On a recently established web site called BBC Future, one of their staff writers, David Robson, earlier this month posted an essay entitled “How much does social class matter in Britain today.” He concludes that it does still matter but to a different extent than formerly. In his essay, he has occasion to cite Evelyn Waugh’s 1955 “Open Letter to the Hon. Mrs. Peter Robb (Nancy Mitford) on a Very Serious Subject”:
…writers have been ringing the death knell for the British class system since at least the early 20th Century. Writing an open letter to his friend Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh claimed that “the vast and elaborate structure grew up almost in secret. Now it shows alarming signs of dilapidation.” His own novel Brideshead Revisited is itself an homage to the English nobility, which seemed to be crumbling along with the titular stately home.
But although the structure of the class system may have changed since Waugh’s day, there are still very clear strata in our society, each with different levels of social, cultural and economic capital. Considering factors like education, salary, professions, and household ownership, the BBC’s own Great British Class Survey discovered seven distinct classes in total, with an elite (representing roughly 6% of the population) residing above a wide spectrum of working and middle classes.
The quote comes from near the beginning of Waugh’s “Open Letter” that appeared first in Encounter magazine (December 1955). It was later reprinted in the 1956 collection of essays edited by Nancy Mitford and entitled Noblesse Oblige and is also included in Waugh’s collected Essays, Articles and Reviews (p. 494).