in the lower class of the school population. In “Such, Such Were the Joys…” he writes,

I had been made to understand that I was not on the same footing as most of the other boys.  In effect there were three castes in the school. There was the minority with an aristocratic or millionaire background, there were the children of the ordinary suburban rich, who made up the bulk of the school, and there were a few underlings like myself, the sons of clergymen, Indian civil servants, struggling widows and the like. These poorer ones were discouraged from going in for “extras” such as shooting and carpentry, and were humiliated over clothes and petty possessions. I never, for instance, succeeded in getting a cricket bat of my own, because “your parents wouldn’t be able to afford it.” […] I and similarly placed boys were always choked off from buying expensive toys like model aeroplanes, even if the necessary money stood to our credit. Bingo, in particular, seemed to aim consciously at inculcating a humble outlook in the poorer boys. “Do you think that’s the sort of thing a boy like you should buy?” I remember her saying to somebody – and she said this in front of the whole school; “You know you’re not going to grow up with money, don’t you? Your people aren’t rich. You must learn to be sensible. Don’t get above yourself!” (pg 12)

This kind of friction caused by class expectations can be played up intentionally in your fictional settings. Characters may have to deal with unwelcome limitations, or exercise privilege unapologetically because it is natural to their position – with perhaps significant consequences for those around them.  In a western European setting, lower classes will be reminded that they shouldn’t aspire too high, and higher classes will learn entitlement. Tensions can stem quite compellingly from quiet personal dramas:  the cobbler’s son who wants to join the clergy instead of following in his father’s footsteps is under terrible pressure from his family for even thinking of trying to break with tradition and get above himself. In other settings the tension may revolve around a different axis. Exactly what kind of dramatic complications this can lead to in your own world I must leave to your imagination, but any time expectations and desires clash, there is fertile ground for conflict.

Gabriel and Bathsheba - Allingham

Far From the Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy. The shepherd Gabriel attends Bathsheba, once a penniless girl, who has become heiress to a farm. Although he loves her, she is unreachably beyond his station, and now he doesn't even dare look her in the eyes. Hardy's book is a perfect example of class-based dramatic tension that is organic to the setting.

In Part 3 of this series I’ll look at a common class-behavior dictum for the upper classes, and the consequences of defying class expectations.


1  Ryerson, Adolphus, et al. (1868) “A Pithy Sermon to Young Men” in The Journal of Education for Ontario, Vol 21-22, the Ontario Department of Education.  Pg 171 (Google Books)


Related Posts

How to Use Class in Historical Settings, Part 1. First in this series

How to Use Socioeconomic Class in RPGs, Part 1

We Need More Class Consciousness, Not Less.  This is an interesting commentary on class consciousness by Terence Blacker, writing in The Independent in the U.K.  It illustrates the enduring influence of class consciousness especially when it is unconscious and not recognized by people it is limiting.

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Author Deborah Teramis Christian

Teramis wrote her first book at age 9, but like all good literary lizards has taken her time charging upon the market. Finally in a situation where she can write full time, she is becoming the Dragon, Unleashed, or a close facsimile thereof. Roar, said the saur.

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