The Tragedy of the Middle Class in England and in France


IT was the market day in a French manufacturing town, and the great square was closely packed with stalls, on which provisions of all sorts were displayed. Fish, flesh, red herrings, rabbits, and fowls, all were there; green stuffs, too, and fruit and nuts. And everything was appallingly dear! So at least the thrifty housewhes, with whom the market was thronged, went about declaring: 25 francs for a chicken no bigger than a pigeon was un prix énorme, according to them; while a franc for a shriveled-up cabbage, or a handful of salad, was un prix fau. Some of them, indeed, waxed so righteously indignant as they went from stall to stall, that they refused even to haggle. The profiteering ways of those peasants who brought their produce into the town was a public scandal, they protested; and M. le Mai re must really be made to interfere.

Among the marketers, it was evidently the working-class women who had most money to spend, and who spent it most lavishly. For much as the cost of living has risen in France since 1914, wages have risen still more.

Thus railway-men’s wives, builders’ wives, the wives of hand-workers of all kinds, indeed, are better off now than they ever were in their lives before. It is not they, but those for whom they used to work, who have now to pinch and save. It is the lower-middle-class folk who are to-day the poor in France, the new poor; and thousands who, before the war, were in the higher middle class, are now installed in the lower. Professional men and women who have had no luck, officials who have failed to rise, functionaries, ex-professors, invalided soldiers — they and their womenfolk all are there; and with them the great mass of the ‘retired ‘ — they who worked hard in the days of their strength that they might have the wherewith to live w hen too old to work.

In the in-between classes it is only they who have land, are in trade, or have had the chance to profiteer, who are now rich. For those who depend for their daily bread on pre-war fixed incomes, the yield of their savings, annuities, or pensions, life is one long fight to make both ends meet. And the fighters are, for the most part, alonestanding women. For while in all classes alike there are now more women than men, in no class are there so many more as in the lower middle class. Perhaps the men of that class drift away more easily than the men of other classes; or perhaps, in proportion to their numbers, more of them were killed in the war, or remained in the army when the war was ended. Be that as it may, there are now whole districts where there is hardly an ablebodied lower-middle-class man, while women of that class abound: women who are widows, or the wives of the unfit; spinsters who have no chance of ever being wives. For many of them life is a struggle to keep the grim wolf at bay. In the market square that morning, it was quite pitiable to see how some of them pondered before spending even a sou.

One poor old lady who, unless her appearance belied her, had seen much better days, hovered about a fish-stall for a good half-hour before she could make up her mind to buy a herring. She had come to the market in search of a bargain — half a rabbit at a price she could afford to pay; and, as it chanced, there were no bargains to be had; even the skinniest of half-rabbits was dear, much too dear for her. That point settled, she made her way from stall to stall, seeing what was to be had, striving gallantly the while to look as if whatever there was or was not was for her a matter of no importance. She went about quietly, almost stealthily, keeping when she could to the darker end of the stalls; and if her fellow marketers waxed pushful, she with gentle courtesy at once stood aside. She never paused to bargain, very rarely to ask a question, although she always listened with keen attention while others bargained and questioned. And all the time she was weighing pros and cons, that was easy to see: was trying to decide what was best worth buying, what w ould serve longest as a pièce de resistance, to add to her coffee and bread. A calf’s foot seemed to tempt her sorely; and, in spite of all her efforts, a touch of regret came into her eyes when she found that a foot cost as much as half a rabbit. Then the relative merits of sheep’s trotters and veal bones were carefully balanced; but even trotters and bones were dear that day. There was nothing in the market, indeed, that was even fairly cheap, except herrings; and herrings evidently did not appeal to her. Again and again she went up to the stall on which they were lying and scanned them over critically; again and again she turned away with an air that betokened, ‘Something better than that can surely be had for a franc’; and she started off once more on her search.

It was all of no use: the something better she could not find, let her try as she would; and — well, she ended by buying the herring. There was a look in her eyes, though, as she went on her way, that would have touched the heart of the veriest Shyloek had he seen it.

As it was with her, so is it with many another. Although there are many rich people in France to-day, much displaying of wealth, much ostentatious spending, at every turn one comes across women — men, too, but much more rarely — who are manifestly underfed; who look as if they had not had a good square meal for months. On their faces short commons is written in unmistakable terms; on some of them, semistarvation. And they almost all belong to the lower middle class. I saw but one working-class woman who looked hungry the last time I was in France.

Now, before the war, even lowermiddle-class people could live in France in a fair amount of comfort, sure of a well-cooked dinner every day, a cheerful little room in which to eat it, and decent clothes to wear. They had not much money to spend, it is true; for the salaries of functionaries, as of all of their kind, have never been high. Still, what money they had was turned to good account; for the French of their class have a perfect genius for making five francs do the work of ten. In the provinces many a widow or spinster was then passing rich on £40 a year; while on £100 many a couple lived, throve, and brought up children, saving money the while.

A captain’s pay was well under £200 a year, even if he were married and had two children. Yet on that, together with the yield of her own little dot, the average captain’s wife could house, feed, and clothe her husband, her children, and herself. It was a pinch, of course, for she, as an officer’s wife, had a certain position to maintain; yet do it she could, and did; and, when New Year’s day came round, she had, more often than not, francs left over for festivities, or perhaps for the building-up of a dot.

To-day things are different; for while the cost of living has risen quite woefully, — it is three times as high now as it was in 1914, — official salaries, professional incomes, annuities, and pensions have risen but little, some of them not at all. To make matters worse, the yield of past savings has fallen, fallen to zero if invested, as many middle-class people’s are, in ‘Russians’ or ‘Turks.’ The pension of a retired official, whose salary was 9000 francs, is 3000; that of his wife, should she survive him, will be 1500. An invalided captain’s pay is from 2420 francs to 2575. To a captain’s widow 1550 francs are given; and very many of those who were wives before the war are widows now. She has only 300 francs a year more, even if she has two children. Thus, whether she be widow or wife, with children or without, life is a hard fight. And she is regarded as one of the lucky. Many widows, wives, and spinsters, too, among her own kith and kin, are poorer than she is. They must live from hand to mouth, always on short commons, going down in the world the while, slowly but inevitably.

Going down in the world is at best a painful process; and it is doubly painful when they who are going down see others, who were below them, stepping into their places — the places in which they had hoped to see their own children installed. That is what the new poor in France find so terribly trying. And if they are women, and most of them are, they are practically helpless: they must stand aside with folded hands while the process is going on. For it is almost impossible for an elderly middle-class woman to find a lucrative post in France to-day; and it is very difficult for those who are middleaged, or even fairly young.

For, until the Congregation Laws came into force, the great majority of middle-class girls were educated in convents, by nuns; and many such girls are still being educated by nuns, who have changed their names and dresses, but not their methods. And nuns, although they teach their charges music, manners, and morals, together with housewifery and many good things besides, do not teach them how to make money, do not fit them to earn their own daily bread.

In pre-war days almost every bourgeois girl had something in the way of a dot. Even la petite bourgeoise had her few hundred francs, her little store of household goods. The nuns, therefore, took it for granted that those under their care would marry, unless they became nuns, and thought that the thing to be done was to fit them for their work as wives and mothers, or nuns. Thus the average bourgeois widow, wife, or spinster is heavily handicapped, if forced to enter the labor market: she is an unskilled laborer, a mere casual, so far as well-paid work is concerned. She cannot compete on equal terms with the women and girls who are not only better fitted for work than she is, but better educated all round from the business point of view. And the name of those girls is legion, and they are increasing in number from year to year. For even the highest of the State schools opens its door, gratis, to all who have brains, — quite rightly too, — and the skilled hand-worker can better afford to keep his children long years at school, than many a minor official or professional man.

So many girls who, before the war, would have been domestic servants, become teachers now, state officials, that there are but few places left for middle-class women, none at all for women educated in convents. The only work for which they, as a rule, are fitted, is pension-keeping, small shopkeeping, or housekeeping; and shops, as well as pensions, require capital, while there is no great demand for housekeepers.

For them, therefore, there is but little hope of finding work by which to eke out what they have. Practically the labor market is closed to them, unless indeed they choose to become servants. And for that many of them are too old, many too feeble, and still more, too proud. For servants are ouvrières; and between the ouvrière class and even the petite bourgeoisie there is a great gulf, one which many a petite bourgeoise would rather die than cross. Many a petite bourgeoise is now battling against starvation because she does not choose to cross it.

‘Our workmen want for nothing,’ the official responsible for the poor of a large department assured me last winter. ‘It is the bourgeois who are in need, especially the petty bourgeois. I know some of them who need everything: they have n’t enough to eat, not even of fire to cook with; and they won’t accept anything from anyone, no matter who. It is pitiful!’


The official was right: the present state of things in France is most pitiful, so far as the ‘between’ classes are concerned. For them, indeed, it is pitiful everywhere, in this our day, in some respects even more pitiful in England than in France.

In France the small shopkeeper can still make a fairly good living; the small farmer, a very good living; while in England small shopkeepers and small farmers alike esteem themselves lucky if they can make both ends meet. Moreover, in France every man who has the strength to work and the will can find work to do; whereas in England it is far otherwise. Here thousands of men and women of the middle classes spend their days tramping round from office to office, shop to shop, seeking vainly for employment; while more than a million of the working class stand about in the market place, waiting to be hired, and no man cometh to hire them. And the greatest misery that can befall man or woman is, surely, to be forced to stand idle, while those for whom they care are lacking bread.

In England the cost of living is very high — higher, compared with what it used to be, than in France. Housing, lighting, heating, food, and clothes have all risen hugely in price since 1914; while rates and taxes have gone up by leaps and bounds, and are now much higher than in France. Still, salaries also are much higher in England than in France; but then they were already much higher in 1914. Since then the earnings of the average middle-class man or woman, apart from officials and soldiers, have risen comparatively little; and, what is much worse, their chance of employment has actually fallen. The yield of most of their saving, too, has fallen, while their annuities, pensions, and the like, have stood still.

The result is that thousands of men and women who, in pre-war days, never thought twice before spending a sovereign, must now think many times before spending even a shilling. They lived in great comfort, perhaps luxury, then; now they live in what seems to them poverty, bereft of all that makes life pleasant.

Still more thousands, many more, who, when the war came, were living quite comfortably, are now in actual poverty. Then they not only had money wherewith to provide themselves with necessaries, but they had something left over for pleasures, something wherewith to buy books, entertain friends, defray the cost of a trip to the seaside from time to time. They belonged to the higher middle class then; now they belong to the lower, and every penny they have is earmarked before ever they have it. For necessaries cost, so much that, when they are paid for, not a penny is left for anything beyond. And there are many who are poorer than they; who are so poor that their pennies often come to an end before bare necessaries are bought.

Even at the best of times, the lower middle class is, in England, the luckless class, that in which the struggle for life is keenest. It is always a large class, and now it seems to increase in size from day to day. For besides those who are born in it, all sorts and conditions drift into it, both men and women — the failures of the higher classes, the snobbish of the lower, the unfit of both. For neither great, physical strength nor special brains are needed for the work most lower-middleclass people do — the work of a clerk, a minor official, a shop assistant, a lady’s companion, or even a mother’s helper. Moreover, it is eminently respectable work, work that even the ‘genteel’ can do without losing caste. And there are always more hands to do such work than the amount of such work to be done requires; and the result is they who do it are always underpaid. The average clerk does not earn a fourth so much as the average bricklayer; the young woman in a shop, not a t bird so much as a cook; while t he clerk or the young lady must spend twice as much as the bricklayer or the cook on housing, shoes, and clothes.

Thus, of the respectable classes, the lower middle class is always the poorest; and it is poorer than ever now, not only because the cost of living is so high, but because so many of the new poor from the higher middle class have joined its ranks. And in England, as in France, it is the class in w hich there are most women; for when once a woman is there, there she stays, whereas a man often makes his way higher or lower. And in that class, life for women now spells a struggle to make money do more than it can do, a fight to keep up appearances and not go down in the world.

On avoiding that, they are just as bent as any petite bourgeoise is, just as ready to starve rather than go out as servants; unless, indeed, they belong by birth to a higher class and have come down into the lower. I have known but one born lower-middle-class Englishwoman who, of her own free will, went out as a servant; and I have known a fair number of women of a higher class, who have not only gone out as servants, but have done their work well.

Even before the war came, with its all-round leveling, I had a visit one day from two girls, gentlewomen evidently, w ho had come to ask me to find work for them. Through no fault of their own they had been reduced, at one fell swoop, from comparative wealth to poverty, and must find means of earning a living.

I asked them what they could do, whereupon they told me frankly that they were not clever enough to teach, not clever enough to do anything with their heads, or to do anything, in fact, except housework. One of them was sure that she could dust and clean, the other knew that she could cook. They had, therefore, decided to go out as servants, and were eager for my help in finding them places. Within forty-eight hours, I had won the eternal gratitude of a very kindly old lady by providing her with an excellent cook and housemaid.

Only the other day another gentlewoman, one well over sixty, presented herself in reply to an advertisement. She had the speech and manners of a well-bred woman; and, in spite of her shabby black clothes, she might from her appearance have been a duchess. None the less she had come to apply for a place as servant. For her, though, as her face showed, the coming had been terrible. I very much doubt whether anything short of the grim wolf would have induced her to come; and had she been a born lower-middle-class woman, she would have faced the grim wolf rather than have come. Of that I am sure.

Quite recently I came across a gentleman, one well-known to me by name, who was living on what he made by selling boot-laces.


So far as things material go, life in the lower middle class is almost as hard in England as in France. For, although the English have more money than the French, as their salaries are higher if they are in work, the French are much more skillful than the English in turning money to account. They are much more thrifty, too, and much better cooks. The average Frenchwoman can concoct a good dinner out of what seems to the average Englishwoman mere refuse; and a good dinner is like sunshine— it oils the wheels of life in a wonderful fashion.

Still, things material are not everything; there are things beyond; and it is precisely those things beyond that make the lot of the new poor so much harder in France than in England, make it so terribly hard for them if they are women who have daughters. For then they have quite special troubles to face in addition to their poverty — troubles from which most English mothers are as free as the birds of the air.

In France, even the best of grown-up daughters is now a great trial to a newpoor mother, a cause of endless worry, anxiety, and often of self-reproach. For she has practically no chance of ever marrying, as the young men of her class, and there are but few, must seek brides who have dots, so high is the cost of living. And the daughters of the new poor have no dots. To most of them, therefore, marriage is barred; and that to their mothers is a real grief; for a French mother’s heart is always set more or less on securing good husbands for her daughters. That is doubly the case now, when she has no means wherewith to provide for them, and has more often than not, never fitted them to provide for themselves. That is the rub, the cause of so much self-reproach, as well as of frict ion; for, had they been fitted to provide for themselves, the lack of husbands would not be tor them the tragedy it is.

Then, too, even as children, girls are often a great care to their mothers; for not only must they be housed, fed, and clothed, but they must be educated; and of all the hard problems a poor French mother has to face, the hardest of all is that of deciding by whom to have them educated.

The great majority of bourgeois mothers were educated in convents, we must not forget; and, whether frequenters of churches or not, they are as a rule staunch Catholics, with a keen desire that their children also shall be staunch Catholics. They, therefore, bitterly resent the closing of the convents; for so long as the convents were open, they had schools to which they could send their daughters with an easy mind, sure of their being kept safely in the orthodox fold; whereas now, more often than not, the only schools within reach are the State schools, in which the education given is secular. And the average bourgeois mother, especially petty bourgeois, is firmly convinced that, if she sends them to a State school, they will sooner or later stray from the fold, will cease to be good Catholics.

Nor is that all. Whether a devotee or not, she wishes her daughters to have good manners, to demean themselves as well-brought-up girls were expected to demean themselves in pre-war days. For she is not only staunchly Catholic, but, in what concerns girls, staunchly conservat ire. She has a great horror of the new girl that has sprung up in France, as elsewhere, since the war — the girl who sets her mother at nought, has male friends, and smokes; and she is as sure as sure can be, though without either much rime or reason, as it seems, that the new girl is a product of secular education, is manufactured in State schools. And she is sorely afraid lest, if she sends her daughters to a State school, they may become new girls, bent on going their own way, and that way a wrong way.

The average French mother of the lower middle class has undoubtedly a great dread of secular education for girls. She does not approve of it even for boys; still, for them, it is a necessary evil, she is inclined to think; but for girls it spells disaster, she is firmly convinced. And in that she is right, her clerical adviser assures her. Secular educat ion is the source of all evil, according to him; while it is the veriest anathema according to her old convent teachers; and she still attaches great importance to what they say. Little wonder, therefore, that her heart sinks at the thought of sending her girls to a State school.

It sinks more deeply still, though, at the thought of not sending them there; for she is just as eager to do her best for them in what concerns this world, as in what concerns the next. And she knows that they will have to earn their own living; knows too, that, if they are to have a fair chance of earning it, they must go to a State school. For if they go to a clerical school, even supposing that there is one in the district, as their teachers would probably be ex-nuns, lucrative work would be barred to them, as it is barred to her and to their middle-aged cousins and aunts, perhaps ox en to their own elder sisters. Moreover if they go to a State school, they will be educated in a great measure gratis; whereas, if they go to a clerical school, fees will have to be paid, unless she is prepared to accept charity; and charity she will not acccpt.

Let her do what she will, she is sure to be blamed, accused by her clerical friends of hurling her daughters into perdition, or, by her male relations, of sacrificing them to her own superstitious fears and antideluvian notions. To make matters worse, she knows in her heart that, let her strive as she will to do what is right, her own daughters may later rise up against her, and join in singing over her a solemn Tekel.

As time passes things will right themselves, no doubt: even the most devout of lower-middle-class mothers will lose some of the fear with which she now regards State schools, and will realize that secular education does not necessarily entail either a lack of religion or bad manners. Moreover, there is always the hope that the Church and State may bury the hatchet, and join hands in trying to make sure that the best shall be done for the children of Clericals and anti-Clericals alike. Should that day come, it will bring great comfort to many sorely tried mothers, and set their minds at rest.


Fortunately, in England, the troubles entailed on lower-middle-class parents by the education of their children are social and economic, rather than religious. Still, to many a father of the new-poor section of that class, it is a heart-breaking matter that, through sheer lack of money, he cannot send his sons to a genteel school. He feels that he is not doing for them what he ought to do, not doing what his father did for him, not giving them the chance that was given him of starting life as a gentleman. And to him that seems the first real step down, the beginning of that going-down in the world, the dread of which haunts him day in, day out. And the same sort of feeling prevails more or less throughout the lower middle class; only, among those who have always belonged to that class, the feeling is much stronger with the mothers than with the fathers.

The average lower-middle-class mother is a very good mother — a worthy woman to boot; and, in what concerns most things, she is levelheaded. None the less the mere thought of sending her children to a County Council Elementary School may, and often does, act on her nerves as a red rag on a bull. The teaching in those schools is infinitely better than that given in any private school to which she could send them; and it is free, while in private schools it must be paid for. Yet the chances are that she will promptly wax resentful, if one ventures to suggest that she should send them to a County Council School instead of sending them to a private school. Rather than do so, she will not only pinch and save, but will go almost without anything, without bacon, fish, or beef, for six days out of seven; and, when the time comes, as it often does now, that send them there she must, it is for her a heart-breaking matter. And all because County Council Elementary Schools are not ‘genteel’; because in such a school her children must sit side by side with working-class children, be treated in all ways as equal with them, and may perhaps — who knows? — become as they are! And in her eyes that would indeed be a going-down in the world; and in no other class is there quite such a horror of that going-down, as in the lower middle class, especially among the women who were born in it. The horror smacks of the absurd, of course; none the less it is at the root of much that helps both men and women to ‘run straight,’ holding their heads high the while.

In England and France alike, the inbetween classes have now undoubtedly a heavy burden to bear; and for the most part they are bearing it very bravely. The French are bearing it very patiently, too, much more patiently than the English. For although doggedness may be the badge of our tribe, sufferance certainly is not.

I have sojourned in fourteen different countries in my time; and, so far as I can judge, in no other country is the average native quite so lacking in patience as in England. And they who lack it most are to be found in the lower middle class, among the women born and bred there. They who abound in it most of all are also to be found there, it is true; for it is emphatically the extremists’ section of that class, the section in which the lovers of peace are the most fervent, the lovers of a fight the keenest and most aggressive, the dreamers of dreams the most visionary. In no other class, surely, are there so many women who have in them the making of an Elizabeth Fry, a Charlotte Corday, or a Donna Quixote. To hear what some of them say, one might think them the veriest Ishmaels; to see what some of them do, is to know that, were justice the order of the day, they would take high rank among those to whom hats are doffed instinctively.

Again and again I have had hard tussles before I could induce povertystricken lower-middle-class women to accept old-age pensions. Again and again such women have refused them because of the fear lest, should they accept them, they might bring discredit on some well-to-do relative, who did not care a whit whether they starved or not. There is neither bound nor limit to the sacrifices some of them make, make gladly, for the sake of the most worthless of sons, most heartless of daughters. One poor old lady, to whom an old-age pension was offered during the war, refused it almost indignantly. ‘No! No!' she cried, ‘I will wait until the war is over. The Government need every penny they have now.’

Among such women political feeling often runs high; for the average woman of the lower middle class is much more keenly interested in public affairs than the average woman of either the higher class or the lower. She reads newspapers more than they do; books too, half-educated though she may be. A public library is to her a source of endless pleasure, especially if she be alonestanding. It is to her what society is to some of them, cinemas to others. If she is not a staunch Radical, she is fairly sure to be a staunch Conservative, one of the die-hard type almost as often as not. Communism does not appeal to her — she dearly loves her own belongings; while as for Bolshevism! were it proposed to hang every Bolshevik tomorrow, I doubt whether she would raise a protest. Whatever be her creed, her ‘views,’ as she calls them, are equally strong: there is hardly a subject on which she has not quite made up her mind; hardly a grievance but she has some pet scheme for redressing it, and is prepared to fight for the redressing with tooth and nail. For, although there are many very patient women in the lower middle class, the average woman born there is a fighter, a righter of wrongs by instinct, no matter whose the wrongs be. She bitterly resents the shameful way in which, as she maintains, the Government neglect those of her class, doing nothing for them at all, beyond raising their rates and taxes, while lavishing money on the working class, which, according to her, has already more money than it knows what to do with.

Nor is she content with resenting the wrongs of her class — she is bent on having them righted, let the cost be what it may. In that she differs fundamentally from the average woman of her class in France. When her sense of justice is outraged, she betakes herself straight to a public meeting, or to a political demonstration, if one is to be found; whereas the Frenchwoman betakes herself to church.

There is something infinitely pathetic in the uncomplaining fashion in which lower-middle-class Frenchwomen are now demeaning themselves. Among them there is no cherishing of grievances (excepting that of the closing of the convents); not a touch of that rankling sense of wrong that is so rife among their English sisters; hardly a trace of any effort to draw attention to their distress, and have a remedy for it devised. On the contrary, it almost seems as if their one wish was to hide the fact that they are poor, to keep themselves and their poverty well out of sight.

The average Frenchwoman of the lower middle class was always primarily une femme de l’interieur, it must be remembered. Her business was, she held, to take care of her children, if she had any, and to tend her men-folk, to feed them well, so far as she could, and make life easy for them, they in return providing her with the necessary money. And now, more often than not, she has no men-folk, or only men-folk who are maimed. She never had any great interest in public affairs, and now she has lost any little interest she ever had: she has barred her doors as it were against the outside world and its concerns. She never cared much for reading, rarely touched even a newspaper; for she relied on her husband, father, or brother, telling her if anything special happened. In her better days, going to the theatre, entertaining her friends and relatives, buying and furbishing clothes for her Sunday promenade were her recreations; but they are out of her reach now, as they all entail expense. Thus, beyond churchgoing, she has not a recreation, not a pleasure in life, hardly an interest, unless she has children. And if her children are daughters the interest they afford her is fraught with pain.

Her life, therefore, is terribly narrow, as well as sad; and what makes it the sadder and the narrower is that she sees no chance of its ever being less narrow, less sad. Among the women of her class, and the men too, there is undoubtedly great despondency at the present time. They have lost all hope. They have even ceased to seek a remedy for their misery, so sure are they that there is no remedy to be found. They are, in fact, many of them, haunted by the fear that they and theirs must go down in the world; that the class to which they belong must cease to exist.

Perhaps they are right; it is not for me, a mere outsider, to say whether they are or are not; but, if they are, France will certainly be the poorer. For the lower middle class is a solid element in the State, one that makes for righteousness as well as peace.

As it is in France to-day, so it may be elsewhere in the days to come; and wherever it is, women will be the first to suffer. Everywhere, therefore, it behooves mothers, surely, to see to it that their daughters are fitted, while yet there is time, 1o cope with the new state of things that may lie before them. If every girl, no matter what her rank, what her wealth, were taught some calling by which to earn her own daily bread, come what may, she could face the world bravely, secure against the worst kicks the Fates can give.