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The Pursuit of Freedom in the 19th Century Britain Term Paper

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During the 19th Century, life was greatly affected by the Industrial Revolution. The British society was extremely differentiated into the rich, poor, lower, middle, or upper social class, and ideological perspectives. People were supposed to understand their place and adhere to standards associated to that class. Even the church encouraged people to be satisfied in their classes. Social class favored those in the upper levels only as the rest were compelled to believe that they deserved their situations. The ambition to improve one’s life was easily inflated by the upper grade that focused on dominating the system at the expense of the suffering majority.

During this time, Britain was one of the fast growing regions in the world. In the early 19th Century, Britain experienced elite dominance in all influential fronts. The minority had little to change the status quo in terms of influence and resources. This discriminative nature describes the social welfare of the 19th Century Britain. This paper will show that the 19th Century Britain presented minority groups with limited opportunities and it ultimately failed to offer lasting socio-economic and political changes by excluding minorities from the right to vote and make decisions on policies that affected their lives. The paper draws examples from Jane Austen’s masterpiece, Mansfield Park.

Society and the essence of class in the 19th Century

In the 19th Century era, humanity was motivated by personal interests to develop oneself, and thus individuals became very distinct with the weak being exposed to all forms of negativities such as prejudice, racial discrimination, ethnicity, gender bias, and class affiliation. Discrimination was experienced in areas including work, voting, religion, education, transport, sports, access to power, and social amenities. In her book, Mansfield Park, Austen highlights discrimination in the way Fanny is treated when she arrives at the Bertrams. Mrs. Norris abuses Fanny while Maria and Julia are indifferent to her simply because she comes from a poor background (Austen 14).

The 19th Century age underscored a period of self-centered human beings. People were strictly layered across classes, which they were expected to associate with in life. Women and minority men were excluded from voting. Voting rights were granted based on one’s race and social class. The white men had absolute rights to vote unlike their black counterparts who were allowed to vote based on their social status. In 1882, the situation improved as more men were granted the right to vote. Campaigns to allow voting for all were orchestrated by civil rights movements. Those in power expressed a lot of authority and command to the lower and middle classes. Zimmerman argues that human experiences during this time initiated many contradictions among the rulers and the ruled (347).

Class differentiation was deeply entrenched in the social fabric. According to Zimmerman, the entire issue of class affiliation was more of a mindset (348). Some groups were made to see themselves as inferior to others who perceived themselves as superior and worked towards maintaining their dominance. Austen paints this picture in the way Fanny is treated and perceived in the Mansfield. Concerning Fanny, Sir Thomas says, “Should her disposition be really bad, we must not, for our won children’s sake, continue her in the family” (Austen 16). This view creates an historical context of three distinct groups of people living in fear of losing their status in society.

The upper class, which was occupied by the elites, dominated the means of production in the 19th Century Britain. For one to be considered as part of the middle class, s/he had to have a servant on top of working in industries. This kind of mindset contained individuals within the middle-level and they were satisfied with the status quo. The paupers were highly suppressed and socially isolated in a bid to prevent any threat of advancing to join or overhaul the higher classes. Even the church encouraged members of each group to be content with their lives. Class distinction was not only essential form of social identification, but also the foundation of analyzing political and economic dynamics and understanding the issues, which emerged therein. These class segments provide precise descriptions of what took place during the 19th Century and an understanding of why such things happened.

The poor people were highly discriminated according to sex and age. The authorities aimed at breaking the families in a bid to advance a Malthusian kind of population management. Non-whites were imagined to have no place in matters of politics and they could only be suited to the industry labor and this aspect “destabilized political harmony” (Sutherland 836). Despite being neglected, the minority contributed to the polity by nurturing virtuous citizens who played crucial role in the nation’s politics. The efforts to establish themselves were quickly shunned by the British authorities who felt the threat to the existing political order.

The poor people were allocated humiliating duties, which were most likely of very little economic value such as digging ditches and crushing bones. The intention was to ensure that they had no chance to develop any skills that would pose competition to the upper classes. Guardians designed humiliating penalties for those who refused to work or incited others to boycott work. Although the workhouse activities were not meant to lead to death of poor workers, it certainly led to several deaths especially for those who sought to act against the will of the guardians. The intention was to delink the poor from achieving independence. Contrary, the harshness of the British system taught the poor to be ambitious and self-sufficient even at times when the market systems were harsh for anyone to achieve self-actualization.

Several Christian groups were formed during this time and they focused on campaigning against slavery, which had intensified in Britain. Some of these Christian groups had to participate in active politics in a bid to acquire political backing, which is necessary to initiate the much-needed change. Organized Christians meant a lot in terms of opinion making. The poor were not highly involved in the church. This aspect shows how far discrimination had permeated many institutions and the acceptability by the poor that they did not belong to certain platforms. At this time, the majority the British population comprised Christians who dominated religious matters.

Zimmerman refutes the excess authority, which the church had over individual’s lives (352). The church was reluctant in leading agitation against discrimination; on the contrary, instead it taught people to feel content in their classes. In Mansfield Park, Edmund represents the church. The church was very indecisive on the issue of slavery, and similarly Edmund cannot make key decisions like deciding whom to fall in love with between Maria and Fanny (Austen 329). The church was expected to maintain unquestionable stand on the issue of slavery, but it appeared to encourage people to remain in subjugation. Austen says, “Edmund had descended from that moral elevation, which he had maintained before” (329). Similarly, the church could not uphold its morals on the issue of slavery.

The churches took the responsibility to support education for the poor children, but such efforts could not meet all the needs (Barrow, Finding, and Poirier 86). This aspect was partly due to the failure by government to sponsor education until 1870. Girls from upper class families were privileged to join good schools, which were well organized to offer quality education. In most cases, boys were enrolled in public schools, which were well managed. Children from the middle class families were privileged to join schools where they learned skills relevant to the industrializing country. This strategy intended to socialize each group to grow up and occupy its expected class.

In the early 1800s, the industry system slowly replaced the existing form of people working together in their farms. As thee novel opens, Sir Thomas is headed for his farm in Antiqua, which is making losses (Austen 58). With the rise of the textile industry in England, people were moved from their homes to go and work in the industries. Demand for child and women labor intensified in these industries. Before the Industrial Revolution, children were used to simple tasks such as helping their parents in their homes and playing. The new system engaged children in difficult labor, which lasted for more than 12 hours in a day.

Efforts to restrict child labor were usually met with strict opposition from the lawmakers who formed the elite society. Working conditions were very discouraging and most children were exposed to many accidents sometimes leading to death. In 1842, efforts by the parliament to protect underage labor force were inadequate. Children below the age of 10 were moved from working in the coalmines. However, such children were transferred to textile factories where the working conditions were equally harsh. Blacks and other minority groups were highly exposed to the most vulnerable sectors with the whites acting as supervisor. Apparently, these inhuman acts did not seem to bother the whites who believed that black people had to work hard to improve their status. Asians were also targeted for their cheap labor, which was met with a lot of criticism from the whites. The whites were not happy with the Asians because they were taking over jobs from individuals, who demanded high pay (Barrow, Finding, and Poirier 86).

Anti-Asian and anti-Chinese riots often occurred in a bid to stop them from earning. Non-white businesses were often under attack from groups that were unhappy with immigrants establishing themselves within the white territories.

Living conditions and Housing

During the most part of the 19th Century, living standards were poor particularly for the middle and lower classes. Although there was an improvement with the introduction of gaslight in Pall Mall London in the year 1807, only the elites would access such privileges. Residential areas for the upper class introduced the Gas Street light by 1820s (Volwahsen 51). For instance, the Bertrams are living in a cozy home in Mansfield while Fanny’s parents live in shanties. This aspect further marginalized the poor who were sidelined to occupy the dark and insecure shanties. The shanties were dirty, lacked sanitary facilities, and rise in disease outbreaks due to overcrowding.

Poor families would share toilets and the situation worsened when they were forced to make queues to access such facilities. Given these terrible situations, disease outbreaks was a common phenomenon amongst the poor. Life span for the poor was significantly lower than for the upper class. Poverty levels were alarming for most British families. The population was defined by very few wealthy upper classes, a struggling middle class, and the large number was living below subsistence level. Jobs opportunities were rare and the available ones were paid poorly. The poor had to settle for workhouse, which were very unpleasant in a bid to deter them from improving their conditions.

The upper classes constructed lavish houses, which distinguished them from their servants who occupied cramped rooms. The middle working class lived in average houses crowded with furniture, since they could afford comfortable lifestyles. The poor lived in cellars, which were damp due to the lack of proper ventilation (Volwahsen 45).

Two or more poor people would occupy a single room. Efforts to build proper houses for the poor were viewed as a move to weaken the power of the ruling class. Raising the standards of the poor would allegedly threaten the social order. Fortunately, towards the end of the 19th Century, new building policies were introduced and the housing conditions improved. This move did not end the problem because the slum proprietors could not repair broken facilities. Sanitary facilities such as bathrooms were available for the wealth and some middle class citizens. Poor people had occasional baths, but they lacked proper rooms for bathing.

Food in the early 19th Century was a major factor, which identified the rank that one occupied in society. The poor relied on farm products for food. Hotels were preserved for the whites and most recreational parks were strictly preserved for the privileged. Manufactured products were preserved for the upper and some middle class people who could afford the prices. Some products like meat were termed as luxuries and a preserve for the elites. With the improvement in the transport sector, imports from North America increased food supply and enhanced affordability of most products such as bread. Grain was imported from North America, thus making bread affordable to many people. In addition, the introduction of cooling and freezing systems facilitated the importation of fresh foodstuffs from other countries in Europe and the Americas. Life became bearable for the poor since they could now afford two meals a day.

Slavery and Religion

Slave trade was used to boost labor in order to ensure fast growth for the British economy. In Mansfield Park, religion is very silent on the issue of slavery. The church endeavors to maintain the status quo just like Edmund in the novel. The belief for progress and white dominance was highly valued throughout the 19th Century by the natives. As a result, the British and American immigrants were considered to occupy the most influential ranks. The rest of the groups were viewed as inferior by both the public officials and the mainstream public. The social segregation made integration into the mainstream society very difficult for the poor. The majority of English speaking Britons believed that the Anglo-Saxon society and the British authorities were superior entities and the country’s success depended on its culture and heritage. There was minimal opposition from the whites who believed that slavery was a way of life for the inferior.

The 19th Century Britain developed a sense of segregation against non-white and non-Christians. During this period, the British Empire was inscribed and advanced only the British culture and ideologies. The British imperialism was manifested in everything from work to education, journalism, and literature. In a bid to frustrate the non-whites, Asians were considered inferior and they were compelled to provide cheap labor. Some of prejudices held against the black people were that they were immoral, ignorant, criminals and primitive.

Despite the anti-slavery campaigns and the resultant abolition of the slavery in the British Empire in 1833, black immigrants faced a lot of social prejudices and discrimination transformed into an accommodative form (Barrow, Finding, and Poirier 39). Asians settling in Britain encountered institutionalized or legalized trends of discrimination. During the 1850s, working conditions for Asians worsened. Asians were deliberately removed from unions and they received little pay.

The white workers claimed that Asian were crowding the job market, thus making the employers to pay less contrary to the expectations of the white workers. Apparently, the Asians offered an alternative cheap labor and they were almost as qualified as their white counterparts were. Therefore, employers preferred the Asians as a way of cutting down costs, but this move was not welcomed amongst the whites. The whites schemed tirelessly to suppress non-whites in a bid to ensure the flourishing of white supremacy. Due to this discriminatory policy and social isolation in Britain, the blacks, Chinese, Japanese, Asians, and other non-whites were not allowed to vote. In addition, this group could not be voted for public office or even serve on professional capacities.

Religion played an important role in the lives of most English people. The church organized many activities during the 19th Century. Christians took no action to end slave trade; on the contrary, they had a soft stand on this matter. Christians in this time felt that they could treat non-believers in a similar way as Israel by enslaving the inferior people. The same way, the British Christians exercised prejudice and racism by failing to oppose slave trade. These claims describe the 19th Century Christian attitudes, hence suggesting why there was so little rivalry against slave trade coupled with explaining why some Christians had slaves. However, the church is criticized for failing to respond to socio-economic activities that were transforming the British society. The church was further criticized due to the evidence of neglect and cases of corruption among the leaders (Barrow, Finding, and Poirier 63). The bishops often engaged in active politics, thud neglecting their pastoral ministries.


From the above analysis, it is clear that socio-cultural factors are important in explaining discrimination based social class during the 19th Century British. The analysis also highlights the view that ideological and political determinants formed the platform upon which segregation against some groups was justified as explained in the main institutions of society, for example, the employment sector. The study shows that during the 19th Century, there was substantial segregation against the non-whites and non-Christians.

The socio-economic and political changes associated with the Industrial Revolution facilitated segregation, which became institutionalized all through Britain. The growing significance of economic dominance, individualism, and social identity facilitated segregation and constructed justification for slave trade and other discriminatory activities. The segregation of the poor meant that they had to live at the mercies of the privileged classes. However, by the end of the 19th Century, there was an attempt to integrate all people into the mainstream society. These efforts did not alleviate discrimination; on the contrary, it changed subjugation into subtle and less detrimental forms.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1992. Print.

Barrow, Logie, Susan Finding, and François Poirier. Keeping the Lid on: Urban Eruptions and Social Control Since the 19th Century, Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars, 2010. Print.

Sutherland, Keith. “Mansfield Park. By Jane Austen.” Review of English Studies 57.232 (2006): 833-838. Print.

Volwahsen, Andreas. Splendors of Imperial India: British Architecture in the 18th and 19th Centuries, Munich: Prestel, 2004. Print.

Zimmerman, Everett. “Jane Austen and ‘Mansfield Park’: A Discrimination of Ironies.” Studies in the Novel 1.3 (1969): 347-356. Print.

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