In 1583 Sir Thomas Smith wrote: “One who can live idly and without manual labour and will bear the port (deportment) and countenance of a gentleman, he shall be taken for a gentleman.” But what does “being a gentleman” entail? According to Historical and Regency Romance UK, “The original dictionary definition of the word gentleman was strict: A well-educated man of good family. It was also used to refer to a man whose income derived from property as opposed to a man who worked for a living. It was only in the eighteenth century that it came also to mean a man who was cultured, courteous and well-educated with a code of honour and high standards of proper behaviour. By the time of Jane Austen, the gentleman had come to be defined by his personal qualities as much as by his status as a member of the landed gentry. He was not a member of the nobility but was an “esquire” at the top of the pile of untitled landowners. (Knights and baronets also do not belong to the peerage but are still a cut above an esquire by virtue of holding a title, and, of course, Jane Austen emphasized beautifully the superiority of Sir Walter Eliott, for example, a baronet, over Lady Russell the widow of a mere knight!) Even so, a gentleman such as Mr Darcy, untitled but well-connected, with a beautiful house and a very good income, was not to be sneezed at.”
Defining what made a “gentleman” was a fascinating conundrum, basically because the idea and legal aspects of being a ‘gentleman’ was in flux, in transition, under attack, etc. along with the entire upper class. Gentleman was a legal term and inheritable title according to long-standing laws. New ideas such as Thomas Paine’s “The Rights of Man” and the French Revolution were real threats to legitimacy of the hereditary ruling classes. The growing wealth of the middle class, buying their way into the gentry was another threat.
Jane Austen’s books all deal with the question: “What is a true gentleman?” Primogeniture laws existed where only the first son inherited. Therefore, second sons, such as Colonel Fitzwilliam in Pride and Prejudice and Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park, although ostensibly part of the upper class and a gentleman (yet still a commoner), had to discover another means of support. Without forfeiting his place in Society, a landless gentleman could be a barrister because he was given an honorarium, but not a solicitor because he received a salary or fee for work. He could become a vicar, who was given a ‘living’, possibly several, rather than a salary. He often did not work, per se, generally hiring others. A military officer was another story with its own issues, and one of the more serious threats to the gentry during the Napoleonic Wars. There were far more officers required during the twenty years of war than could be supplied by the upper classes. Purchasing a commission was seen as an entry into the gentry, especially by the wealthy merchant class. In Regency romances, the second son often joins the military ranks, while the third looks to the clergy, and the fourth to the law. Colonel Fitzwilliam tells Elizabeth Bennet, “Younger sons cannot marry where they like.” Needless to say, no one of sense would think Mr. Collins and Mr. Darcy “equals,” but by Regency standards they were both of the gentry class.
In addition to the younger sons of the nobility, the gentleman class also included physicians, military, clerics, land stewards, men practicing the law, etc. As time went on, wealthy merchants and manufacturers “cracked” the gentleman classification. Even so, the chasm between the “wanna-bees” and the landed gentry and the aristocracy remained firmly in place.
If we look at order of precedence, we can become more confused. For example, we have at the bottom of the “order” of precedence for those before we even reach the category of “gentleman”…
Eldest sons of the Younger sons of Peers
Eldest sons of Baronets
Eldest sons of Knights
Members of Fifth Class of Victorian Order
Baronets’ Younger sons
Knights Younger sons
Esquires: Including the Eldest sons of the sons of Viscounts and Barons, the eldest sons of all the younger sons of Peers and their eldest sons in perpetual Succession, the younger sons of Baronets, the sons of knights, the eldest son of the eldest son of a Knight in perpetual succession, persons holding the King’s Commission, or who may be styled “Esquire” by the King in any Official Document
Gentlemen (Edwardian Promenade)
Beyond money and land ownership, a “gentleman” was expected to perform in a particular manner. In such is where we find the true “gentleman.” Darcy was superior to either Collins or Wickham. Edmund Bertram outshone his brother Thomas. Sir Walter Elliot was a pompous ass, and his heir Mr. Elliot was a scoundrel, but Captain Wentworth was a true gentleman. Position and wealth were secondary to a sense of honour.
Captain Rees Hollow Gronow’s book, The Reminiscences and Recollections of Captain Gronow, Being Anecdotes of the Camp, Court, Clubs and Society 1810-1860, provides the reader a glimpse into a life of an officer operating among the upper classes. Gronow’s tales speak to acceptance and denial as a military officer/gentleman with little income to claim a position in Society.
There is an interesting 200+ page thesis by Ailwood, Sarah, “What Men Ought to be: Masculinities in Jane Austen novels.” University of Woolongong Theses Collection 2008 that can be downloaded at: http://ro.uow.edu.au/theses/124/ It addresses Austen’s ideas of Masculinity, which pretty much targets the society of gentlemen.
Mrs. Humphrey’s Manners for Men, originally published in 1897 (but facsimiles are available on Amazon for £4,50 HERE )