Writing not long after the end of that era, R. H. Gretton noted that there were “few subjects … in which definition is more difficult.” Almost 100 years later, his words still ring true. As he goes on to note, the term, “middle-class”
has...an inherent vagueness; the very name “Middle Class” suggests a stratum of society which, though obviously in existence, and calling for a descriptive label, was so lacking in marked characteristics or qualities that it could only be described as lying between two other classes.
The problem, he continues, is that the term “middle” can be read as “transitional.” This means that at one end the middle-class merges with a higher class and at the other, with a lower class. In the former, it is, in all probability, intentional and desirable, an admission of successful upward striving. At the other, it may well be “a confession of failure.” Of course, over time not only does the middle-class itself shift its ground, the lines at which it merges with other classes are fluid and change as well. Even within the middle-class there were distinctions which determined the behaviour of individuals. One might, for example, be a professional man and that might mean that one was a "gentleman" since a lawyer would undoubtedly be privy to much information about the gentry. Those of the middle-class who interacted either professionally or socially would have been considered as "gentlefolk." On the other hand, there were those whose fortunes could not buy them entry into the gentry. Nobody would have considered them as "gentlefolk," although they were certainly middle-class. At the other extreme were those whom, today, we would describe as "white-collar" workers. Clerks, managers and civil servants amongst others, earning between 100 and 200 pounds per annum might well be considered middle-class, but would certainly not have ranked as gentlemen.
A number of factors conspired during the nineteenth century to focus attention on the middle-class. Not least among these were industrialization and education. The former acted as a two-edged sword. For many Britons it increased their wealth, expanding and consolidating new markets and confirming the new middle-class. And with the growth of this class, so too grew consumerism. One of the features of the emergent middle-class was what the Norwegian economist and sociologist, Thorstein Veblen, referred to as "conspicuous consumption." But for others the Industrial Revolution rather than offering hope, dragged them down. Life was changed dramatically for the working class when a bare subsistence wage was considered adequate recompense for a working day that might extend from the early hours of the morning until well after dark six days a week. The thousands of agricultural labourers who left the land rarely found their lives bettered in the cities under the factory system.
Consumerism by the middle-classes was contributed to by greater leisure and the development of department stores. These stores were bright and spacious, with gas-lights and plate-glass windows. They offered an opportunity for the newly well-off middle-class, particularly the middle-class matrons, to spend their money on all the new and wonderful products that were constantly being made available to the market. There were, of course, all sorts of other products including travel which was becoming increasingly popular in the Victorian years. As Lawrence James, in his history of the middle-class comments, the "middle class expended as much time, energy and ingenuity on spending money as they did earning it."
Education, or rather lack of it, was a problem for the middle-class, particularly those who were just clawing their way up from the working classes. Thomas Arnold, in the mid-1860s, was asking why it was that secondary education was reserved for an elite rather than being available to “the children of our middle and professional classes.” And while the newspapers advertised all sorts of wonderful educational opportunities aimed at the middle-class, it was, as Arnold comments, that “no one who knows anything of the subject , will venture to affirm that … [they] give, or can give, that which they 'conscientiously offer.'” It was not until the following decade and beyond, beginning with the 1870 Education Act, that a form of public education began to provide the weapon of widespread literacy for the working classes, thereby offering them a tool for upward mobility.
If there was one word to describe the Victorian middle-class, it would undoubtedly be “respectability.” And if there was one outstanding virtue, it would have to be the work ethic. Through hard work one could become, if one was not already, one of the middle-class. There were self-help books in a-plenty, with perhaps the best known of these being Self Help by the aptly named Samuel Smiles. While it is easy to make fun of this book, it is important as a marker of the best characteristics of the middle-class; a class which during Victoria's long reign changed the face of Great Britain.