In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Social-Problem Novel

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Primary Texts
  • Contexts
  • Early Studies
  • Marxist Criticism
  • Historicist Criticism
  • The Social-Problem Novel and Realism
  • Sympathy and Sentimentalism
  • The Worker’s Body

Victorian Literature Social-Problem Novel
Bethan Carney
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 July 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0011


“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; however, they 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. No consensus exists on the works that should be included in the genre. Harriet Martineau’s “A Manchester Strike” in her Illustrations of Political Economy (1832) is regarded as either the first true social-problem novel or an influential forerunner. 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 been rescued from critical obscurity only in recent years. 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.

General Overviews

Numerous overviews of the social-problem novel are available and this is merely a starting point. Diniejko 2010 is an easily accessible free web-based resource; it also has numerous links to other relevant articles. Wheeler 1994 and O’Gorman 2002 are particularly relevant for students: the first contains useful appendixes and bibliographies and the second summarizes various important critical approaches and includes extracts from influential academic works. Sussman 1999 is a solid general introduction. Simmons 2002 is a succinct overview, which is good on the authors’ source material and mentions industrialist counter-propaganda. Childers 2001 is interesting for the focus it brings to bear on the social-problem novels’ participation in other contemporary information flows. Dzelzainis 2012 is the most insightful and utilizes a more capacious definition of the genre to include Chartist and lesser-known authors.

  • Childers, Joseph W. “Industrial Culture and the Victorian Novel.” In The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel. Edited by Deirdre David, 77–96. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

    Childers’s account is interesting principally for his positioning of the social-problem novel as participating within a contemporary culture in which industrialism and flows of information were mutually dependent.

  • Diniejko, Andrzej. “Condition-of-England Novels.” Victorian Web (2010).

    A brief general introduction with links to more pages on Brontë, Dickens, Disraeli, Gaskell, Martineau, Tonna, and Trollope and a list of further reading. (The Victorian Web also has articles on Kingsley, which are not linked from this page.)

  • Dzelzainis, Ella. “Radicalism and Reform.” In The Nineteenth-Century Novel, 1820–1880. Vol. 3, of The Oxford History of the Novel in English. Edited by John Kucich and Jenny Bourne Taylor, 427–443. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    An insightful overview of the genre and its historical context. Dzelzainis considers contemporary Chartist fiction and lesser-known authors such as Francis Paget and Elizabeth Stone, as well as more traditional authors, thereby significantly expanding the study beyond the conventional middle-class and canonical authors.

  • O’Gorman, Francis. “Social-Problem Fiction: Historicism and Feminism.” In The Victorian Novel: A Guide to Criticism. Edited by Francis O’Gorman, 149–195. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470690109.ch5

    Particularly useful for students, this accessible account provides an introduction to the genre; summarizes various critical positions; includes substantial extracts from key works by Raymond Williams, Mary Poovey, and Josephine Guy; and indicates further reading.

  • Simmons, James Richard, Jr. “Industrial and ‘Condition of England’ Novels.” In A Companion to the Victorian Novel. Edited by Patrick Brantlinger and William B. Thesling, 336–352. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.

    A useful short overview, this account pays particular attention to influential source material and context, such as the personal account of child laborer Robert Blincoe and the specific changes wrought by the individual factory acts. It also mentions counter-propaganda more unambiguously on the side of mill-owners.

  • Sussman, Herbert. “Industrial.” In A Companion to Victorian Literature and Culture. Edited by Herbert F. Tucker, 244–257. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999.

    DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631218760.1999.00017.x

    Succinct overview of the changes to industrial cities and working life occurring in the early 19th century and the role of middle-class “industrial” novelists in interpreting, protesting, or justifying to middle-class readers the effects of industrialization. Records increased critical attention to more working-class oral and print culture.

  • Wheeler, Michael. English Fiction of the Victorian Period, 1830–1890. 2d ed. London: Longman, 1994.

    Subsections on early and mid-century social-problem novels in chapters 1 and 2. This work is aimed at students in higher education and contains several useful appendixes, including brief author biographies, a chronology depicting other contemporaneously published works and historical events, and general bibliographies on various topics.

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