The Representation of Class in Thomas Hardy's "For Conscience' Sake"

Term Paper, 2017

14 Pages, Grade: 2,3



1. Introduction

2. Theory and Method
2.1 Literary Approach and Analytical Categories
2.2 Definitions
2.2.1 Class
2.2.2 Lower-, Middle-, and Upper Classes

3. Analysis and Interpretation
3.1 Remorse and its Consequences
3.2 The Clash of Classes

4. Conclusion

5. Sources Cited

1. Introduction

Next to many Victorian novels, Thomas Hardy wrote many short stories that he used to “experiment and maneuver around the dictates of the literary marketplace” (Flynn 2017: 53). Whereas novels of this period served as a relief from the pressure and cold of rationalism (cf. Seeber 2012: 273), short stories made it possible to experiment with different modes of writing. Regarding the content and mode of his short story “For Conscience’ Sake” (1891) , Hardy represented the British class system in the 1890s, but contradicted the Victorian conventions of the literary marketplace (cf. Flynn: 55−57) in terms of his depiction of illegitimate childbirth and marriage between persons of different social classes. This contradiction is strongly connected to cultural norms, developments and class issues of the 19th century, so that it is necessary to shortly mention those aspects:

The French Revolution and the Industrialisation in the 18th century had strongly affected the 19th century, so that the hierarchical social order of the 17th century shifted towards a class system without ranks, but with competing identities (cf. Cannadine 1998: 57).

Victorian Britain was a deeply classed society; everyone was aware of class, admitted that it was a meaningful social reality, and identified themselves as a member of class. (Steinbach 2012: 114).

For the utilitarians of the 19th century “only will power and a degree of talent were needed to achieve economic and social success” (Mattisson 2013: 190), so that people became increasingly class-conscious and attempted to rise in terms of their social class. The rise of the working- and middle classes led to growing fear of the upper classes (cf. Devine 2013: 170 p. /Cannadine); and with the right to vote for educated middle-class members, the upper classes had to rule the country together with them.

The high class-consciousness of Victorian England is also very prominent in Hardy’s short story, so that the aim of this paper is to show that “For Conscience’ Sake” breaks with the conventions of the Victorian literary marketplace in order to depict the consequences of a relationship or marriage between people from different classes induced by a very class-conscious society, and that these consequences not only affect the female part of the couple.

In order to prove this thesis statement, I will firstly show the class differences between the different characters, analyse difficulties that emerge with the relationship between the characters induced by their class-difference, and finally conclude with the statements that the text offers about class and culture of the late 19th century.

2. Theory and Method

2.1 Literary Approach and Analytical Categories

This paper uses a contextual approach, which offers a comparison between Victorian culture and society and Hardy’s representation of it. To illustrate Hardy’s construction of class in his short story, I will write a plot summary which also takes up the character constellation, give a characterisation of the main characters in terms of class by analysing their housing, occupation and other indicators hinting towards a specific class. I will then use a textual approach to illustrate the upcoming difficulties of the characters that are induced by the alteration of their class.

2.2 Definitions

2.2.1 Class

‘Class’ is a very complex concept, which attempts to divide society into different categories as for instance the lower-, middle-, and upper classes. Next to the latter one, there are several concepts of class like for example the distinction between poor and wealthy people, or the economic distinction between productive and unproductive people, which led to the category of the working classes. In Victorian Britain the criteria for the different classes were “[...] simultaneously economic, cultural, and discursive. They encompassed income, educational level, occupation, domestic standards and styles, politics and leisure." (Steinbach 2012: 116). The parents’ class often decided on the social class of their children, although classes were “potentially dynamic ones” (Clarke 2005: 40), so that there was the possibility to rise or fall in class.

2.2.2 Lower-, Middle-, and Upper Classes

The aforementioned criteria like income; educational level, occupation, domestic standards and styles are responsible for the distinction of society in different classes.

In the 19th century, about 80% of the British society represented the lower classes (or working classes), which were manual workers with a family income of about £100−£300 in one year. The growing middle class included 15% of the British population, and its members of manufacturers and professionals (e.g. doctors, lawyers and clergymen) had an annual income of about £300−£1000, although the £100−£300 of the working class were common. The upper classes, which consisted of the aristocracy and gentry, had an annual family income of more than £1000, and represented only 5% of the whole population. The incomes of the different classes derived from wages (working class), commerce or manufacturing (middle class), or rents and investments (upper class).1 In order to be more specific, the aforementioned classes have been divided into lower, middle and upper, again so that for instance the middle class would be divided into lower-, middle- and upper middle class.

3. Analysis and Interpretation

3.1 Remorse and its Consequences

“For Conscience’ Sake” is about Mr Millborne, an English bachelor, who is conscience-stricken because of an unfulfilled promise that he has given 20 years ago. He has promised Leonora, at that time a young girl working in a music shop, to marry her because of their acquaintance, which resulted in pregnancy. Despite this, he has left the town, so that she has had no other opportunity as to leave the county as well, and appear with a new name with her little girl as a pretended young widow in another county where nobody knows her. Since Mr Millborne has been the son of a solicitor and has had a much higher-class position than Leonora, he has decided to leave her unmarried. Marriage would probably have resulted in poverty for both of them. Nevertheless, in the Victorian Age it was a cruel deed not to marry an impregnated woman, since illegitimate offspring broke with the cultural conventions of that time, so that society treated mother and child very badly.

After those 20 years, Mr Millborne decides to look for Leonora in order to fulfil his promise and marry her. He finds her under the name Leonora Frankland, together with their daughter Frances. Leonora works now as a teacher for music and dance and rents pianos. She is “[...] of cheerful and excellent repute [...]” (Hardy: 8), and firstly refuses to marry him, but finally does it nevertheless because she thinks that the social lift might help her daughter to marry Mr Cope, a young clergyman.

After the marriage, they move to London and Mr Cope visits them. They go sailing, and the similar appearance of Frances and Mr Millborne induced by their seasickness gives Mr Cope a hint towards their relation. After his visit, Frances receives no further letters from Mr Cope. A few days later, she comes across the fact that Mr Millborne is her presumed dead father, and that she is an illegitimate child. She and her mother blame Mr Millborne for marrying Leonora, since they have had a good life before. When Mr Millborne notices that marrying Leonora has not been the right way for her, he decides to endow Leonora and Frances with a little house near Mr Cope’s. Leonora and Frances live there alone, and Mr Millborne moves to Brussels, telling Leonora in a letter not to look for him. After a period of time, he reads in a newspaper about the marriage of Reverend Mrs Cope and Reverend Cope.

The plot already gives some information on the character constellation in “For Conscience’ Sake”. Mr Millborne and Leonora have not met each other for 20 years, and their later marriage is not based on love, but on practical reasons: Leonora wants to improve the social position of her daughter, and Mr Millborne wants to salve his conscience. Frances has believed for 20 years that her father would be dead, and thus has no deep relationship to Mr Millborne who has left her and her mother for such a long time alone. She bothers him for ruining her life, whereas he wants to do the best for her.

Before Frances moved to London, she and Mr Cope had often met each other, and there has been an unspoken promise of marriage between them. However, when Mr Cope comes across the family bond between Frances and Mr Millborne their relationship breaks up until Mr Millborne leaves Frances and Leonora. Mr Cope then finally fulfils his unspoken promise and marries Frances, which suggests that their relationship is strongly influenced by cultural norms and the morality of the 19th century as will be shown later.

3.2 The Clash of Classes

In the short story, there is two times a clash of classes: The first takes place 20 years ago, when Mr Millborne and Leonora have got a child, and the second takes place when Mr Millborne and Leonora finally marry each other. In order to illustrate the differences in class between them, both figures will firstly be characterised in terms of their social status:

Mr Millborne is the son of a solicitor, and had been a banker with much responsibility till his father died and bequeathed him with sufficient money to live as a bachelor (cf. 2-6). At the beginning of the story, he lives in London, very near to Bond Street, where he often visits a club on foot or by cab (cf. 2). Bond Street is one of London’s most expensive streets today, which gives a hint to the actual amount of the character’s wealth, although the narrator says that Mr Millborne is “a man of some means, though apparently not wealthy” (ibid.). The important word in this quote is “apparently” because it shows that the characters in the story are actually uncertain about his wealth. This is surely the case because “None among his acquaintance tried to know him well, for his manner and moods did not excite curiosity or deep friendship” (3). Whereas Mr Millborne at the beginning of the story lives as “a lodger in Mrs Towney's best rooms” (2 p.), he later on becomes a “householder in his old district” (14) in London. Copeland (2003) states in his article “Money in Jane Austen’s Times” that “the house in town' certifies the presence of great incomes, usually those belonging to the prosperous landed gentry” (134). Mr Millborne can afford at least one house in a big city, since he firstly moves with Leonora and Frances to London, and later on alone to Brussels. Additionally, he can afford to endow his wife and his daughter with a house near Mr Cope’s. The “excellent style” (23) of the house that he endows Leonora and Frances with, together with Leonora’s statement that he “spoils all” (ibid.) hints to a life in wealth. However, this was probably not always the case, since the character of Mr Millborne was born in Toneborough2, and has later made his money as a banker. Unlike Leonora who has only one servant that the reader gets to know, Mr Millborne has several servants (cf. Hardy: 22), and the narrator refers to him as a “gentleman” (24). This positions him, together with Copeland’s aforementioned statement, within the lower upper-class, although his earlier occupation as a banker, and of his father as a solicitor rather hints to a membership of the middle-class, since these are occupations of the so-called ‘professionals’ who get their money from fees. However, as mentioned in the introduction, the middle classes became rivals to the upper classes, since willingness and talent often led to economic success and social lift. This might be an explanation for Mr Millborne’s wealth and lifestyle. The fact that Mr Millborne affords to hire a small yacht (cf. 16) also hints to him being a member of the lower upper-class, since yachts are very expensive and often belong to the lifestyle of rich people. All these aspects, except for his earlier profession as a banker, point to membership of the lower upper -class. However, it seems likely that at the time when he got to know Leonora, he has been a member of the educated middle-class and later made his way towards a life in the lower upper-class.

Leonora on the other hand has worked as a young girl in a music store (cf. 6), which has made her a member of the lower working-class at that time. There is no information on the social status or occupation of her parents in the text, but Mr Millborne explicitly states “Her position at the time of [their] acquaintance was not so good as [his]” (6), and that “it was represented to [him] that it would be beneath [his] position to marry her” (ibid.). This refers to a huge gap between their classes, and to a deep class-consciousness of the characters. Marriages between people of different classes in Victorian Britain often resulted in poverty for both, especially if one participant had been a member of the upper class before, since relationships like that were against the conventions of the upper-class families that frequently disowned those family members who married a person of a lower class.

This becomes also clear in the short story when Mr Millborne says that “[he] did not promise to enrich her. On the contrary, [he] told her it would probably be dire poverty for both of [them]” (6). The consequences of a class-conscious, conventionally thinking society also affects Frances and Mr Cope. They want to marry each other, but “[...] there have been friends of his who object, because of [Frances’ and Leonora’s] vocation. However, he [...] is not influenced by it.'” (14), as Leonora states. This objection goes on, although Leonora’s conditions changed in a very positive way compared to her former situation as a girl in a music store. Now, Leonora is even to “metropolitan eyes” a “well-dressed” woman (10) with a “very fair income” (11) and “cheerful and excellent repute” (8). She gives dance- and music lessons, although most of her income derives from selling and hiring pianos out (cf. 9). The occupation as a teacher for music and dance would probably come close to the work as a day labourer, whereas the selling and hiring of pianos refers to an occupation as a shopkeeper. The latter one is settled in the lower middle-class, whereas a day labourer would belong to the lower working-class. This ambiguity leads to the objection of Mr Cope’s friends, since he, as a Reverend, belongs to the group of professionals of the educated middle-class. People of the 19th century objected to do an occupation, which has been under their social class like in this case working as a music teacher, despite being a shopkeeper. Leonora nevertheless does it because she feels that it is her purpose in life, since she refers to it as a “vocation” (14). The examples of Leonora and Mr Millborne, and Frances and Mr Cope illustrate the deep class-consciousness of the 19th century society, although the short story hints to a development towards more liberal thinking, since Mr Cope wants to marry Frances despite her and her mother’s vocation.

There is little said upon Leonora’s house. However, the text points to a fastidious house “Standing in a central and open place [...]” (8) with “a well-burnished brass doorplate bearing their names prominently” (Ibid.). The house has at least two floors because Leonora receives Mr Millborne in the first floor of her house in a “large music-and-dancing room” (10). There is no further information on the private rooms of Leonora except for Mr Millborne's expectation of a little parlour (cf. ibid.). Leonora’s situation is better than Mr Millborne has expected. She does not need any help, has a “fair income”, and at first even objects to his proposal of marriage, which would mean a huge social lift for her (cf. 11). Leonora explains her decision with the following words: “My position in this town is a respected one; I have built it up by my own hard labours, and, in short, I don't wish to alter it.” (12). This quote emphasises the character’s pride in her “hard labours”, and that she is satisfied with her current situation and social standing, and does not want to exchange it with any higher position of social class. When Mr Millborne has for the first time proposed to marry her 20 years ago, she would have married him (cf. 13), although this would have meant poverty for both. Nevertheless, Leonora obviously has not wanted to achieve any advantage through the relationship with Mr Millborne in terms of her own social standing. However, when Mr Millborne says that their marriage would support Frances’ wish to marry Mr Cope, she finally marries him nonetheless (cf. 14).


1 cf. Susie Steinbach. “‘Born into the Lower-Upper-Middle’. Class.” Understanding the Victorians. Politics, Culture and Society in 19th-Century Britain. London/ New York: Routledge, 2012. 116. Print.

2 A fictitious name by Hardy for Taunton in Outer Wessex.

Excerpt out of 14 pages


The Representation of Class in Thomas Hardy's "For Conscience' Sake"
University of Hannover  (Englisches Seminar)
Lower − Middle − Upper: Identifying and Discussing Class
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
representation, class, thomas, hardy, conscience, sake
Quote paper
Isabel Kern (Author), 2017, The Representation of Class in Thomas Hardy's "For Conscience' Sake", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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