Social-Problem Novel

Bethan Carney

in Victorian Literature

ISBN: 9780199799558
Published online January 2015 | | DOI:
Social-Problem Novel

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“Social-problem novels” (also known as “industrial,” “social,” or “condition-of-England” novels) are a group of mid-19th-century fictions concerned with the condition of the working classes in the new industrial age. “The condition of England” was a phrase used by Thomas Carlyle in his essay Chartism (1839) about the “condition and disposition” of working people; it combined sympathy for deprivation with fear of the “madness” of Chartism. Largely written by middle-class writers, the novels highlight poverty, dirt, disease, and industrial abuses such as sweated labor, child workers, and factory accidents but also exhibit anxiety about working-class irreligion and a fear of (potentially violent) collective action such as Chartism and trade unionism. The genre roughly spans the period between the Reform Acts of 1832 and 1867, and the backdrop includes the “Hungry Forties,” debates over the franchise, Chartist demonstrations, the exponential growth of the new cities, and campaigns around sanitation and factory conditions. There is no consensus on the works that should be included in the genre. Regarded as either the first true social-problem novel or an influential forerunner is Harriet Martineau’s “A Manchester Strike” in her Illustrations of Political Economy (1832). Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1838) is sometimes considered a social-problem novel due to its critique of the 1834 New Poor Law. Frances Trollope’s Michael Armstrong, the Factory Boy (1839) followed, arguably inspired both by Dickens’s tale and (in reaction against) Martineau. Trollope’s “fallen woman” novel, Jessie Phillips, a Tale of the Present Day (1843), is also generally included in the genre. Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna is another female social-problem author writing about factory workers and seamstresses (Helen Fleetwood (1841) and The Wrongs of Woman (1843–1844)). Like Martineau and Trollope, Tonna has only relatively recently been rescued from critical obscurity. Charles Kingsley’s critical trajectory is in the opposite direction, but his Alton Locke (1850) (about Chartism) and Yeast: A Problem (1851) (about agricultural workers) appear in most studies of the genre. Although set in an earlier period, Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley (1849) is often considered a social-problem novel because its depiction of Luddite riots is read as a reference to Chartism. However, the best-known examples are Disraeli’s political trilogy (Coningsby (1844), Sybil (1845), and Tancred (1847)), Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848) and North and South (1854–1855), and Dickens’s Hard Times (1854). George Eliot’s Felix Holt, the Radical (1866), written on the eve of the second Reform Act, is arguably the last novel in the genre.

Article.  9872 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (19th Century)

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