In my favourite novel, The Red and the Black, the colours denote a low-born Frenchman’s only means of ascent. In the end, it is neither the red tunic of the army nor the black robe of the church so much as the white linen of the boudoir that elevates our fool-hero. A mayor’s wife and a marquis’s daughter are among those who usher him to within grasping distance of his longed-for status. That titular “red”, I still think, is a sly joke: the colour not of war but of sex, the age-old friend of the parvenu.
Or at least former friend. The last two centuries have opened more professional routes out of one’s class than there are nameable colours. At the same time, they have closed off the older method of hypergamous romance. “Assortative mating” is the fittingly cold phrase for the intermarriage of educated people, who compound their material and cognitive advantages in the process.
In the middle of the last century, the following observations would have marked me out as a curiosity. I hardly know a straight person of my age with a degree who has a spouse without one. Of the couples where one partner earns vastly more, the other tends to bring cultural clout, grander relatives, a handy passport or some such equaliser. (Looks are of insufficient strategic value to close the gap.) As for the bachelors, of the hundred or so dates the most active ones sit through each year, around 90 are with graduates of research universities. A transgressive evening is one spent with an art or drama school alumnus.
There is a notion that only female graduates are reluctant to marry beneath their credentials. I am sure this gets cause and effect all jumbled. When high-status men routinely ended up with less educated wives, it did not reflect preference, necessarily, so much as a want of alternatives. Once access to universities and the workplace spread to women, both sexes were freed up to be snobs. How lavishly we have used the licence since. My conscience is untroubled by almost every habit of the metro-liberal class that has been so tarred and feathered in recent years. Its romantic insularity is the exception. Not even private education does as much to forge an imporous caste.
This is why, along with its remorseless erudition, I have been carried along by The Aristocracy of Talent. In his new book, Adrian Wooldridge tries to salvage meritocracy from the ossified over-class that Aldous Huxley foresaw. Like all the best works of argumentative nonfiction, it falls down at the stage of policy fixes. Ideas of the “upgrading vocational education” sort can improve life chances, no doubt. The tax code can cut into the racket of inherited wealth much more than it does. But soon enough, a serious meritocrat comes up against the untouchable borders of the personal realm. Parents rig life for their children with a zeal that is no less antisocial for being natural. And the most skilled of these self-dealers will be the graduate double-teams. It is not for society to “do” anything about so intimate a choice as marriage. It just falls to society to count the costs.
And these go well beyond the gumming up of social mobility. What stands out about the modern alpha-couple is not ladder-raising self-interest so much as grinding blandness. Hypergamy recurs in drama — Balzac, kitchen-sink films, Cinderella — because it has a fascination that is not quite there when someone at UBS weds someone at Freshfields.
The supposed subversiveness of inter-class sex is not the point (there is, after all, still plenty of that around). It is the contact and ultimately the synthesis of two distinct experiences of life. Any children that result from it, to the extent they absorb a bit of each, stand to be all the more rounded and imaginative in turn. The assortatively mated constitute perhaps the most disciplined, competitive and high-functioning ruling class the west has ever known, but also the least original. Wooldridge is never better than when he charts the distance between their bohemian self-image and the monoculture of their private lives.
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