The wish of persons in the humbler classes of life to ape the manners
and customs of those whom fortune has placed above them is
often the subject of remark, and not infrequently of complaint. The
inclination may, and no doubt does, exist to a great extent, among
the small gentility – the would-be aristocrats – of the middle classes.
Tradesmen and clerks, with fashionable novel-reading families, and
circulating-librarysubscribing daughters, get up small assemblies in
humble imitation of Almack’s, and promenade the dingy ‘large room’
of some second-rate hotel with as much complacency as the enviable
few who are privileged to exhibit their magnificence in that exclusive
haunt of fashion and foolery.
So Dickens summed up, in Sketches by Boz, the aspirations of London’s ‘respectable’, those stationed in society above the struggling millions of the destitute, the desperate and the simply poor. The respectable divided into many social strata, but included everyone from the most lowly clerk to the grandest marquess. Those on the lower rungs of this social ladder were often content with their lot, for the world they inhabited was a comfortable one. Their ambitions were usually modest: a rented house (most people did not own, or think of owning, their homes), domestic help in the form of a servant (probably a girl of 12 or 13, recruited from the local workhouse); neat Sunday clothes and a seat on the parochial church council; an occasional trip to the seaside; a place for their son and daughter at one of the umpteen private schools that flourished in the suburbs, followed by a position for the boy in the firm where his father worked and marriage for the girl to one of her brother’s colleagues.