It was admitted on all sides that Ferdinand Lopez was a "gentleman." Johnson says that any other derivation of this difficult word than that which causes it to signify "a man of ancestry" is whimsical. There are many, who in defining the term for their own use, still adhere to Johnson's dictum;--but they adhere to it with certain unexpressed allowances for possible exceptions. [Chapter 1]

In a sense he was what is called a gentleman. He knew how to speak, and how to look, how to use a knife and fork, how to dress himself, and how to walk. But he had not the faintest notion of the feelings of a gentleman. [Chapter 58]

"I shall never willingly give my daughter to any one who is not the son of an English gentleman. It may be a prejudice, but that is my feeling."

As Trollope’s narrator in The Prime Minister and his characters in that novel both make clear, the idea of what makes a man a gentleman had moved far enough from its original meaning of nobleman not only to permit some degree of social advancement (and social climbing) but also to provide precisely those kind of conflicts that can enrich narrative. In the novel’s ninth chapter — “Mrs. Dick's Dinner Party” — we follow the thoughts of father adverse to permitting his daughter Emily to marry the adventurer Ferdinand Lopez, chiefly because “the man was distasteful to him as being unlike his idea of an English gentleman, and as being without those far-reaching fibres and roots by which he thought that the solidity and stability of a human tree should be assured.” At the same time Wharton admits to himself that

the world was changing around him every day. Royalty was marrying out of its degree. Peers' sons were looking only for money. And, more than that, peers' daughters were bestowing themselves on Jews and shopkeepers. Had he not better make the usual inquiry about the man's means, and, if satisfied on that head, let the girl do as she would? Added to all this there was growing on him a feeling that ultimately youth would as usual triumph over age, and that he would be beaten. If that were so, why worry himself, or why worry her?

The changing notion of gentleman plays such a central role in a novel the reader might at first believe would concern the political fortune of the Duke of Omnium, a gentleman of the old school if ever there was one, that Trollope opens the novel with a discussion of the problematic relation of the idea of gentleman as one born to certain kind of ancestry to contemporary social advancement. “It is certainly of service to a man to know who were his grandfathers and who were his grandmothers if he entertain an ambition to move in the upper circles of society, and also of service to be able to speak of them as of persons who were themselves somebodies in their time.” The following sentence, however, introduces the possibilities — and social difficulties — of the self-made man when Trollope's narrator admits,

No doubt we all entertain great respect for those who by their own energies have raised themselves in the world; and when we hear that the son of a washerwoman has become Lord Chancellor or Archbishop of Canterbury we do, theoretically and abstractedly, feel a higher reverence for such self-made magnate than for one who has been as it were born into forensic or ecclesiastical purple. But not the less must the offspring of the washerwoman have had very much trouble on the subject of his birth, unless he has been, when young as well as when old, a very great man indeed. After the goal has been absolutely reached, and the honour and the titles and the wealth actually won, a man may talk with some humour, even with some affection, of the maternal tub;--but while the struggle is going on, with the conviction strong upon the struggler that he cannot be altogether successful unless he be esteemed a gentleman, not to be ashamed, not to conceal the old family circumstances, not at any rate to be silent, is difficult. And the difficulty is certainly not less if fortunate circumstances rather than hard work and intrinsic merit have raised above his natural place an aspirant to high social position. Can it be expected that such a one when dining with a duchess shall speak of his father's small shop, or bring into the light of day his grandfather's cobbler's awl?

Pointing out that although “it may not be necessary for any of us to be always talking of our own parentage,” yet if a man never mentions his family he becomes suspicious. Lopez seems wealthy, cultured, and belongs to a club for gentleman. “It was not generally believed that Ferdinand Lopez was well born;--but he was a gentleman. And this most precious rank was acceded to him although he was employed” in finance rather than in one of the four occupations by which a gentleman could earn his bread — by, that is, “the bar and the church, by the military services and by physic.” The degree to which the idea of gentleman had broadened, at least as far as Trollope was concerned, appears in the his inclusion of lawyers and physicians in the ranks of gentleman. Emily and Everett’s father, old Wharton, who so fiercely holds to the idea that his daughter can only marry an English gentleman is himself a wealthy attorney. When he explains why he approves of the man whom his daughter will eventually marry, he explains, “I like Arthur Fletcher, because he is a gentleman,--because he is a gentleman of the class to which I belong myself; because he works; because I know all about him, so that I can be sure of him; because he had a decent father and mother; because I am safe with him, being quite sure that he will say to me neither awkward things nor impertinent things” (emphasis added). The fact that Wharton approves of Fletcher as a desirable son-in-law in part because he “works” shows how far the definition of gentleman has expanded since the days when working for one’s living — as opposed to living off land and capital — debarred one from being a gentleman.

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Last modified 11 November 2015