What Did It Mean to Be a “Gentleman” in Jane Austen’s England?

The word “genteel” is an adjective, meaning polite, refined, or respectable, often in an affected or ostentatious way. Its roots can be found in the late 16th century (in the sense ‘fashionable, stylish’): from French gentil ‘well-born’. From the 17th century to the 19th century the word was used in such senses as ‘of good social position’, ‘having the manners of a well-born person’, ‘well bred’. The ironic or derogatory implication dates from the 19th century, in which the Regency era lies. (Dictionary.com)

Meanwhile, “gentleman” is a noun, meaning a chivalrous, courteous, or honorable man, as in “He behaved like a perfect gentleman.” The word can also mean a man of good social position, especially one of wealth and leisure, or, as used in the United Kingdom, a man of noble birth attached to a royal household. The term comes from Middle English (in the sense ‘man of noble birth’): from gentle + man, translating Old French gentilz hom . In later use the term denoted a man of a good family (especially one entitled to a coat of arms) but not of the nobility. (Dictionary.com)

Most of us believe we know how the word is defined, and, I imagine, for many, your personal definition of a “gentleman” is based on behavior. However, that was not always the case during the Regency era. A man could be a “rake” or womanizer, but still be considered a gentleman. Our modern day definition of a “gentleman” does not take in those ranked as gentlemen in the order of precedence, right under “esquire,” which was not a term only used by lawyers of that day. If you wonder what I mean by Order of Precedence, check out this table on Wikipedia. We must remember that during the aristocracy only included those with a peerage. I often emphasize in my Austen-inspired books that Colonel Fitzwilliam is the younger son of an earl, but he is still a commoner, as is Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bennet, and even Mr. Collins. Only the colonel’s father is part of the peerage. Even the gentleman’s mother’s place in society depends upon her husband’s position. However, although the colonel, Darcy, Bennet, and Collins are all “equally” gentlemen by use of the term during the Regency, no one would think them equal otherwise. 

Therefore, when Elizabeth Bennet argues her point regarding Lady Catherine’s objections of Elizabeth setting her sights too high on the “order of precedence” by aspiring to marry Mr. Darcy, her ladyship’s response appears to make more sense. Elizabeth’s father was part of the landed gentry, but Mrs. Bennet’s roots lies in trade, as does Mrs. Bennet’s brother, Mr. Gardiner, and her sister, Mrs. Phillips. 

Elizabeth: “In marrying your nephew, I should not consider myself as quitting that sphere. He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal.”

Lady Catherine: “True. You are a gentleman’s daughter. But who was your mother? Who are your uncles and aunts? Do not imagine me ignorant of their condition.”

The good colonel’s father, an earl, had enough money to purchase him a position of rank in the Army. He is commissioned as an “officer and a gentleman.” His rank has nothing to do with whether Colonel Fitzwilliam truly behaved as a “gentleman,” as the modern term indicates. He could have been a rascal of a man, but still hold the term “gentleman” as part of his recognition in society. In these cases the definition has more connection to being of gentle birth than giving up a chair to a lady. The two definitions are connected because being genteel, or of the gentry, meaning of gentle birth also came with rules for expected behavior. It is hard to describe the meaning of Gentleman, specially to those who have no idea of the  milieu in which Jane Austen was raised. It is a quite tricky question. How about we sat instead: “A gentleman is one who has never had to work for a living and comes from a land-owning family”? The church, the law, and the army were considered suitable occupations for a gentleman during the Regency, but in practice, some were more equal than others. No one would have taken Mr. Collins for Mr. Darcy’s equal, though both would be called gentlemen.

The term “gentleman” during the Regency is a fascinating conundrum, basically because the idea and legal aspects of being a ‘gentleman’ was in flux, in transition, under attack, so to say, as was 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,” a book published in two parts, March 1791 and February 1792, and containing 31 articles, posits that popular political revolution is permissible when a government does not safeguard the natural rights of its people. Using these points as a base it defends the French Revolution against Edmund Burke’s attack in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Once must understand that the French Revolution presented real threats to legitimacy of the hereditary ruling classes.

The growing wealth of the middle class purchasing their way into the gentry was another threat. Mr. Bingley in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is a prime example of this situation.  Jane Austen’s books all deal with that question: “What is a true gentleman?” But because of the laws where only the first son inherited, second sons, ostensibly part of the upper class and a gentleman, had to have something to live on Again, I return to Colonel Fitzwilliam in the same book.

“Do you certainly leave Kent on Saturday?” said she.

“Yes—if Darcy does not put it off again. But I am at his disposal. He arranges the business just as he pleases.”

“And if not able to please himself in the arrangement, he has at least pleasure in the great power of choice. I do not know anybody who seems more to enjoy the power of doing what he likes than Mr. Darcy.”

“He likes to have his own way very well,” replied Colonel Fitzwilliam. “But so we all do. It is only that he has better means of having it than many others, because he is rich, and many others are poor. I speak feelingly. A younger son, you know, must be inured to self-denial and dependence.”

“In my opinion, the younger son of an earl can know very little of either. Now seriously, what have you ever known of self-denial and dependence? When have you been prevented by want of money from going wherever you chose, or procuring anything you had a fancy for?”

“These are home questions—and perhaps I cannot say that I have experienced many hardships of that nature. But in matters of greater weight, I may suffer from want of money. Younger sons cannot marry where they like.”

Without forfeiting his rank, a landless gentleman could be a barrister because a barrister was presented an honorarium, not a salary for his services, but not he could not become a solicitor because a solicitor received a salary or fee for work.  A vicar was given a ‘living’, possibly several, which was not considered a salary. He often did not work, per se, generally hiring others to do any work. A military officer was another story with its own issues, and one of the more serious threats to the gentry during the Napoleonic era. There were far more officers needed during the twenty years of war than could be supplied by the upper classes. After a fashion, buying a commission or earning a position of authority in the Royal Navy was seen as an entry into the gentry. Do you not recall Sir Walter’s objections to Frederick Wentworth in Austen’s novel, Persuasion? Wentworth has more value when he returns as a “Captain” and has a fortune of £30,000.

Gronow’s wonderful book is a great illustration of an officer being among the upper classes, but as a war-minted gentleman without much money, he was not fully accepted.

For those of you seeking more information on this topic, 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.

About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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