During the Regency Period, wealth and social class separated the English citizenry. Beginning with the Royals, citizens found their place based on birthright and wealth. The nobility stood above the gentry, who stood above the clergy, who stood above the working class, etc. As part of the gentry, Jane Austen’s family held certain privileges, but also lacked political power. Although he was a rector, the Reverend George Austen was also a “gentleman,” meaning man of the gentry class. Austen’s novels are populated with those of the gentry. Occasionally, her readers encounter the “pseudo”-peerage, as in Lady Catherine De Bourgh [the wife of a baronet] and the Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple [the widow of a viscount] or the clergy, as with Mr. Collins and Mr. Elton.
The Social Classes were divided as such:
Cottagers and laborers ~ Cottagers were a step below husbandmen, in that they had to work for others for wages. Lowest order of the working castes; perhaps vagabonds, drifters, criminals or other outcasts would be lower.
Husbandman (or other tradesmen) ~ A tradesman or farmer who either rented a home or owned very little land was a husbandman. In ancient feudal times, this person likely would have been a serf, and paid a large portion of his work or produce to the land-holding lord.
Yeoman ~ The yeoman class generally included small farmers who held a reasonable amount of land and were able to protect themselves from neighbouring lords et cetera. They played a military role as longbowmen. Sometimes merchant citizens are placed between yeoman and gentry in early modern social hierarchy.
Gentry/gentleman ~ The gentry by definition held enough assets to live on rents without working, and so could be well educated. If they worked it was in law, as priests, in politics, or in other educated pursuits without manual labour. The term Esquire was used for landowners who were not knighted. Many gentry families were armigerous and of ancient lineage possessing great wealth and large estates.
Knight ~ The definition of a knight depends upon the century in which the term was applied. In very early medieval times a knight fought as a common soldier on foot; later as cavalry became more important the knight’s role became more associated with wealth. By the seventeenth century a knight was a senior member of the gentry, and the military role would be one of sheriff of a county, or organising a larger body of military forces, or in civil service exercising judicial authority. He was a large land owner, and his younger sons would often be lawyers, priests, or officials of some sort. [In Pride and Prejudice, Sir William Lucas was knighted at St. James.]
Baronet (hereditary, non peer) ~ A baronet held a hereditary style of knighthood, giving the highest rank below a peerage. [Lady Catherine is the widow of Sir Louis De Bourgh, a baronet.]
Peer (Noble/Archbishop) ~ The peers were generally large land holders, living solely off assets, sat in the House of Lords and either held court or played a role in court depending upon the time frame referenced.
Duke/Duchess; Marquess/Marchioness; Earl/Countess; Viscount/Viscountess; Baron/Baroness
Royal ~ A member of the royal family, a prince, a close relative of the queen or king. [Social Structure of the United Kingdom]
To be part of the landed gentry, the family must own 300+ acres of property. The Reverend George Austen was part of the gentry, but he came from the lower end of the class distinction, while Jane Austen’s mother came from a wealthier background. When one reads Austen, the reader meets the gentry. A member of the gentry was known as a gentleman, but not all members of the gentry acted as a gentleman.
Good manners defined a person during the era. Loosely based on Renaissance Italy and 17th Century French customs, the “rules” of engagement during the Regency Period were strictly enforced by members of the “ton.” One who did not adhere to the rules would be shunned by Society.
A gentleman, for example, was expected to speak properly and to avoid vulgarity; to be dressed appropriately; to dance well; to be well versed on a variety of subjects and to have a university education or above; and to practice condescion to those of a lower class.
When addressing women the eldest daughter in a family would be referred to as “Miss” + her last name (i.e, Miss Elliot or Miss Bennet). The younger sisters would be “Miss” + the woman’s given “Christian” name (i.e, Miss Anne or Miss Elizabeth). Addressing males followed a similar form. The eldest son was “Mister” + last name (i.e, Mr. Ferras or Mr. Wentworth). The younger sons used both given name and surname (i.e., Mr. Robert Ferras).
People of lower rank were expected to wait to be introduced to someone of a higher rank. (Do you recall Catherine Morland and Mrs. Allen at Bath? They must wait for an introduction to Henry Tilney, who calls upon the evening’s master of ceremonies to do the deed.) Women of the period were to be obedient to their fathers and husbands, docile and without opinions, have refined qualities, and be attendant upon their families. Education was not a prerequisite for women. In Austen’s stories, her heroines often shun these predisposed qualities. One must remember that Darcy admires Elizabeth Bennet’s desire to “improve her mind by extensive reading.”