According to Lauren Goodland, the Victorian emphasis upon the gentleman served as a means of retaining upper-class political power and keeping down the middle class.

The gentleman's aura was predicated on quasi-feudal appeals to social hierarchy. In the mid-Victorian period these traditional credentials were deliberately modernized, rationalized, and improved through, for example, civil service, public school and university reform. What described the gentleman was therefore both rationalzed and empirical (the predictable outcome of an elite education) and thoroughly mystified (an indefinable tone ambiguously derived from blood, breeding, or both). In this fashion the character of the British gentleman became a powerful descriptive basis for a myth of disinterested governance by an Oxbridge elite, a crucial means by which upper-class and aristocratic power was maintained. [26]

Even when apparently democratizing reforms took place, as in the civil service, they had the effect of solidifying upper-class power. "Hence, while competitive recruitment was publicized as a triumph for entrepreneurial principles, insiders such as Gladstone, Trevelyan, and Jowett saw that the integration of public schools, Oxbridge, and the civil service would amount to a powerful institutionalized elite to preside over a three-tiered liberal society" (133). Benjamin Jowett's "vision of a civil service clerisy" made up of public school graduates, which replaced "the discredited Benthamite expert with the Oxbridge gentleman," proved an effective means of curbing "middle-class aspirations to administrative power" (129).

Related Materials


Goodland, Lauren M. E. Victorian Literature and the Victorian State: Character and Governance in a Liberal Society. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2003.

Victorianism Overview Victorian History

Last modified 2 June 2004