he term the “Condition-of-England novels” refers to a body of narrative fiction, also known as industrial novels, social novels, or social problem novels, published in Victorian England during and after the period of the Hungry Forties. The term directly relates to the famous “Condition of England Question” raised by Thomas Carlyle in “Chartism” (1839), although some of these narratives were published earlier. Condition-of-England novels sought to engage directly with the contemporary social and political issues with a focus on the representation of class, gender, and labour relations, as well as on social unrest and the growing antagonism between the rich and the poor in England. Even a cursory glance at the history of the early Victorian novel reveals that many writers shared a particular concern: the social consequences of the Industrial Revolution in England at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Early Victorian Condition-of-England novels tried to be a repository of social conscience, an ability to empathise with unbearable social iniquities and injustices. A number of writers were strongly motivated to arouse sympathy for the conditions of the emerging working class. Social conscience was largely based on paternalism, which was a dominant ideology in early Victorian England until it was replaced by benevolence and humanitarianism, which were manifested in the reforms of the late nineteenth century. Condition-of-England novels helped raise the collective awareness of the reading public and, in a way, illuminated the directions for both nineteenth-century and twentieth-century welfare reforms. The novels of the 1840s and ’50s, devoted to industrial relations, are polemical in principle and contain, apart from their fictional plots, a debate or discourse about the current state of the nation. They are also instruments of social analysis and a platform for reform messages. As Robin B. Colby points out,

The industrial novels all share some common characteristics: the detailed documentation of the suffering of the poor, the reproduction of working-class speech through dialect, criticism of the effects of industrialism, the discussion of contemporary reform movements like Chartism and Utilitarianism, and some attempt — usually individual and internal — at a solution to social problems. Frequently the plot is developed around a sensitive protagonist, usually male, whose moral, intellectual, or emotional development spans the course of the novel and whose romantic attachments are troubled and conflicted. The protagonist is typically searching for a way to express or mitigate the dissatisfaction of the working class as he takes his role as their spokesman. The industrial novel, which combined narrative interest with protest, was a response to a particularly dismal period in which bank failures and the scarcity of jobs created conditions that many writers saw as deplorable. [18]

It is generally agreed that the canonical Condition-of-England novels include Benjamin Disraeli’s Coningsby and Sybil, Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton and North and South, Charles Dickens’s Dombey and Son and Hard Times, Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley and Charles Kingsley’s Alton Locke, and Yeast. Apart from these, mention should be made of the contribution of early Victorian female writers, including Frances Trollope, Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna, and Harriet Martineau, who wrote fictional narratives in order to expose social ills in a developing industrial society. Victorian Condition-of-England novels called both for social reform and a reconciliation between the ’two’ nations, the rich and the poor. However, as Michael Wheeler observed, early Condition-of-England novels tended to exaggerate the degree and range of the social effects of the Industrial Revolution:

These early novels and stories . . . tend to exaggerate the evils they expose by focusing exclusively on extreme cases, sometimes giving the impression that factories were piled high with human limbs wrenched off by machines or rapacious overseers. They tend to sentimentalize the poor, thus treating the working class monolithically, and are often documented with ponderous footnotes in the style of the blue book. Their significance lies in the fact that they began the process of educating middle- and upper-class novel-readers, many of whom had formerly been quite ignorant of what was going on in the manufacturing areas of Britain. Although extremely weak as imaginative works of fiction, they also prepared the ground for those novelists of the later 1840s and the 1850s — Disraeli, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Kingsley, and Dickens — who dramatically raised the standard of writing in the sub-genre, responding to Carlyle’s warning in his long essay on Chartism (1839) that “if something be not done, something will do itself one day, and in a fashion that will please nobody.” [19]

Condition-of-England novelists, such as Disraeli, Gaskell, Dickens, Kingsley and others, proved that literature is not created in a historical vacuum but can offer analysis and synthesis of social reality. For a present-day student of the Victorian era, the value of Condition-of-England novels lies primarily not in their fictional plots, social analyses, and recommended solutions but primarily in first-hand detailed observations of industrialism, urbanism, class, and gender conflicts.

For further reading

Cazamian, Louis. The Social Novel in England, 1830-1850: Dickens, Disraeli, Mrs. Gaskell, Kingsley. 1903. Translated by Martin Fido. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973.

Bodenheimer, Rosemarie. The Politics of Story in Victorian Social Fiction. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1988.

Brantlinger, Patrick. The Spirit of Reform. British Literature and Politics 1832- 1867. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977.

Colby, Robin B. Some Appointed Work to Do: Women and Vocation in the Fiction of Elizabeth Gaskell. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995.

David, Deidre. Fictions of Resolution in Three Victorian Novels, “North and South”, “Our Mutual Friend”, “Daniel Deronda”. New York: Columbia Press, 1981.

Flint, Kate. The Victorian Novelist: Social Problems and Social Change. London: Croom Helm, 1987.

Gallagher, Catherine. The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction: Social Discourse and Narrative Form, 1832-1867. Chicago: University of Chicago press, 1985.

Guy, Josephine M. The Victorian Social-Problem Novel: The Market, the Individual, and Communal Life. London: Macmillan, 1996.

Harsh, Constance D. Subversive Heroines. Feminist Resolutions of Social Crisis in the Condition-of-England Novel. University of Michigan Press, 1994.

Himmelfarb, Gertrude. The Idea of Poverty. England in the Early Industrial Age. London: Faber & Faber, 1984.

Ingham, Patricia. The Language of Gender and Class: Transformation in the Victorian Novel. London: Routledge, 1996.

Johnson, Patricia. Hidden Hands: Working-Class Women and Victorian Social- Problem Fiction. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2001.

Kestner, Joseph. Protest and Reform. The British Social Narrative by Women, 1827- 1867. Methuen, 1985.

Kettle, Arnold. “The Early Victorian Social-Problem Novel”, in: Boris Ford, ed. The New Pelican Guide to English Literature. From Dickens to Hardy. (vol. 6). Harmonsworth: Penguin Books, 1990.

Smith, Sheila. The Other Nation. The Poor in English Novels of the 1840s and 1850s. Oxford: Clarendon, 1980.

Tillotson, Kathleen. Novels of the Eighteen Forties. London: Oxford University Press, 1954.

Wheeler, Michael. English Fiction of the Victorian Period 1830-1890. New York: Longman, 1994.

Williams, Raymond. Culture and Society, 1780-1950. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.


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Last modified 22 February 2010