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How Succession has fun with class
Many years ago I spent a few days with a posh family at their impressive house in the Wiltshire countryside. I didn’t know the host family at all; I was arm-candy, just passing through, and with all the egotism of youth I barely paid any attention to the older adults who were providing bed and board and housekeeping in a beautiful location for no money. I realise now they must have found this succession of evanescent young house-guests quite wearing.
I did, though, do the washing up after our first breakfast. This wasn’t so much good manners as a conditioned response. I had been doing the washing up after meals since I had been about eight years old, and I was pretty confident that I was good at it. So I wasn’t prepared for what happened next. ‘WHO’ came the infuriated shout from the lady of the house, clearly provoked beyond all bearing, ‘PUT THE BONE-HANDLED FLATWARE IN THE WASHING-UP WATER?’
Reader, I dunnit.
Among the things I had washed up were some yellow-handled butter knives. (See illustration.) My family had very similar knives, which would wallow at the bottom of the washing-up bowl with the rest of the cutlery. But - crucially - the yellow handles on my parents’ butter knives were plastic.
I didn’t know that butter knives were called ‘flatware’. I didn’t know that my family’s butter knives (flatware) were cheap imitations of a higher-status product. I didn’t know that the original, posh version had bone handles; I didn’t know that bony knives existed, full stop. I didn’t know that one must never - never! - immerse bone-handled flatware in hot water. I didn’t know, I wanted to say. How was I supposed to know any of this? Why are knives suddenly bone now? Is your teapot made out of cats? For Christ’s sake, you need to tell people these things!
The posh, you see: they are full of rules, and they can’t help but trip you up. Their first rule is that you must not tell anyone what the rules are. Indeed, you must pretend there are no rules, while surreptitiously enforcing all kinds of mad shit. (Muddy dogs on the antique linen: debonair. Heating a room above freezing point: vulgar.) Their second rule is that courtesy is rude, and rudeness is classy. If you sweetly say ‘pardon?’ instead of barking ‘what?’, you instantly mark yourself out as a wrong ’un. No, worse than that: you mark yourself out as someone who is looking for approval, a horrible little striver who runs into the kitchen to do the washing up.
This particular micro-strain of wrongfooting exposes both your ignorance and your bumbling insufficiency of class, which gives it an irritable shaming quality. You’ve tried to be nice, you’ve ended up attracting overt discourtesy, and yet somehow you’re the one who feels guilty: hot and sticky, as though you were wearing a nylon blouse and plastic loafers on a country walk. Oh, who am I kidding: on this same trip I wore a nylon blouse and plastic loafers on a hot country walk. When your country house hosts tell you to pick a pair of wellies from the large pile in the mud room, just do it. More generally, when someone tells you what shoes to wear, believe them.
There’s a wonderful episode in the fourth season of The Crown (2020) that has all of this down to a tee. In ‘The Balmoral Test’ Margaret Thatcher is invited to the Queen’s Scottish country estate for a weekend and experiences 48 hours of snotty, ill-shod purgatory. (Thatcher is played by Gillian Andersen; the casting in The Crown always makes me think of Peter Richardson playing Al Pacino playing Arthur Scargill in the Comic Strip film The Strike.)
I mean she’s Margaret fucking Thatcher (I’m pretty sure that became her full name, actually); she’s the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and the First Lord of the Treasury; she keeps her Cabinet’s bollocks in a net bag by the sink. But she wears the wrong shoes to Balmoral. She wears the wrong everything to Balmoral. She turns up in an immaculate suit and court shoes; the kinds of clothes you wear if you’re running the sodding country. The Queen is wearing a tweed skirt, an old cardigan and a pair of wellies; the kind of clothes that you wear if you’ve forgotten what you came in here for. And yet somehow, this fusty inbred effects a status judo throw using a pair of rubber boots. Thatcher is forced to hobble across a hillside in heels, furious, before giving up and going home.
Later in the episode the young Diana Spencer comes to Balmoral for a weekend. She wears jeans and a jumper, and happily fires a bullet through a deer’s brain while lying down in the mud next to Prince Philip, an act that convinces Liz and Phil that she’s just the ticket for Charles. Which, as the episode’s writer Peter Morgan implies, just goes to show how stupid these rules are. (I checked that Peter Morgan wrote this episode, but I kind of already knew he did because of the deer; Morgan is obsessed with them.)
Thatcher, whose father ran a grocery shop, spent the first two decades of her political career hitting her head against the class bar enforced by the minor aristocrats in her party. They couldn’t bear that she was bourgeois. If she’d been the daughter of a groundsman they wouldn’t have liked her, but they would have known what to do with her. There’s an ancestral familiarity between the posh and the rural poor, a comfortable dynamic based on mutual dislike, hardwearing clothes and regular bouts of multidirectional violence that don’t half clear the air.
There’s no such comfortable dealing between the posh and the comfortable-but-acquisitive suburban middle classes. Because the third rule of Posh is that you must never want more. You must not say that one day you hope to buy a house in the country; you must not let on that you work like stink to accumulate wealth; you must not save up for months to buy a Dior handbag in the mistaken hope that it will make you classy (oh, darling, no). If you have a Dior handbag already, you must use it to store leaky Biros and eye drops for the dog.
In popular British culture, narratives about the working poor and the ancestral rich are clean and clear, if deeply cliched: the granite-hewn labourer/shopgirl who fights against the odds, the gilded birds mourning the state of their ha-ha while sinking into debt. The class stories we tell about the striving middles, on the other hand, are deeply confused, and often extremely mean, which is odd because most British drama is middle class all the way down; it is made by middle class people, about middle class people, for middle class people. And that’s because Britain is middle class; 67% of British adults live in middle class households but, rather deliciously, just 36% will admit to it. The missing 31% all claim to be working class. (This will be entirely unsurprising if you’re British, and totally astonishing if you’re American.)
Because the first rule of the middle classes is that you must pretend to hate yourself. The smart thing to do is to assert that middle class existence - our own existence - is somehow not authentic, not worthy of serious and sympathetic dramatic treatment. We will, just about, admit that we literally exist, that we are all out here worrying about our mortgages and wondering whether we can fit a Range Rover down our cul de sac (not a euphemism).
But while we will happily watch a thousand dramas in which our avatars have affairs with and/or murder their irritating neighbours, we will not allow ourselves a coherent standpoint that unapologetically centres our own experience in relation to other classes. When class is explicitly in the frame the middle classes are spiteful caricatures, like JK Rowling’s Dursleys, or contemptible fall guys, like Basil Fawlty. We don’t allow ourselves to make the argument that maybe, actually, the bourgeois way of life - keeping ourselves to ourselves, obtaining the best possible education at the lowest possible cost, getting excited when Sainsbury’s has pomegranate molasses - is no more blameworthy than any other.
Which is why ‘The Balmoral Test’ delighted me so much: it was such a pleasure to see relatable bourgeois discomfort represented with empathy and understanding. And it’s why I draw near-delirious enjoyment from Caroline in Succession; or, as the Americans courteously (and thus vulgarly) call her, ‘Lady Caroline’. Played impeccably by Harriet Walter, Caroline is dreadful - cruel, selfish, loveless, self-pitying, disloyal and dishonest - but separately from that she is also a very specific kind of posh British woman who lays very specific traps for her prey. And because her children - the Roy siblings - are culturally entirely American, they could not regard her with greater contempt.
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The mainly British writing team on Succession has an enormous amount of fun with class, and it skewers the posh mercilessly in a way that most British writers don’t allow themselves to do. The Pearce family - liberal East Coast scions of smuggery who own a New York Times-coded news operation - have their own screamingly enjoyable class code, which from England looks like a poor-quality translation of Old Country idiocy. Nan Pearce, the deceptively stodgy matriarch, presides over a theatrical display of patrician gestures; meals are preceded by passages from Shakespeare (Nan, posh people in England hate you for this), and every family member has either multiple degrees or a punishing drug habit. The Pearces are horrified by the nouveau riche Roys, who talk about money and swear at the dinner table and don’t even pretend to be friends with their servants. But as viewers, we’re clearly expected to realise that the Roys and the Pearces are simply as bad as each other in their failure to recognise other people’s humanity; they just do it in different ways.
The Pearce’s Massachusetts brand of snobbery sent me back to The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton (1913), an uproariously enjoyable primal scream about the East Coast class system. I was going to write that I have no idea why this has not been made into a film, like Wharton’s House of Mirth (starring Gillian Andersen/Margaret Thatcher, 2000) and The Age of Innocence (1993), but a quick fact-check revealed that it is being made into a movie right now by Sofia Coppola, which has absolutely made my day.
Its heroine Undine Spragg (just sit with that name and enjoy it for a moment) is a beautiful young woman whose father worked like the blazes to become rich. The entire family sets out for New York to bag Undine a rich husband, staying schtum about the fact that Undine has already, shall we say, blotted her copy book with a circus barker from her home town. The plot proceeds at a breakneck speed through Undine’s chain of divorces and remarriages and divorces, each of which takes her up the social ladder and closer to the ultimate prize of an actual French aristocrat. Oh, just read it and thank me later.
The point is, Undine and Edith Wharton combine to give the East Coast snobs an enormous kicking. As it says in the introduction to my 2006 Penguin edition of The Custom of the Country, Undine ‘breaks codes written and unwritten with impunity, but she also gives the impression of not even knowing them’. Her beauty causes the posh young men of New York to soil themselves in public and there’s absolutely nothing the Nan Pearces of the world can do about it. Like Tom Wambsgans, the eventual ‘winner’ of Succession, the Spraggs are Midwestern - ‘striving and parochial’ as New Yorker Shiv describes Tom in their almighty argument in the ‘Tailgate Party’ episode - and are accustomed to having to work for nice things.
I wish I could find a way to stop being so flattened by posh people’s rules, and to voice thoughts such as ‘you’re very rude’ and ‘I’m cold’ and ‘you really need to clean your lavatory’ (and yes, I did write ‘lavatory’; try to remain calm). But I think the class cringe is just too deeply encoded in me now. Nevertheless, as John Maynard Keynes once said, the class war will find me on the side of the educated bourgeoisie, and after we’ve won we will do the washing up any way we choose.
For more on the cringe character of the British bourgeoisie: