Nigel Warburton in Aeon:
The hero of Thomas Hardy’s tragic novel Jude the Obscure (1895) is a poor stonemason living in a Victorian village who is desperate to study Latin and Greek at university. He gazes, from the top of a ladder leaning against a rural barn, on the spires of the University of Christminster (a fictional substitute for Oxford). The spires, vanes and domes ‘like the topaz gleamed’ in the distance. The lustrous topaz shares its golden colour with the stone used to build Oxbridge colleges, but it is also one of the hardest minerals in nature. Jude’s fragile psyche and health inevitably collapse when he discovers just how unbreakable are the social barriers that exclude him from elite culture and perpetuate his class position, however lovely the buildings seem that concretely represent them, shimmering on the horizon. By Hardy’s time, the trope of the exclusion of the working class from the classical cultural realm, especially from access to the ancient languages, had become a standard feature of British fiction. Charles Dickens probes the class system with a tragicomic scalpel in David Copperfield (1850). The envious Uriah sees David as a privileged young snob, but he refuses to accept the offer of Latin lessons because he is ‘far too umble. There are people enough to tread upon me in my lowly state, without my doing outrage to their feelings by possessing learning.’
It is with good reason that education in Classics was and still is associated in the British mind with the upper classes. Since the late 17th century, when the discipline of ‘Classics’ as we know it emerged, only parents of substantial means have been able to buy their teenaged children (and, until the late-19th century, only their male children) the leisure and lengthy tuition that a thorough knowledge of the Latin and Greek languages requires. Classics emerged to provide a curriculum that could bestow a shared concept of gentlemanliness on the new ruling order after the Glorious Revolution.