The essay discusses the figure of the Victorian gentleman, focussing on some of his manifold literary (self-)fashionings. Victorian England was characterized by a unique social permeability, termed by Bagehot as a system of “removable inequalities”, in which the class barriers could be easily crossed. If the rise of the gentleman in the XIX century can be traced back to the European decline and fall of the aristocracy, differently from his European equivalents, the English gentleman embodied, in a greenblattian sense, the attempt at negotiation between the aristocratic and the bourgeois values, a further version of the “Victorian compromise”, for the English middle class retained a respectful attitude towards the aristocracy, absorbing its behaviour and way of life. The years between 1840 and 1870 witnessed the emergence of a heated debate about what meant to be a true gentleman, to which not only novelists like Thackeray, Dickens, Trollope and Eliot, but also the so-called Victorian “prophets” contributed in different ways. Drawing on the works of Samuel Smiles, Thomas Carlyle, John Stuart Mill, John Ruskin and Cardinal Newman, the chapter aims to show how the ideal of the gentleman fluctuated between social status and moral conduct, shifting from condition to process. Its meaning underwent a progressive democratization, defining a complex whole of moral characteristics attainable by every man, regardless of his birth. By the end of the century, the serialization of the ideal, since English colleges and university became literally “factories for gentlemen”, marked the end of the debate about the concept of “gentlemanliness”.
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