Victorian Literature Class
by
Ruth Livesey
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0015

Introduction

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.

General Overviews

There is no single source that can provide an overview of this complex subject, but the works in this section are good starting places for the several aspects of class and literature that will be mapped out in the rest of this bibliography. Crossick 1991 is a concise introduction to the terminology and descriptive content of different aspects of class hierarchy in Victorian Britain, while Adams 2005 is a very well-informed brief survey of class in the Victorian novel. Poovey 1995 gives a rich sense of the competing forces and representations that shaped ideas of the social body at a crucial period of class formation. Keating 1971 examines how the working classes were represented by middle-class writers, while Vicinus 1974 reveals the breadth of working-class writing and self-representation in the Victorian period. Gagnier 1991 takes that self-representation as the center of its study of class and subjectivity, developing the critique of Marxist and structuralist accounts of class substantially developed in socialist-feminist criticism such as Kaplan 1986. Robbins 2007, like Adams 2005, has a richly instructive focus on the particular anxieties and aspirations of class mobility.

  • Adams, James Eli. “The Boundaries of Social Intercourse: Class in the Victorian Novel.” In A Concise Companion to the Victorian Novel. Edited by Francis O’Gorman, 44–70. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.

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    An excellent starting place for this subject, Adams’s rich and very well-informed analysis focuses on class in canonical Victorian fiction, and supports this with a good introduction to the key historical scholarship and debates on class and a refusal to oversimplify this complex field.

  • Crossick, Geoffrey. “From Gentleman to the Residuum: Languages of Social Description in Victorian Britain.” In Language, History, and Class. Edited by Penelope Corfield, 150–178. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.

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    A precise, clear, and wide-ranging consideration of the shifting terminologies of class distinctions in the 19th century.

  • Gagnier, Regenia. Subjectivities: A History of Self-Representation in Britain, 1832–1920. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

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    A compelling work examining the articulation of class and subjectivity in a range of 19th-century narrative forms. Includes chapters on class and the body, the representation of the working class in 19th-century fictions, working-class autobiography, and school.

  • Kaplan, Cora. “Pandora’s Box: Subjectivity, Class, and Sexuality in Socialist Feminist Criticism.” In Sea Changes: Essays on Culture and Feminism. By Cora Kaplan, 147–176. London: Verso, 1986.

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    This remains an astute analysis of the productive tensions between traditional, Marxist influenced analyses of class in literature and the necessary investment of feminism in ideas of subjectivity and selfhood. Kaplan finishes out her analysis with illuminating references to Jane Eyre and works by Wollstonecraft and Woolf.

  • Keating, Peter. The Working Classes in Victorian Fiction. London: Routledge, 1971.

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    With this the foundational study of the literary representation of the working classes, Keating ranges from the “condition of England” fiction of the 1840s to the end of the period. But his particular strengths and interests lie in analyzing works of the 1880s and 1890s, chiefly those of George Gissing, Arthur Morrison, and Walter Besant. This remains well-informed and a mine of detail on near forgotten works of the period.

  • Poovey, Mary. Making a Social Body: British Cultural Formation, 1830–1864. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

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    A wide-ranging study that encompasses the category of class as part of its investigation of the formation of ideas of the “social” in the mid-19th century. Particularly useful in its consideration of class formation in Chadwick’s 1842 Sanitary Report. A strong example of analysis of the discourses of class in both literary and nonliterary texts.

  • Robbins, Bruce. Upward Mobility and the Common Good: Toward a Literary History of the Welfare State. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007.

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    A startling and original study of exceptional range. Robbins returns to consider the continuities of class by examining narratives of upward mobility from Rousseau to present-day memoirs via much 19th-century literature, including Great Expectations. It argues for the centrality of a notion of “common good” to such narratives and the value of institutions in an engaged and engaging work.

  • Vicinus, Martha. The Industrial Muse: A Study of Nineteenth-Century British Working-Class Literature. London: Croom Helm, 1974.

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    This wide-ranging and informative study remains revelatory in its examination of a variety of forms of working-class literature in the period. From street ballads to Chartist poetry, and from dialect literature and the culture of the music hall, Vicinus here sets down the roots of several key areas for scholarship on working-class writing for the next four decades.

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