Many Victorian authors, including Lewis Carroll, Elizabeth Gaskell, Thomas Carlyle, and Charlotte Brontë, criticize class prejudice. For example, in North and South, Gaskell reveals her dislike of rigid social stratification by presenting a positive example of class relations in Mr. Hale's treatment of the Margaret's working-class friend, Nicholas Higgins:

Hale treated all his fellow-creatures alike — it never entered into his head to make and difference because of their rank. He placed a chair for Nicholas, stood up till he, at Mr. Hales request, took a seat; and called him, in variable, "Mr. Higgins," instead of the curt "Nicholas" or "Higgins," to which the "drunken infidel weaver" had been accustomed. But Nicholas was neither an habitual drunkard nor a thorough infidel. He drank to drown care, as he would have himself expressed it: and he was infidel so far as he had never yet found any form of faith to which he could attach himself, heart and soul. Margaret was a little surprised, and very much pleased, when she found her father and Higgins in earnest conversation, each speaking with gentle politeness to the other, however their opinions might clash. Nicholas — clean, tidied (if only at the pump-trough), and quiet spoken — was a new creature to her, who had only seen him in the rough independence of his own hearthstone. [288]

Gaskell presents Hale as the ideal. He sees the man before he sees his social position; the person behind the title. Margaret held extreme prejudices against the North, particularly against the tradesmen, at the beginning of the novel. Now she truly appreciates her father's fairness. Later in the book, she teaches Mr. Thornton that "all men are created equal." Gaskell attempts to pass that same idea on to her reader.

Like Gaskell, Charlotte Brontë illustrates the harmfulness of distinctions between class, though in Jane Eyre, she does so on a much more limited level. One can see simply from the plot of the story that she intends to nullify the differences between the various social circles. The story line charts the progress of Jane as she starts at the bottom of the social scale as an orphan living off her aunt's charity and eventually, with "virtuous integrity, keen intellect and tireless perseverance broke through class barriers to win equal stature with the man she loved." (Bantam Books, Jane Eyre)

Brontë, by choosing the profession of governess for Jane, allowed her audience to see life from both the servant's point of view and the aristocracy's point of view by means of a critical, cultured, and articulate character. The uncertain social status of governesses made the role a difficult one as the following historical description points out:

The governess in the nineteenth century personified a life of intense misery. She was also that most unfortunate individual; the single, middle-class woman who had to earn her own living. Although being a governess might be a degradation, employing one was a sign of culture and means. . . . The psychological situation of the governess made her position unenviable. Her presence created practical difficulties within the Victorian home because she was neither a servant nor a member of the family. She was from the social level of the family, but the fact that she was paid a salary put her at the economic level of the servants. (Bonnie G. Smith, "Chapter 5: The Domestic Sphere in the Victorian Age," Changing Lives]

Only the salary of the governess and her usually low family position keeps her from being considered part of the culturally elite. The same holds true for the tradesman from Gaskell's North and South. They do not lack potential or intellect anymore than the aristocracy do. Brontë and Gaskell successfully break down the barriers and prove what people from the lower classes can possibly achieve.

The two authors use the same technique to show how the differences between class fall away. They pay specific attention to changes in names and labels and demonstrate that only labels truly differentiate the worker from aristocracy. Gaskell talks about how Mr. Hale calls Higgins "Mr. Higgins" rather than anything else and she goes on to prove the invalidity of using the label of "drunken infidel weaver" to describe him. Further on in the novel, as Thornton comes to accept his worker as equal human beings, his label for them switches from "hands" to "men." The identical thing happens in Jane Eyre. As Jane gains equal footing with Rochester, he demands that she calls him "Edward" rather than "sir." The manipulation of names reveals the shallow basis for social structure, thus confirming Brontë and Gaskell's ideas on the negativity of class prejudice.


Victorian Web Overview Elizabeth Gaskell North and South Victorian Work

Created October 1992; last modified: 19 February 2001