I received a book from a friend as a wedding present entitled “Class.” It was a Brit's take on deciphering class in America. I thought it somewhat funny, as it told me more about the Brit's world-view and this particular one's obsession with the topic than about the mailable socio-economic strata in my home country.
I have waited to interact with it here, and, even at Oxford, have found it subtle enough to be hard to detect. I've been told it can be heard in one's accent, but still have been unable to pick it up entirely. Generally, I have been told that the easier it is to understand someone (or the more American they sound to me, without the twang), the higher their class, and vice versa.
The accent derives from where someone went to primary and secondary schools, whether public, private, or state. Their “public” schools are nothing like ours. “Public” indicates a publicly-held company or something of the sort, and are massively expensive. Enough to prohibit anyone in lower or even middle classes from attending. These famous schools include Eton (where the princes went), Westminster, and a few other famous boarding schools and a few like Wimbledon, King's in Cambridge, and a couple in Oxford which are not live-in. The “Etonian” accent, the most “posh” of the public school accents, derives from the interactions of those lucky little boys who attend and live in Eton's few mansion houses, wearing top hats and tuxes each day to school. Eton used to have a contract with King's in Cambridge, where, if you got into Eton as a young chap, you also got into King's.
The other two levels are private, which is privately funded but not quite so expensive, and state, which is the equivalent of our public schools. I found it curious that I have been asked on scholarship applications even at the graduate level where I attended secondary school, but this is the reason. It matters here, and follows you the rest of your life.
In any event, although my ability to discern class via accent is poorly tuned, the last few days have afforded me two experiences to interact with the upper crust, one pleasant and one not-so-pleasant.
The first occurred Friday night at Lady Margaret's formal hall. This is usually Tuesday night, but formal during the sixth week of each Term (see forthcoming post on Terms) is a little fancier and held on Friday so parents and spouses can come.
The rules of etiquette for formal hall are somewhat strict, even for a low-key place like Lady Margaret. These include, among other things, not leaving the hall until the high table (where the head of house and other fellows eat) has left in procession. I saw quite a few undergrads leaving before this had happened, and informed them that they should wait. I was rudely told in reply that he knew, but they were leaving. I said you can't before the head table has left, and he insisted that others had already left, too. I then saw that the head of house noticed the situation and the potential embarrassment that would result if such a large number of students left before the high table did, and quickly pronounced the benediction and left with her fellows as the rowdy students left the hall. I commented to my tablemates on what awful Americans the students were (based on their accent) and was informed that no, they were not American, but rather posh, public school kids. How distasteful.
My second experience was more pleasant. My husband and I discovered the London Library this weekend in St. James. It is London's private research library, and a membership costs roughly 400 pounds ($650-700 dollars) per year per person. It is unique in that it has over one million volumes, all open stack (or, like many libraries in the U.S., you can look at each volume rather than having to request it from stacks in the back and having it brought to a reception area), and is a lending library (see last post on Britain's library culture within the "Rules" post). Before receiving a tour of its impressive reading rooms, stacks, U.S. Constitutional section, and “London Times” reading room (they own every copy ever published), my husband and I got to know a gentleman there, one of its readers. He informed us that the membership fee saved him more than the price of books he would otherwise purchase, and also saved his wife's harassment from taking up more space in the house for his books. I inquired as to what he read, and he informed me that it included history, literature, and art. He was currently reading two “fascinating” books, one detailing a day-by-day account of Henry V's life the year of Agincourt (1415?), and the other focused on the history of British Gaul.
For such a voracious and serious reader, I, of course, wondered what he wrote. Nothing, was the reply. He just did research and enjoyed it. Because there was so little concern about livelihood and because of the lack of an accent, I'm guessing he lives as the “other” half does. Lovely man.