Ruth Livesey

in Victorian Literature

ISBN: 9780199799558
Published online March 2011 | | DOI:

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The presence and force of class difference in Victorian literature and culture are both self-evident and surprisingly difficult to pin down. They are the source of Pip’s anxieties in Great Expectations; the resource for Jane Eyre to resist the slights of Mrs. Reed and Blanche Ingram and distance herself from the household servants; they give burning importance to Margaret Hale’s discovery of what a knobstick, exactly, is in North and South. But what is class? Is it a series of preset social categories into which one is born; a process of collective identity formation and consciousness; something determined by how one makes a living; a state of mind shaped by intimate psychic experience; a rhetorical construct and set of social representations; or a matter of extreme material differences between poverty and wealth? It can be all of these things, and this bibliography is designed to give space to each of these approaches, from class consciousness and “making” to the archetypes and ideals of different social identities such as the gentleman, from working-class self-representation to attempts by middle-class social investigators to spread sweetness and light to the masses. From the 1960s onward it was the identification of the 19th century with the emergence of the modern tripartite class system, class consciousness, and the class struggles of the capitalist era that led to a lively intersection of social history, urban studies, and Victorian literary studies on the part of Marxist influenced scholars from a range of disciplines. Put simply, Victorian literature mattered, as did the Victorian period more generally, because it was the source of modern class society, the processes that continued to shape 20th-century society and were driving history into the future. Given this analysis, it is perhaps not surprising that the urban proletariat tends to dominate studies of class in Victorian literature. This is reflected to an extent in this bibliography, as indeed it was in two special issues published in 2000 and 2001 dedicated to constructions of Victorian classes in the leading journal Victorian Literature and Culture, in which eleven of the seventeen articles primarily focused on the representation of labor and the working classes. Although there is much to be learned about middle-class life, writing, and values from a vast swathe of critical studies—particularly those concerned with gender relations—the ones selected here are the relative few that give central place to class as a marked category of existence. The last two decades of the 20th century witnessed challenges to the understanding of the centrality of class to historical change in the wake of the collapse of Communist regimes and the post-structuralist revisions of Marxist theory. But as the works cited in this bibliography indicate, well before the watershed year of 1989, scholars from a variety of disciplines were developing fine-grained approaches that insisted on the importance of experience, subjectivity, and intimate life in the understanding and writing of class. At the same time new terms, such as populism, emerged to help us understand the structures through which historical actors came to feel their way into collective relationships.

Article.  11373 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (19th Century)

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