The Victorian Novel as a Social Force in the Later Nineteenth (1)
The reign of Queen Victoria was the golden age of the English novel. It was used as a popular medium for expressing its rapid progress in commerce, democracy and science. The material and scientific progress had its influence upon the Victorian life and it was inevitable that it should be expressed through its prose, poetry and fiction. The novel, being a popular medium of expression, sought to do for society in the age precisely what Sir Charles Lyell and Darwin sought to do for science, that is, to find the truth, and to show how it might be used to uplift humanity. Absorbing in itself a very large part of the creative energy of the time, the novel thus became a vehicle of ideas as well as a means of amusement. Writers of different schools of thought employed it to embody their general criticism of life, while it was found to lend itself equally well to the purposes of those who, having some special thesis to expound, desired to reach the largest possible body of readers. It was inevitable that it should thus come to reflect all the forces which were shaping the complex modern world. The spread of science made it realistic and analytical; the spread of democracy made it social and humanitarian; the spirit of religious and moral unrest, of inquiry and criticism, was often uppermost on it, often it revealed the powerful influences of the romantic revival. In its very variety of matter and treatment, the Victorian novel is the index of the many-sided interests and conflicting elements of the Victorian Age.
The Victorian Age was an age of intense activities in commerce, industry and finance. There was a revolution in commercial enterprise due to the great increase of available markets, and, as a result of this, an immense advance in the use of mechanical devise. On the other side of this picture of commercial expansion we see the appalling social conditions of the new industrial cities, the squalid and unsanitary slums inhabited by discontented operatives, the exploitation of cheap labour, often of women and children. Until the steam engine made its appearance, the new factories were established on the hillsides where water-power could be obtained. Labour in those outlaying places was not easy to obtain, and masters made arrangements to take pauper children from seven years of age as apprentices. They kept them in hostels, and provided them food and clothing. But the children had to work twelve hours a day, the food often lacked nourishment, the clothing was insufficient, and the houses in which they lived were comfortless and even filthy. In the cotton-textile industry the handloom weavers suffered terribly because the power-loom could be operated by girls and women. The weavers, however, were not the only dissatisfied workmen. In a system in which manufacturing was done on a large scale, there were frequent disputes about wages and conditions of labour. The condition in the countryside was no better than that of the town. The great estates of titled and historic landlords were being bought up by the new commercial magnates, who had yet to learn that property means duty and not merely opportunity. These evils of the Industrial Revolution were vividly painted by such writers as Disraeli, Dickens and Mrs. Gaskell, and they called forth the missionary efforts of men like Kingsley.
The Social novel was most assiduously cultivated by Benjamin Disraeli. His famous novel “Sybil” is a powerful exposure of abuses connected with the relations of capital and labour, and presents a terrible picture of the lives of the contemporary working class as the background for the love affairs of a young aristocrat, Charles Egremont, and Sybil, the daughter of one of the leaders of the Chartist Movement.