The Tardis in the Library, part four: The Sweet Smell of Class Essentialism

I have time machines in my library. They work like magical one-way windows for when I gaze into them I can see and listen to people from times past yet they cannot see or hear me. Some, I think, suspect that people from the future might occasionally look in on them and so they are on what they feel to be their \”best\” behaviour. It is interesting and informative to see what they consider \”best\” behaviour.\” Other people from the past seem either to be totally unaware or totally unconcerned that people from the future might pass through every once and a while.

Anyone who wants to get a sense of just how strong (and unexamined) the class essentialism of the \”gentlefolk\” of England still was in the period between the two World Wars should read popular fiction written at that time specifically aimed at that class.

Take, for example, one of Agatha Christie\’s short stories, The Listerdale Mystery, originally published in 1925 [1]. Class essentialism doesn\’t lurk in the background of this story–it is the point of the story.

Warning, past here there be spoilers.

As the short story, The Listerdale Mystery, opens Mrs. Saint Vincent and her two grown children, Barbara and Rupert, have been \”reduced\” to living in what they refer to as \”cheap furnished lodgings\” after her late husband \”speculated unfortunately\” and in consequence they lost most of their money as well as Ainsley, the home in which their family had lived for generations. Money has become scarce indeed. Barbara has been unable to find a job doing the type of work she has recently trained for (shorthand and typing) and is now considering taking any type of job if only someone would hire her. The family clearly see themselves, not only as in dire straights, but as suffering in a qualitatively different manner than all the other people living in the same house or in the \”dingy line of houses opposite,\” because because the St. Vincents had known what it was to live otherwise.

Mr. St. Vincent had both speculated and \”borrowed\” and thus a different family now lived in the house that was for generations home to the St. Vincent family. His widow explains it all by saying that her husband was not a businessman. To which this reader responded (out loud I must admit) \”then why the hell did he put his family at risk by borrowing and speculating?\”

The St. Vincents are running so short of money that soon they will not be able to afford more than a bed-sitter and Barbara will have to receive Jim Masterton (a potential suitor) in the common sitting room just like everyone else. Meanwhile Mrs. St. Vincent fears that the \”tone\” of their surroundings is have an influence on her son:

he\’s quite different from what he used to be. Not that I want my children to be stuck-up. That\’s not it a bit. But I should hate it if Rupert got engaged to that dreadful girl in the tobacconist\’s. I daresay she may be a very nice girl, really. But she\’s not our kind.

Everything changes when Mrs. St. Vincent answers a curious advertisement in the Morning Post

To gentlepeople only. Small house in Westminster, exquisitely furnished, offered to those who would really care for it. Rent purely nominal. No agents.

It turns out that the rent is indeed small enough to be of little concern even to a family as short of funds as the St. Vincents. Especially when it turns out that the beautiful Queen Anne house comes not only with furniture but also with a butler (Quentin), cook, maid and flowers and game sent weekly from the estate of Lord Listerdale (the owner of the house.) The St. Vincents are told that Listerdale has gone to Africa leaving behind instructions that his various properties be rented at extreme modest rates to the \”type\” of people who would truly appreciate them.

After the St. Vincents begin to wonder if Quentin has actually made off with Lord Listerdale it turns out, of course, that the real Quentin has retired and Lord Listerdale has taken his place in order to make up for a life of selfishness by rescuing the groups he sees to be in dire need of his help–the \”genteel poor.\”

I thought I\’d try a little altruism for a change, and being a fantastic kind of fool, I started my career fantastically. I\’d sent subscriptions to odd things, but I felt the need of doing something – well, something personal. I\’ve been sorry always for the class that can\’t beg, that must suffer in silence – poor gentlefolk. I have a lot of house property. I conceived the idea of leasing these houses to people who – well, needed and appreciated them. Young couples with their way to make, widows with sons and daughters starting in the world.

And thus, by the end of the story, the truth has been revealed and all ends happily. Lord Listerdale has fallen in love with Mrs. St. Vincent while serving her as a butler and so will marry her and take her away to live a life of leisure, comfort and no dingy rooms. Jim Masterton and Barbara have become engaged now that he has seen Barbara in a setting that showed off her true gentility. Rupert is no longer spending time with girl in the tobacconist\’s (or is doing so very quietly and on the side as have generations of his forebears.)

All ends well as a genteel family who were in danger of losing their class status are rescued without making the least effort of their own.

The class essentialism is laid on so thick in this story that if it were penned today one might presume that it was a parody or a pastiche. A wealthy man who had inherited property and income frittered it away. His widow and children are forced to live just like ordinary people. There are no inherited treasures in the house where they now room and it seems not to occur to them that particular aesthetic tastes might be social constructions or indeed that the people with whom they are now living never had enough money to \”waste\” it things that were not utilitarian. Nor does it occur to them that the cracked and cherished items that are now heirlooms were, when first purchased, expensive symbols of status as must as aesthetic choices.

Perhaps the reason that members of this class \”do not beg\” is that the usual response they get when they go to charitable organizations is to be told that they still have more than do most people in England. Or perhaps they don\’t beg because to do so would be to lose the one asset they still have– their \”genteel\” status. That status would get them in the doors of clubs and accepted at universities that might not otherwise accept them. That status allows them to marry into families were still turning away all but the richest of the \”non-genteel.\”

Note too how in this story there is no questioning, by any involved, that the \”genteel\” can be recognized almost immediately. And of course they can. Having gone to the same schools, read the same books and frequented the same society they all speak the special code. They all know the really important things in life such as which fork to use for each course at dining table and how many minutes to linger over the port after dinner.

The message to the readers is clear. The only truly worthy charity is charity to those who once had more than most people and now have to endure the horror of having no more than the average person. And the short story is a comforting read to current “members\” of the genteel telling them they need not worry if they are temporarily displaced by the current economic upheavals since they, like the St. Vincents, can be assured that their class status will always protect them from the vagaries of modern economic life.


[1] It was originally published in Grand Magazine as \”The Benevolent Butler.\” In 1934 it appeared under the name The Listerdale Mystery in the short story collection of the same name. &#8617

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