Class differences in UK

Previously on this blog there have been comments about how the relationship between Martin and Louisa should also take into account the difference in their class status. Veronica noted that in England it might be unusual for a person from Martin’s background to fall in love with and marry a person from Louisa’s background because of their class differences. She used the naming process as an example: When they leave the hospital and Louisa mentions calling the baby Terry after her father,Martin thinks the name Terry is too common. He covers his first comment by saying “I mean too many Terrys already?” trying to make it sound like he means it’s too often used rather than it’s not of high enough status.

When they go out to dinner to discuss the baby’s name (S5E5), Martin mentions he’d like to use Henry, his grandfather’s name, and that his grandfather was an accomplished physician. Louisa counters that her grandfather’s name, James, would be her choice and that he was a postman. She appears defensive about that and tells Martin the fact that her grandfather was a postman doesn’t make his choice more valid. For his part, Martin denies he was making any judgement about status, but the issue is out there.

During the course of the series there have been comments by villagers about Martin’s suits. His suits function in so many ways that I hadn’t given much thought to how they would also be a symbol of class distinction. But it’s certainly true that there isn’t any other villager who regularly wears a suit. Penhale, and the other police officers, wear uniforms and that sets them apart from the people in town, but most of the town dresses casually on a daily basis. That’s not really so different from most towns, although Portwenn has no evident lawyer, banker, or corporation that might include others dressed in more formal attire.(Actually, Tom, Caroline’s husband, has a coat and tie on in the episode where he appears.)

I mentioned in my entry about myself that my husband practiced neurology in a small town. One of the amusing things about some of the doctors there was that a few liked to walk around town with their white coats on. Sometimes they’d go to the post office or other places in the village with scrubs under white coats, or just the white coats over a nice shirt and pants. We always thought they looked ridiculous and were trying to impress people.

In our experience in the medical profession, some hospitals expect the medical students and doctors to wear ties and white jackets or coats, some do not, and some of these practices have changed over the years. We see some of that when Peter Cronk gets taken to the hospital and those doctors are wearing ties or dressy clothes. The Mayo Clinic in Minnesota requires its doctors to wear jackets and ties as a sign of respect for the patients. So for Martin as the GP to wear a suit wasn’t so remarkable to me. (I know it’s also used as an indicator of being uptight, closed off, oriented toward ritual, etc.) But I have to admit, wearing a suit also sets him apart and above the villagers.

I have to say that Louisa, too, often dresses more nicely than her colleagues or most of the other villagers. Because of that, she seems more likely to be a woman Martin would find appealing, but it also sets her apart to a certain extent. We do see her in jeans at times, though, and that connects her to the community.

Of course, it is their altercation over schools that causes a big brouhaha in their marriage. Martin is already interested in signing JH up for a boarding school, but Louisa is totally against it and can’t believe Martin would be thinking already about sending JH away when he’s still such a young baby. She’s upset for more than class reasons — she’s the headmistress of the school and considers the school fine for a good education. After all, she was educated there and went to college in London. But Martin wants to give JH the best education available.

This argument is consistently a part of US education discussions. Are our public schools giving our children a sufficiently good education? Do parents need to send their children to expensive private schools, boarding or otherwise, to get them a quality education?

I really hadn’t thought too much about this concern in terms of UK and this show until I saw an article by the associated press recently that reported:

“In most areas of British life, success comes down to going to the right — usually expensive — school.

A third of Britain’s lawmakers, half its senior doctors and more than two-thirds of its High Court judges went to private schools, which educate just 7 percent of British children, according to statistics compiled by the British Parliament. Well more than a third of Oxbridge undergraduates still come from these private schools.”

So it looks like the show actually is making an accurate point about the importance of going to an elite school that will lead to a high-status career. The conflict is not just a good way to put Martin and Louisa at odds, especially about something that is her profession.

There’s also the matter of whether Louisa should return to work now that she has a baby. Martin doesn’t want Louisa to work, a sign that he makes enough money to support them both and that he’s still thinking like old-fashioned elite men who want their wives to be home with the children. He gets a lot of blowback on that from Louisa throughout series 5 and into series 6.

We also know that Martin’s parents consider his move to Portwenn to be the GP a definite step down for him.

More than I originally realized, it seems like class and its importance in the UK is a factor in this series.

Originally posted 2014-02-12 16:25:00.

14 thoughts on “Class differences in UK

  1. Linda

    I was thinking about this today (I tend to daydream about the Doc). I don’t think we in North America understand class differences the same as the UK audience would.

  2. Santa Traugott

    I just rewatched S4E2 again, where Louisa and Martin have that unpleasant conversation at the front step while Edith waits inside. When Louisa leaves and Edith comes out, she says to Martin, “is she a girl from the village?; in the same tone that I have always imagined one might use to the squire’s son who has got a local girl or housemaid pregnant.

    I think class goes all through this, and I agree with Linda that status or class differences are just much more marked in England. An English person only has to speak a few words for him or her to be placed pretty exactly on the class ladder. (Perhaps a slight exaggeration but not too much!)

    When Edith shows up, I think we can almost see Martin thinking, “at last, someone like me, that I can talk to.” And I think part of that is class.

    But we have to say this for Martin — it makes absolutely no difference to him in how he deals with patients. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly, of any social status. And whatever class distinctions exist between him and Louisa, just never appear relevant to him, except as Karen points out, they result in different points of view about e.g., child-rearing.

  3. Carol

    Great post and I just want to say to Linda – you aren’t the only one (who daydreams about the Doc) 🙂

  4. Post author

    Santa, your comment about Edith’s remark to M about Louisa is so true. There was a definite derogatory tone and she is making an effort to belittle Louisa, I’m sure. I also think that her tone does not sit well with M because he does not see L in that way, which says a lot about his feelings for L and about his own lack of concern about class playing a determining role in his personal life. We know he had an elite education and holds a job that is of high social status, but maybe his time with Joan helped him to be open to a broader spectrum of people. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly;however, he thinks highly of Roger Fenn, Mark Mylow, and even Stewart when he has a chance to talk to them. His upbringing plays a role, but may also have made him a bit wary of the elites, don’t you think?

  5. Waxwings2

    Karen–until you wrote this post for us and more fully explored this subject of “classism,” (and Linda and Santa amplified) I hadn’t given that much weight to it. (Mostly b/c, as Santa points out, it does not deter Martin from his profound and abiding affection for Louisa. And, also as per Santa–we Americans cannot appreciate the class meaning represented by different accents…) But this classism does give the series a decided tension, and it makes us American viewers pay more attention to this very British trait. I think many of us may have been subconsciously aware of it–but you brought it home very clearly Karen in this blog post, only adding to our admiration for the DM writers and producers. (I liked your personal references to your local Docs showing up in white coats at the P.O. too!)

    In an earlier post, you and others, (maybe it was Carol and Santa) noted the damage Martin suffered by being shipped off to an elite, psychologically and physically remote boarding school at age 6! Good grief, how much more upper class can you get? How horribly must a child have suffered b/c of it? So yes, great post, and glad you came back to this topic. Bravo for Martin persisting w/ Louisa, and bravo for Louisa standing up to Martin’s subconsciously oppressive class statements…It gives the DM story more substance and depth. TY Karen (and Santa and Linda) for helping us see this aspect.

  6. Mary

    Its really neat to see how often Edith tries to keep Martin in her orbit by not so subtly reminding him of class difference. She is constantly prodding him to uphold those prejudices by her manner and tone of voice, and how this difference sets them apart and above other people, notably Louisa. It was readily apparent in Edith’s dismissive tone about “a girl from the village?”

    A very apt observation by Santa, I might add!

  7. Post author

    Yes, and referring to Portwenn as “this little biscuit tin town” is another example. Edith is a snob and just as morally bankrupt as Margaret. Here are two women who are socially superior yet have terrible morals. Maybe that’s the point-being unable to see the value of people no matter who they are or where they live is a moral failing that M doesn’t have. For whatever reason (his own psychological issues, his sense of duty, his medical training, etc.), he treats everyone as deserving of his care. He snaps at them and calls them names, but mostly because they don’t take his advice. He may not want them as friends, but he considers them worthy of proper medical care. His attraction to Louisa is a departure from his family upbringing and the expectations people have of him. Maybe that’s one of the reasons he is drawn to her. She’s no pushover either, which I think appeals to him as well. She demonstrates that even women from a small town can be smart, independent, strong-willed, and not in awe of a person of supposedly higher status.

  8. Amy

    Another great post—on an issue I hadn’t thought about either. The class differences between Bert and DM or between Penhale and DM seem obvious, but I hadn’t really considered that Louisa would be in the class with Bert and Penhale. Or are there mid-level classes: professional like a dr/aristocrat; then teachers, police, druggists; then farmers, plumbers, and fishermen?

    Of course, we do have snobbery and classism in the US as well. It’s just not as blatant perhaps.

  9. Joemei

    I agree with the topic, “Class” issue. This happens everywhere, not just the UK, but also the US, and many other countries. As a doctor, he would like his son attends private school. This is understandable, but they did not discuss why or why not. I was a teacher before and saw my colleagues came back to teach after giving birth. I had the same question too: “Is it worthy to teach other’s children with a master degree then leave your own children to a high school graduate to care.”

    I personally think this is a question that worth debate as well.

  10. Post author

    I haven’t looked at this post in a long time and had to reread it to reply. In the post I noted that he wants his son to attend private boarding school because he wants to give him the best education possible. Louisa finds this insulting to her and the education they provide right there in Portwenn. For her the idea of even considering sending their child away at this early stage in his life is surprising and premature since he is only a baby. More than that, we have to suppose that it frightens her to think that Martin would want to do to their son what was done to him and ship him off to school at age 5 or 6. She is a very different mother from Martin’s.

    I see how you think the decision by teachers to return to their jobs and allow someone less capable take care of their babies is problematic. I would like to think that the mothers are around enough of the time to have a significant impact on their own children while continuing to have a profession of their own. Of course, these are the concerns of most mothers. They want to work while also finding a way to be with their children as much as possible. It’s a tough balancing act that is helped by fathers contributing to their children’s care as well. That sort of tension is often in evidence on this show.

  11. Amy

    As a woman who went back to work after having children, I find Joemei’s comment offensive. Would you have said the same thing about a father returning to work and leaving his child with a child care person? As Louisa says to Martin when he questions her desire to return to work, he also could stay home and take care of the child. He, of course, poo-poos the idea because his job is too important. Is teaching not also important? Although I very much wanted to stay home longer when my children were little, I knew that in the long run we could not afford it nor would it be good for me or for them. Most women who return to work have no choice—they earn more money working than they pay for childcare, and they need the money. And even those who have the economic choice may very well feel that they will be better mothers if they are fulfilled and stimulated by having a chance to contribute to society in other ways. Believe me, I don’t know any mothers who were not torn by these decisions. Yet fathers almost never feel a twinge about going back to work.

  12. Post author

    Thank you, Amy, for a strong defense of women. As you can tell from my posts, I think this show does a pretty good job of exploring many of the issues that affect women. We have women whose lives reflect almost all the variations of home life that are encountered in the real world. I, too, did not feel fulfilled at home and worked even though I loved my children and dedicated a lot of my time to them. My daughter is now a school principal and has taught college and high school. Her days are long and demanding, but she still has time to devote to her children. She has a husband who helps quite a bit, but sometimes she has to figure it out for herself. As Joemei says, they have Martin take responsibility for JH as much as he can, although he and Louisa also butt heads over who should be the one to take him. Those are the moments I find most fun because they hit home and are entertaining as well.

  13. Amy

    Thanks, Karen.

    It is evident that one of the themes throughout the series is that most people have to work, men and women, mothers and fathers. Martin has several times scolded people (not only parents) who say they have to go back to work even when it’s not medically advisable for them or in some cases for their children—for example, with the “impetigo” epidemic and the little girl who passed out on the field (my brain is not clicking today on character names). Louisa is always very aware and sensitive to the economic reality for the people of Portwenn—who certainly are typical in this way of most men and women today.

    And the stay at home moms are often portrayed negatively—-Theo Wenn’s mother or the badger-cooking mother, for example. ironically enough. I wonder if this in fact reflects Phillipa’s own views and experience as a working mother.

    Martin in some ways represents those with the attitude that it’s bad parenting to go back to work—he certainly feels that way about Louisa. He doesn’t seem to get that even if he supported her and JH and they didn’t need her income, she actually wants to work and loves her job as much as he loves his. Eventually he adjusts to this reality, and then she has a harder time leaving JH with Mike Pruddy than Martin does. Very realistic, IMHO!

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