The Victorian Novel as a Social Force in the Later Nineteenth (2)
The social problems of England found a passionate exponent in Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell, the wife of a Unitarian Clergy in Manchester. Her life brought her into contact with the industrial and social difficulties growing out of the struggle between master and workman. Her novels entitled “Mary Barton” and “North and South” give a realistic view of the hardships caused by the Industrial Revolution as seen from the workers’ point of view. The hardships of the working class are poignantly presented in “Mary Baton”. Praising this novel, Arnold Kettle writes, “As an accurate and humane picture of working class life in a large industrial town in the forties, Mary Barton is without rival among the novels of the time.”
Dickens was a great social reformer and his novels belong to the humanitarian movement of the Victorian era. He was from first to last a novelist with a purpose. In nearly all his books he set out to attack some specific abuse in the existing system of things, and throughout he constituted himself the champion of the weak, the outcast, and the oppressed. In nearly all the novels there is an attack upon some legal or social evil. He satirized boarding schools in “Nicholas Nickelby”, the court Chancery in “Bleak House”, the new manufacturing system in “Hard Times”, the workhouse in “Oliver Twist”, the pettifogging lawyers in “Great Expectations”.
W. M. Thackeray
Thackeray was essentially a realist. He knew nothing of Dickens’ humanitarianism and tremendous zeal for reform, but his persistent and telling effects upon snobbery, affectation, and humbug may be regarded as the parallel, though on a different plain, of Charlyle’s terrific denunciations of quackery, shams and insincerity. His success as a novelist is inseparable from his exploration of certain effects of England’s expanding economy in the early and middle nineteenth century. His world is the world of London society, and he sinks bull-dog teeth into every single abuse of rank and privilege; self-defeating miserliness in “Sir Pitt Crawley”; unearned privilege stupidly and criminally abused in “Sir Francis Clavering”; in “Rawdon Crawley” the prodigality of the bloods and dandies; the mediocrity of mind and talents that governed a great nation with a growing empire, exemplified in “Mr. Pitt Crawley”; extreme brutality in “Lord Steyne”, trading on its prerogatives.
George Eliot’s role was to be that of recorder and reflective observer of man in society. F. R. Leavis remarks, “Of George Eliot it can be said that her best work has a Tolstoyan depth and reality”. In many of her novels she depicts the old-fashioned provincial life with which she had been familiar in her girlhood. In “Felix Holt”, a didactic political novel, she has tried to depict the turmoil and dislocation that arise even in the backwater of a small rural settlement in the days following the passing of the first Reform Bill. The society of “Adam Bede” harks back to a preceding age. It is paternalistic and feudalistic, with the squire at the top of the hierarchy, and with tenant farmers, independent artisans and agricultural laborers arranged carefully in descending order. There is nothing harsh and oppressive about this society. Indeed, on a casual social level, a spirit of camaraderie prevails. But what enables the camaraderie between classes to flourish is not, of course, any spirit of egalitarian democracy, but simply in unquestioning acceptance of the need and of the justice of rigid class distinctions.
Charles Kingsley, who was an enthusiastic disciple of Carlyle and an ardent social reformer, was one of the most vigorous of the numanitarian novelists of the mid-Victorian Age. His “Alton Locke, Yeast” and “Two Years Ago” are full of the unrest of their time and of the writer’s passionate earnestness in the cause of the masses. “Alton Locke” is noteworthy for its vivid pictures of the wretched life of the laboring class in the middle of the nineteenth century. In his remarkable novel “Yeast” he shows his interest in the oppressed laboring class and in the “Tractarian Movement”. But it is one of the numerous ironies of literary history that Kingslye, who strove nobly for social righteousness, should survive as the author of a novel of religious history, as the author of a story for school boys, but chiefly as the author of tales for children.