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

Introduction

“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.

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    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.

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

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    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.)

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  • 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.

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    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.

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  • 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.ch5Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    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.

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  • 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.

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    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.

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  • 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.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    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.

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

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    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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Reference Works

There is no scholarly bibliography on “social-problem fiction” but the following reference works are helpful. The Dictionary of Literary Biography (1978–2011) is not comprehensive but, for the authors it covers, the entries are wide-ranging and informative. Shattock 1999 has entries on a greater number of “social-problem” authors. It is widely available in university libraries, has an emphasis on primary resources, and is particularly useful for contemporary commentary. It is strongest on English editions. Authoritative, wide-ranging, and widely available, Sutherland 2009 is invaluable for brief introductions to authors and their works, but it does not include any further reading or bibliographies. Matthew, et al. 1992– is accessible through many university and public libraries and includes details of sources and archival resources. The Victorian Web is a useful introductory resource, as it is free and accessible via the Internet, but it should be treated with caution because some entries are by students rather than established scholars and they have not all been peer reviewed.

  • Dictionary of Literary Biography. 366 vols. Detroit: Gale, 1978–2011.

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    Ever-expanding, multivolume work; there are entries relating to some social-problem novelists in Victorian Novelists before 1885; British Short-Fiction Writers, 1800–1880; and British Reform Writers, 1832–1914. Entries typically include a primary bibliography, a biographical essay focusing on relevant works, a brief secondary bibliography, and a list of archives.

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  • Matthew, H. G. C., Brian H. Harrison, and Lawrence Goldman, eds. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1992–.

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    Subscription service available through many university and public libraries. You can search by person, theme, and association. Contains biographical essays on individual social-problem authors, detailing works, and lists sources and archives.

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  • Shattock, Joanne, ed. The Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature. Vol. 4, 1800–1900. 3d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

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    A general bibliography of 19th-century English literature, it has entries on Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Kingsley, Harriet Martineau, Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna, and Frances Trollope. Also the lesser-known Francis Paget and Elizabeth Stone. Includes details of primary and selected secondary material and of archives.

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  • Sutherland, John. The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction. 2d ed. Harlow, UK: Pearson Longman, 2009.

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    Contains a succinct entry on “the social problem novel” (pp. 592–593) and separate entries on the major authors and the better-known works.

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  • Victorian Web.

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    Free online resource with separate entries on the “condition-of-England novel,” individual authors, and some of the specific works (such as Hard Times). Entries also link to other relevant articles (e.g., “Chartism,” “Reform,” “Thomas Carlyle”). Also includes lists of further reading.

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Primary Texts

Ayres 2009 is a scholarly edition of four novels by Frances Trollope, which are not otherwise easily available. Disraeli 2008 is the only academic edition of this work currently in print. Dickens Journals Online contains the full text of Charles Dickens’s Hard Times and Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South in their original serial form (they were subsequently revised for publication in book form). Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna’s work is not generally available in academic editions, but Kovačević 1975 contains one part of her The Wrongs of Woman with additional commentary. Martineau 2004 includes “A Manchester Strike” and contains useful contemporary material, such as reviews. The other Broadview editions, Dickens 1996 and Gaskell 2000, also contain an exceptional amount of useful contemporaneous material.

  • Ayres, Brenda, ed. The Social Problem Novels of Frances Trollope. 4 vols. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2009.

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    Includes Trollope’s best-known social-problem novel, The Life and Adventures of Michael Armstrong, the Factory Boy (1840), and three others. There is an excellent general introduction and also specific introductions for each novel, as well as explanatory notes. The first volume includes bibliographies of further reading on each novel.

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  • Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. Edited by Graham Law. Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 1996.

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    An authoritative edition with a large amount of useful contextual material, including Dickens’s working memoranda for the novel and references to it in his letters, contemporary reviews, comments on industrialization, and extracts from other social-problem novels.

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  • Dickens Journals Online.

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    Free, online, and searchable. Contains the full text of Dickens’s journal Household Words, including the original weekly installments of Hard Times and North and South; Dickens’s article “On Strike” about the Preston strike, which influenced Hard Times (11 February 1854, 8, 553–559); and contemporaneous articles Dickens commissioned on industrial accidents.

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  • Disraeli, Benjamin. Sybil, or the Two Nations. Edited by Sheila Smith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

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    Not otherwise in print in an academic edition, this is an authoritative text with introduction and notes.

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  • Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton. Edited by Jennifer Foster. Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2000.

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    An excellent edition with a wealth of useful contextual material, including reviews, excerpts from Gaskell’s letters, and extracts from contemporary writing on industrialization and related social-problem novels.

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  • Kovačević, Ivanka. Fact into Fiction: English Literature and the Industrial Scene, 1750–1850. Leicester, UK: Leicester University Press, 1975.

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    Anthologizes both Martineau’s “A Manchester Strike” from Illustrations of Political Economy and Tonna’s “The Little Pin-Headers” (the third part of The Wrongs of Woman) in full, with explanatory headnotes on Martineau and Tonna’s life and works.

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  • Martineau, Harriet. Illustrations of Political Economy: Selected Tales. Edited by Deborah Anna Logan. Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2004.

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    Selection from Illustrations of Political Economy (1832–1834) that includes “A Manchester Strike” with a useful introduction and additional material, including reviews and contemporary documents.

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Contexts

It is not possible to include a comprehensive list of useful contextual material but the following have been selected for their influence and their accessibility. Carlyle 1840 set the terms of the debate on “the condition of England” for the author’s contemporaries. It is available online as well as in research libraries. Simmons 2007 contains 19th-century working-class autobiographies, some of which were drawn upon by the social-problem novelists. It also contains a wealth of contemporaneous documents about the factory system. Freedgood 2003 also includes a range of relevant historical documents. Engels 2009 is an eyewitness account of working-class life in Manchester in the 1840s and, although it did not influence the social-problem novelists, it has been a significant influence on the development of Marxism and on historical accounts of the period.

  • Carlyle, Thomas. Chartism. London: James Fraser, 1840.

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    The origin of the phrase “the condition-of-England question,” Carlyle’s work articulated middle-class disquiet about the condition of the (particularly industrial) working classes and their grievances, including those manifesting themselves in Chartism, although it considered Chartist demands themselves to be “madness.” Hugely influential on contemporaries, including social-problem novelists.

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  • Engels, Friedrich. The Condition of the Working Class in England. Edited by David McLellan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

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    Not published in English until 1887, this book was written during Engels’s stay in Manchester in the early 1840s and published in Germany in 1845. It is useful for observations of working-class living conditions in Manchester in the 1840s rather than for any influence upon the social-problem novelists themselves.

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  • Freedgood, Elaine, ed. Factory Production in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

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    A wide-ranging selection of contemporaneous documents about factories and the factory system in 19th-century Britain. The selection includes canonical and more obscure writings and a useful editorial introduction and chronology.

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  • Simmons, James R., ed. Factory Lives: Four Nineteenth-Century Working-Class Autobiographies. Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2007.

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    Very useful resource that contains four working-class autobiographies giving accounts of 19th-century factory working conditions. It also contains a diverse selection of contemporary documents, including responses to the autobiographies, testimony to parliamentary committees, views on factory life, and on factory legislation and literary excerpts.

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Early Studies

Cazamian 1973 is a pioneering study that identified the “social novel with a purpose” as a genre and laid the foundation for all future work. First published as Le roman social en Angleterre, 1830–1850 (Paris, 1903), it was not translated into English until 1973 but was influencing English studies before translation: Tillotson 1954 referenced it as the “standard survey of the field” and built on it for its own work.

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

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    Pioneering early study of “the social novel with a purpose” that set the parameters for future work. Focuses principally on Dickens, Disraeli, Gaskell, and Kingsley but includes brief consideration of Martineau’s Illustrations of Political Economy (1832–1834), Trollope’s Michael Armstrong (1840), and Tonna’s Helen Fleetwood (1841) as influential forerunners.

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  • Tillotson, Kathleen. Novels of the 1840s. Oxford: Clarendon, 1954.

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    Good general introduction that discusses the emergence of social-problem fiction in the context of other contemporary subgenres such as “silver-fork” and “Newgate” novels followed by chapter on Mary Barton as an “outstanding example” of its type. Notable for detail on the overlapping category of “religious problem” novels, in which it includes Tonna’s Helen Fleetwood (1841).

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Marxist Criticism

Following the Early Studies, the next significant tranche of work on the social-problem novel was by Marxist critics. Williams 1982 and Kettle 1982 were both influential Marxist works first published in 1958. Kettle 1982 was possibly the first to use the term “social-problem novel.” Critically superseded, the work remains much cited. The author of Williams 1982 used a theory of “structures of feeling” to explain the cultural and ideological work being done by the “industrial novels” as they reflected and articulated middle-class perceptions of industrialism. Lucas 1966 was the next Marxist work to consider the genre. It initiated a perception of Elizabeth Gaskell’s industrial fiction as commencing but failing to follow through on a radical critique of bourgeois ideology. Lesjak 2006 is a more recent work from a Marxist perspective that sees the “industrial novel” as key to understanding all 19th-century fiction. It attempts to reconfigure the relationship between the social-problem novel and both realist and “utopian” fiction. See also Eagleton 1988 (cited under Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley (1849)) for another prominent Marxist account, focusing on Brontë.

  • Kettle, Arnold. “The Early Victorian Social-Problem Novel.” In From Dickens to Hardy. Vol. 6 of The New Pelican Guide to English Literature. Edited by Boris Ford, 164–181. London: Penguin, 1982.

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    First published in 1958, this is a revised edition. Critically superseded, this brief Marxist study nonetheless remains influential and much cited. Considers Disraeli, Gaskell, and Kingsley to be true “social-problem” novelists and that Dickens’s works are less class-bound and detached. Also excludes Martineau because she wrote for working, not middle, classes.

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  • Lesjak, Carolyn. Working Fictions: A Genealogy of the Victorian Novel. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822388340Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Claims that “industrial” novels are central to the trajectory of the novel and that later 19th-century novels reproduced their ideological opposition between labor and pleasure, thereby changing how we understand both terms.

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  • Lucas, John. “Mrs Gaskell and Brotherhood.” In Tradition and Tolerance in Nineteenth-Century Fiction: Critical Essays on Some English and American Novels. Edited by David Howard, John Lucas, and John Goode, 141–205. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966.

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    Significant essay arguing that Gaskell retreats from a radical critique of bourgeois ideology into melodrama and thereby affirms the status quo but that she is still more sympathetic to working-class distress than Dickens, Kingsley, and Disraeli.

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  • Williams, Raymond. Culture and Society, 1780–1950. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1982.

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    First published in 1958 this has a chapter on the “industrial novels” Mary Barton, North and South, Hard Times, Sybil, Alton Locke, and Felix Holt, which argues that their criticism of industrialism was countered by fear of becoming involved. An influential work of cultural history by a leading Marxist critic.

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Historicist Criticism

A substantial strand of historicist criticism exists on the social-problem novel (much of which also has some overlap with Marxist Criticism studies). However, Smith 1980 responds most directly to the Early Studies rather than the more recent Marxist works. Brantlinger 1977 is strong on the political and social context of the fiction. Gallagher 1985 is a groundbreaking, sophisticated, and difficult work that is still much cited, and Childers 1995 makes an interesting argument that responds to it. Flint 1987 provides a selection of relevant contemporaneous materials drawn upon by social-problem novelists, which is invaluable for understanding the context. Gagnier 1991 draws upon a formidable range of resources and situates the middle-class social-problem novel within a wealth of other (including working-class) memoirs. Guy 1996 argues that all preceding accounts have an anachronistic understanding of the “social.” It contains useful summaries of earlier works. It does not reference Poovey 1995, an important work of cultural history that was published in the preceding year and which seems to implicitly contradict its thesis about the development of conceptions of the “social.” Vanden Bossche 2014 uses recent historiography of class to reevaluate the social-problem novel genre, moving the focus of attention from the industrial to their political concerns.

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

    DOI: 10.4159/harvard.9780674734135Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Informative exploration of literature between the Reform Bills of 1832 and 1867, it views literature as an instrument of social amelioration and is particularly strong on the political and social context. Argues that the reforming spirit was dwindling by the 1860s under the influence of industrial expansion and social Darwinism.

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  • Childers, Joseph W. Novel Possibilities: Fiction and the Formation of Early Victorian Culture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.

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    Argues that nonfictional discourses centered on industrialization “were themselves shaped and informed by their intersection with novelistic discourse” (p. 4), so industrial novels not only attempted to describe the world, but they also “participated in the formation of that world” (p. 4).

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

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    A selection of contemporaneous documents relevant to the “condition-of-England question” introduced, interpreted, and cross-referenced to literary texts. Invaluable in understanding the materials on which social-problem novelists drew and the context in which they wrote; the editorial comments are also critically astute.

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

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    Cultural materialist work that discusses the “condition-of-England” fiction of Disraeli, Gaskell, and Kingsley as part of a much wider study of “self-representation.” It is important for its situation of the fiction within a wealth of previously marginalized working-class autobiographies as well as middle-class memoirs.

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

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    Groundbreaking and complex New Historicist work that argues that “industrial” fiction is part of a “discourse over industrialism” characterized by three intellectual controversies (about the nature and possibility of freedom, the sources of social cohesion, and the nature of political representation). The contradictions inherent in these controversies become exhibited in stylistic disjunctions.

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

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-24904-6Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This account criticizes earlier treatments for relying on anachronistic conceptions of “the social.” It contains useful summaries of preceding critical works and an interesting overview of Victorian debates about the relationship of the individual to society.

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  • Poovey, Mary. Making a Social Body: British Cultural Formation, 1830–64. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

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    An important work of cultural history tracing the development of a conception of society as “a body,” which, in turn, metonymically authorized its care by middle-class women. It considers Disraeli’s Coningsby, Gaskell’s Mary Barton, and Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend in the context of various other (particularly public health) texts.

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

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    Responding to Cazamian 1973 and Tillotson 1954 (both cited under Early Studies) rather than more recent studies, this compares the fictional representation of “the poor” to a variety of contemporary sources on Victorian poverty. Interesting for the extent and range of evidence called upon, including periodicals, visual culture, government reports, and ballads.

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  • Vanden Bossche, Chris R. Reform Acts: Chartism, Social Agency, and the Victorian Novel, 1832–1867. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.

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    This study is concerned with “social agency”—the capacity to change the social order—arguing that the Victorians defined social agency in political terms as meaning possession of the franchise. It reads a range of social-problem novels as “Chartist novels or, to be more precise, as novels that take up questions about social agency raised by the Chartist movement” (p. 5).

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The Social-Problem Novel and Realism

A particularly persistent critical approach to social-problem novels has been to evaluate their success according to how “realistic” they are judged to be (although this approach was adopted less in the second half of the 20th century). The following are just some examples of this critical trend. Cazamian 1973 (first published in French in 1903) was the first study of the social-problem novel and it attempts to evaluate the success of the different novels by reference to how accurately they represented events. This approach was taken up by the next study, Tillotson 1954, which argued that the social-problem novels brought a new realism and a wider scope to the novel genre. Lucas 1966 added a Marxist angle to this tradition, suggesting that Gaskell’s Mary Barton is successful insofar as it portrays the realities of working-class life but that it fails when it abandons realism in favor of melodrama. Melchers 1978 and Ingham 1986 focus on Gaskell’s and Dickens’s use of Lancastrian dialect to achieve verisimilitude. Leavis 1948 is an influential study that rejects realism as the only aesthetic imperative and argues instead that Hard Times should be judged as a moral fable.

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

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    A significant early work that set the agenda for later studies in its concern with the realism of social-problem novels. Highlights, in particular, the authors’ reliance on parliamentary reports of industrial working conditions (“Blue Books”).

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  • Ingham, Patricia. “Dialect as ‘Realism’: Hard Times and the Industrial Novel.” Review of English Studies 37.148 (1986): 518–527.

    DOI: 10.1093/res/XXXVII.148.518Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Identifies the books Dickens relied upon for information about the Lancashire dialect he used in Hard Times. Argues that Dickens’s attempts at greater verisimilitude in his use of dialect in this novel is linked to a wish to give a voice to exploited factory workers.

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  • Leavis, F. R. “Hard Times: An Analytic Note.” In The Great Tradition: George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad. By F. R. Leavis, 227–248. London: Chatto & Windus, 1948.

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    Rejects the criterion of realism for judging Hard Times, claiming that what seem to be unrealistic elements in the novel should be read symbolically. Originally published as “The Novel as Dramatic Poem (I): Hard Times,” Scrutiny 14 (1947): 185–203.

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  • Lucas, John. “Mrs Gaskell and Brotherhood.” In Tradition and Tolerance in Nineteenth-Century Fiction: Critical Essays on Some English and American Novels. Edited by David Howard, John Lucas, and John Goode, 141–205. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966.

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    Argues that the first half of Mary Barton is realistic whereas the second degenerates into melodrama because Gaskell retreats from the interrogation of bourgeois ideology that her initial realism entailed.

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  • Melchers, Gunnel. “Mrs Gaskell and Dialect.” In Studies in English Philology, Linguistics and Literature: Presented to Alarik Rynell, 7 March 1978. Edited by Mats Rydén and Lennart A. Björk, 112–124. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1978.

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    Examines how successful Mrs. Gaskell was in achieving her expressed aim of accurately representing a working-class Manchester dialect in Mary Barton. Judges both her pronunciation and her morphology to be accurate.

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  • Tillotson, Kathleen. Novels of the 1840s. Oxford: Clarendon, 1954.

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    Notes how the social-problem novel widened the novel’s social and geographical range, extending its subject matter to the northern industrial towns and their working people. Argues that the novel became the dominant literary genre because of this greater range and realism.

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Sympathy and Sentimentalism

Betensky 2010 and Lenard 1999 are both part of a recent critical turn toward sentiment and sentimentality. Betensky 2010 is in other ways a new angle on a more longstanding argument (see under Marxist Criticism) that critiques social-problem novels for their overriding concern for middle-class rather than working-class needs. Lenard 1999 claims that the roots of social-problem fiction lie in the 18th-century notion of sentimentalism.

  • Betensky, Carolyn. Feeling for the Poor: Bourgeois Compassion, Social Action, and the Victorian Novel. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010.

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    Insightful study that argues that the novels’ focus on middle-class emotions works to displace any call for radical action on behalf of working-class suffering, as learning about the lives of the poor and feeling pity becomes an end in itself.

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  • Lenard, Mary. Preaching Pity: Dickens, Gaskell, and Sentimentalism in Victorian Culture. New York: Peter Lang, 1999.

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    Turns to 18th-century conceptions of sentimentalism as a way of understanding social-problem fiction. Argues that lesser-known female novelists such as Trollope, Tonna, and Elizabeth Stone drew upon sentimentalist discourses for their authority and that their writings, in turn, influenced the more canonical Dickens and Gaskell.

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The Worker’s Body

An increasing number of works treat the ways in which workers’ bodies are represented in social-problem fiction. A perceptive article, Sanders 2000 traces how the concept of industrial “accidents” developed and considers how accidents are represented in three novels. Dzelzainis 2008 focuses on female bodies in its consideration of how seamstress stories by Tonna and Francis Paget combine a gendered medical discourse with fundamentalist Christian narratives to critique political economy. In contrast, Ulrich 2002 focuses on the use of the male body by Cobbett, Carlyle, and Disraeli.

  • Dzelzainis, Ella. “‘Filthy Lucre’: Christianity, Commerce, and the Female Bodily Economy in Seamstress Apprentice Narratives of the 1840s.” In Shaping Belief: Culture, Politics, and Religion in Nineteenth-Century Writing. Edited by Victoria Morgan and Clare Williams, 39–56. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.5949/UPO9781846315688Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Sophisticated examination of Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna and Francis Paget’s use in seamstress stories of a medical discourse about the female body, which they combined with fundamentalist evangelical and tractarian Christian narratives in order to critique theories of political economy.

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  • Sanders, Mike. “Manufacturing Accident: Industrialism and the Worker’s Body in Early Victorian Fiction.” Victorian Literature and Culture 28.2 (2000): 313–329.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1060150300282041Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Traces the evolution of the industrial “accident” as a compromise formula that held industrialists to account for the consequences of occupational injury without having to admit responsibility for causing it. Considers the way in which “accidents” are deployed in Charlotte Yonge’s Heartsease, Dickens’s Hard Times, and Gaskell’s North and South.

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  • Ulrich, John M. Signs of Their Times: History, Labor, and the Body in Cobbett, Carlyle, and Disraeli. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2002.

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    Focuses on these authors’ preoccupation with historical narrative as a means of critiquing industrial capitalism and their use of the body as a site on which meaning is inscribed. This study illuminatingly illustrates how the male body became the signifier of “the signs of the times” for Cobbett, Carlyle, and Disraeli.

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Gender, Family, and Reform

In common with other genres, there has been a substantial critical focus since the 1970s on the issue of gender in studies of the social-problem novel. One strand of this criticism has noted that a number of social-problem novelists were women. Another has focused on the representation of women in such novels and a third on the construction of masculinity.

Female Social-Problem Novelists

Kestner 1985 argues for a tradition of social-problem writing by women. This work is noteworthy for a comparatively early attention to many “minor” writers, such as Frances Trollope, Elizabeth Stone, and Charlotte Tonna. Krueger 1992 shares this interest in Tonna and is also worthy of attention for its consideration of the religious dimension to the work of three female authors. Zlotnick 1998 continues the focus on female authors and compares their depictions of the factory to that of their male contemporaries. David 1987 is an important work about how Harriet Martineau and George Eliot navigated the problems inherent in identifying as female intellectuals in the 19th century. Schor 1992 considers how Elizabeth Gaskell negotiated the publishing world in her construction of herself as a female author. Elliott 2000 also considers how middle-class social-problem authors constructed their class and gender identity. Terry-Chandler 2005 considers Martineau’s feminism and compares it to Tonna’s attitude toward women in a discussion of their mutual antagonism. Lewis 2013 responds to the critique in Williams 1982, Kettle 1982, and Lucas 1966 (see under Marxist Criticism) and argues that “industrial novels” by Brontë, Gaskell, and Eliot are more radical than has been allowed.

  • David, Deirdre. Intellectual Women and Victorian Patriarchy: Harriet Martineau, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-18792-8Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Discusses Martineau and Eliot’s role as female intellectuals and how they and their work negotiated the contradictions inherent in holding that position within a patriarchal Victorian culture. Considers Eliot’s Felix Holt, the Radical and Martineau’s Illustrations of Political Economy.

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  • Elliott, Dorice Williams. “Servants and Hands: Representing the Working Classes in Victorian Factory Novels.” Victorian Literature and Culture 28.2 (2000): 377–390.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1060150300282089Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that female social-problem novelists constructed their own class and gender identity in contrast to servants; the authors represented the essential similarity between domestic and factory workers and thereby reimagined the relationship between factory worker and industrialist as an idealized paternalistic relationship between domestic servant and mistress. Considers Trollope, Tonna, and Gaskell.

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  • Kestner, Joseph A. Protest and Reform: The British Social Narrative by Women, 1827–1867. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

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    Identifies a tradition of female social-problem writing. In addition to George Eliot, Harriet Martineau, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte Tonna, and Frances Trollope, it discusses many other early women writers and their work, including Hannah More, Dinah Craik, and Elizabeth Stone.

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  • Krueger, Christine L. The Reader’s Repentance: Women Preachers, Women Writers, and Nineteenth-Century Social Discourse. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

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    Argues that female social-reform authors, including Tonna, Gaskell, and Eliot, were drawing upon an evangelical tradition of women preachers who provided a model both for the empowerment of women orators and writers and for a female use of religious discourse.

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  • Lewis, Michael D. “Democratic Networks and the Industrial Novel.” Victorian Studies 55.2 (2013): 243–252.

    DOI: 10.2979/victorianstudies.55.2.243Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Claims that “industrial novels” are more radical than has been allowed and that they offer political solutions to proletarian suffering through plotting models of democratic networks rather than by advocating an extension of the franchise. Considers Brontë’s Shirley (1849), Gaskell’s North and South (1855), and Eliot’s Felix Holt (1866).

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  • Schor, Hilary. Scheherezade in the Marketplace: Elizabeth Gaskell and the Victorian Novel. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

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    Influential work that argues that Gaskell’s gender was integral to her authorship. Considers Gaskell’s evolution as a novelist, her relationships with publishers, and the “story” of her heroine across her works as she adapted and subverted the conventional courtship plot. Impressive analysis of individual works.

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  • Terry-Chandler, Fiona. “Gender and the ‘Condition of England’ Debate in the Birmingham Writings of Charlotte Tonna and Harriet Martineau.” Midland History 30.1 (2005): 53–66.

    DOI: 10.1179/mdh.2005.30.1.53Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Compares Tonna’s “The Forsaken Home” (in The Wrongs of Woman, 1843) and various articles by Martineau considering their different approaches to social, political, and gender issues, in particular the contrast between Martineau’s feminism and Tonna’s female-centric stories.

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  • Zlotnick, Susan. Women, Writing, and the Industrial Revolution. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

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    Discusses social-problem fiction by various female writers, including Charlotte Brontë, Gaskell, Tonna, and Trollope, and compares it to male writers, such as Dickens. Argues that Victorian women writers accept the materiality of the factory while striving to repair it, unlike male writers, who repudiate it.

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Heroines

Yeazell 1985 views the social-problem novel’s female protagonists as operating to contain the threat of working-class male violence through images of innocence and passivity. Harsh 1994 argues instead that the social-problem novel’s heroines are empowered and challenge 19th-century bourgeois domestic ideology. Elliott 2002 also considers the doctrine of the “separate spheres” in a subtle account of female philanthropy that pays attention to the ways in which this ideology was challenged or broke down. Bodenheimer 1988 is an influential study building on the work of Catherine Gallagher (see Gallagher 1985, cited under Historicist Criticism) which intertwines considerations of gender with those of class. It considers narrative ideology in a range of social-problem novels. Johnson 2001 also adds the dimension of class to accounts of a Victorian woman’s proper place and seeks to rescue lower-class working women from their occlusion by contemporary accounts.

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

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    Argues that stories by women in which struggles with concepts of class and gender are intertwined made a particular contribution to social-problem fiction. Considers how fantasies of reform and class reconciliation are located in romantic plots featuring middle-class heroines, as well as in the pastoral and in notions of history.

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  • Elliott, Dorice Williams. The Angel out of the House: Philanthropy and Gender in Nineteenth-Century England. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002.

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    A thought-provoking work that considers how female charity work is represented in the 19th-century social novel, and how such representations originated within but also challenged the ideology of the “separate spheres.” References Martineau, Tonna, and Trollope and has a particularly good chapter on Gaskell’s North and South.

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

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    Argues that there is a “covert feminism” at work in “condition-of-England” fiction that seeks solutions to political problems in bourgeois domestic ideology and grants significant authority to female protagonists, thereby expanding women’s influence.

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

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    This important contribution to the study of class and gender in social-problem fiction seeks to reclaim working-class women from the obscurity imposed by the ideological oxymoron that “working women” became. It considers Dickens’s excision of Rachel’s sister, killed at work, from Hard Times and discusses sexual harassment of female workers in Tonna, Disraeli, and Gaskell

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  • Yeazell, Ruth Bernard. “Why Political Novels Have Heroines: Sybil, Mary Barton, and Felix Holt.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 18.2 (1985): 126–144.

    DOI: 10.2307/1345772Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that the courtship plot in these novels works to contain the threat of male working-class radicalism and violence by substituting it at critical moments with a representation of female innocence and passivity.

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Masculinity

Wee 1994 combines postcolonial and gender perspectives in a consideration of the ways in which nationalism contributes to Kingsley’s construction of Christian manliness. Lee 2007 engenders revealing insights by pairing male working-class autobiographies with fictional characters in similar jobs or situations.

  • Lee, Ying S. Masculinity and the English Working Class: Studies in Victorian Autobiography and Fiction. London and New York: Routledge, 2007.

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    Methodologically interesting and insightful work that considers masculine working-class identities by pairing three 19th-century working-class autobiographies with novels featuring men with similar classes and occupations: Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers (1836–1837), Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848), and Kingsley’s Alton Locke (1850).

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  • Wee, C. J. W.-L. “Christian Manliness and National Identity: The Problematic Construction of a Racially ‘Pure’ Nation.” In Muscular Christianity: Embodying the Victorian Age. Edited by Donald E. Hall, 66–90. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511659331Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Examination of Kingsley’s Alton Locke and Westward Ho! that places Kingsley’s construction of Christian masculinity in an imperial context as part of a quest to revive the sick body of English national identity.

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Criticism of Specific Texts

As discussed in the Introduction, there is no critical agreement on what works should be defined as “social-problem” novels. Likewise, there is no consensus on which authors to include. Although previously obscure authors, such as Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna, Frances Trollope, and Harriet Martineau, now frequently feature in studies of the social-problem novel, the position of lesser-known authors, such as Elizabeth Stone and Eliza Meteyard, is more marginal. Authors whose fictions occupy the uncertain space between social-problem and religious novel, such as Francis Paget, are also often excluded. As the second Reform Act of 1867 can appear a useful point to draw genre boundaries, later works, such as Charles Reade’s trade-union novel Put Yourself in His Place (1870), become occluded. And the tales by Chartist authors are rarely considered. This section identifies some useful critical work on specific texts that are often deemed to be social-problem novels.

Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley (1849)

Although Shirley is set in 1811–1812 rather than in mid-century, it is often characterized as a social-problem novel. Eagleton 1988 (originally published in 1975) is another very influential work of Marxist criticism (see also Marxist Criticism), which argues that Shirley’s depiction of Luddite riots is an analogue for Chartism. Plotz 2000 agrees with this thesis, claiming that the novel uses the Luddite/Chartist crowd to construct middle-class domesticity. Rogers 2003 also believes that Brontë’s Luddites are to be read as Chartists and argues specifically that Shirley reflects Brontë’s support for the Duke of Wellington and his opposition to Chartism. Capuano 2013, however, takes issue with any correlation of the novel’s Luddites with Chartists and claims that the Luddite setting is essential to an understanding of the work’s gender politics.

  • Capuano, Peter J. “Networked Manufacture in Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley.” Victorian Studies 55.2 (2013): 231–242.

    DOI: 10.2979/victorianstudies.55.2.231Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Challenges the thesis in Eagleton 1988 that “Chartism is the unspoken subject of Shirley.” Argues instead that the novel’s historical setting is essential to understanding the connections it draws between Luddite men and middle-class women who have both been rendered occupationally redundant by changes in modes of production caused by industrialization.

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  • Eagleton, Terry. Myths of Power: A Marxist Study of the Brontës. 2d ed. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1988.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-19629-6Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Groundbreaking work from a Marxist critical perspective, originally published in 1975 and recently reissued, which argues that the 1811–1812 Luddite riots depicted in Shirley are a proxy for Chartism. Makes telling comparisons with Disraeli and Gaskell’s social-problem novels.

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  • Plotz, John. “Producing Privacy in Public: Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley.” In The Crowd: British Literature and Public Politics. By John Plotz, 154–193. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

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    Argues that Brontë’s novel uses the threat of Luddite (implicitly Chartist) crowds in the valorization of middle-class domesticity. The working-class crowd justifies middle-class women’s retreat into a safe, domestic space and into bourgeois privacy and interiority.

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  • Rogers, Philip. “Tory Brontë: Shirley and the ‘MAN.’” Nineteenth-Century Literature 58.2 (2003): 141–175.

    DOI: 10.1525/ncl.2003.58.2.141Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Another study that argues that the novel’s Luddites are a trope for later Chartists. Suggests that Shirley reflects Brontë’s support for the Duke of Wellington and that its depiction of a Luddite attack on a mill reflects Wellington’s hostility to Chartism.

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Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1838) and Hard Times (1854)

Charles Dickens receives a lot of critical attention, of which this can necessarily only be a small selection. Most of the works illustrated here are on Hard Times, as this is the novel that is least incontrovertibly a social-problem novel. However, Ledger 2007 is an important work that considers both Oliver Twist (1838) and Hard Times (1854) in a broader discussion of Dickens’s relationship with popular radical culture. Fielding and Smith 1970 is a useful start to understanding the “factory controversy” (about the need for legislation regulating factories) between Harriet Martineau and Dickens, which was prompted, in part, by Hard Times. Simpson 1997 provides a wealth of useful information on the background to the novel, including the Preston mill workers’ strike that Dickens visited. Brantlinger 1971 is a broader consideration of Dickens’s engagement with factories and industry in his fiction. Leavis 1948 takes a very different approach in a highly influential essay on the aesthetic qualities of Hard Times. In another classic essay, Williams 1983 highlights the ideological oppositions within the novel about the determinative nature of environment. Ketabgian 2003 is an interesting new slant on the depiction of industry in Hard Times, arguing that the novel is concerned with “mechanical forms of feeling” (p. 672). Gallagher 2006 is a provocative, revisionist work that undermines the traditional assumption of opposition between Hard Times (among other 19th-century novels) and theories of political economy.

  • Brantlinger, Patrick. “Dickens and the Factories.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 26.3 (1971): 270–285.

    DOI: 10.1525/ncl.1971.26.3.99p0093rSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Considers Dickens’s engagement with factories and industry in his fiction and defends him from the charge of inconsistency. Analyzes Hard Times and other works.

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  • Fielding, K. J., and Anne Smith. “Hard Times and the Factory Controversy: Dickens vs. Harriet Martineau.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 24.4 (1970): 404–427.

    DOI: 10.1525/ncl.1970.24.4.99p0312zSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Examines the “factory controversy” between Dickens and Harriet Martineau, in which Martineau stopped writing for Household Words following a disagreement with Dickens about the fairness of Hard Times and various articles blaming employers for industrial accidents. Martineau represented the employers’ position and Dickens that of the employees.

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  • Gallagher, Catherine. The Body Economic: Life, Death, and Sensation in Political Economy and the Victorian Novel. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.

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    Provocative revisionist work subverting the antagonism sometimes held to exist between certain 19th-century novelists and theories of political economy. Examines Hard Times in the course of an argument that both political economists and their novelist critics locate value in bodily sensation.

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  • Ketabgian, Tamara. “‘Melancholy Mad Elephants’: Affect and the Animal Machine.” Victorian Studies 45.4 (2003): 649–676.

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    Considers the relationship between industry and emotion in Hard Times, arguing that machines are not opposed to emotions in the novel but that it is concerned with “mechanical forms of feeling” (p. 672).

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  • Leavis, F. R. “Hard Times: An Analytic Note.” In The Great Tradition: George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad. By F. R. Leavis, 227–248. London: Chatto & Windus, 1948.

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    Classic essay, appended to The Great Tradition, that heralds the aesthetic qualities of Hard Times compared to other Dickens novels. Leavis describes the novel as a “moral fable” and implicitly approves of (what he judges to be) its anti-industrialism. Originally published as “The Novel as Dramatic Poem (I): Hard Time,” Scrutiny 14 (1947): 185–203.

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  • Ledger, Sally. Dickens and the Popular Radical Imagination. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

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    Important work on Dickens’s relationship with popular radical culture that considers Oliver Twist in light of the literature and culture of the anti–Poor Law movement and the relation of Hard Times to the contemporary debates about factory legislation.

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  • Simpson, Margaret. The Companion to Hard Times. Mountfield, UK: Helm Information, 1997.

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    Provides a wealth of useful background information for Hard Times, including on the Preston mill workers’ strike, which was ongoing while Dickens was writing the novel and on which he wrote an article for Household Words: “On Strike” (11 February 1854). See Dickens Journals Online (cited under Primary Texts).

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  • Williams, Raymond. “The Reader in Hard Times.” In Writing in Society. By Raymond Williams, 166–174. London: Verso, 1983.

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    Argues that the novel represents two contradictory ideologies: that environment is determinative of character and that some vices and virtues triumph over environment. Reconciles the contradiction by claiming that the novel produces a “general reader” who is permitted movement between different responses within a general “structure of feeling.”

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Benjamin Disraeli’s Coningsby (1844), Sybil (1845), and Tancred (1847)

The vast majority of critical work is on Sybil (1845) and this selection reflects that fact. Considerable criticism has been devoted to identifying Disraeli’s source material for Sybil (particularly because he claimed that it was “based on his own observation”). Smith 1962 was one of the first to substantiate the claim in Cazamian 1973 (cited under Early Studies), that Disraeli drew heavily on the Children’s Employment Commission Reports. Fido 1977 builds on this work to identify further sources. O’Kell 1987 takes issue with Brantlinger 1977 (cited under Historicist Criticism), which sees Disraeli’s vision in Sybil as unconvincing. It argues that Disraeli’s political trilogy should be considered as a whole. Deffenbacher 1998 is a very different type of study that relates Disraeli’s interest in architecture to his social vision.

  • Deffenbacher, Kristina K. “Designing Progress: The Architecture of Social Consciousness in Disraeli’s ‘Young England’ Novels.” Victorian Review 24.1 (1998): 1–11.

    DOI: 10.1353/vcr.1998.0013Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Traces Disraeli’s interest in Coningsby and Sybil with “Christian architecture” and the role it would play in the creation of a modern, feudal society to the theories of Augustus Pugin but argues that Disraeli’s interest in architecture was a progressive one and extended to a concern for the state of working-class housing.

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  • Fido, Martin. “‘From His Own Observation’: Sources of Working Class Passages in Disraeli’s Sybil.” Modern Language Review 72.2 (1977): 268–284.

    DOI: 10.2307/3725075Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that, in addition to the Children’s Employment Commission Reports previously identified, Disraeli used William Dodd’s questionably reliable The Factory System Illustrated in a Series of Letters to Lord Ashley as a significant source for material on factory workers’ lives. Also identifies other sources relied upon by Disraeli.

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  • O’Kell, Robert. “Two Nations, or One? Disraeli’s Allegorical Romance.” Victorian Studies 30.2 (1987): 211–234.

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    Compelling argument that critical attention to Sybil has obscured the differences between it and Disraeli’s other novels, thereby obscuring his social vision. Claims that Sybil is an allegorical romance and that Disraeli is concerned primarily with the nation’s religious and spiritual welfare rather than social conditions.

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  • Smith, Sheila M. “Willenhall and Wodgate: Disraeli’s Use of Blue Book Evidence.” Review of English Studies 13 (1962): 368–384.

    DOI: 10.1093/res/XIII.52.368Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Establishes that Disraeli drew heavily on the Children’s Employment Commission Reports, a source initially identified in Cazamian 1973 (cited under Early Studies) for Sybil, and that Disraeli’s “Wodgate” was based upon the town of Willenhall described in their second report.

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George Eliot’s Felix Holt, the Radical (1866)

Felix Holt (1866) is possibly George Eliot’s most critically neglected novel, resulting in a comparatively small selection. Carroll 1962 notes the interrelatedness of love, politics, and religion in the novel, a theme that is taken up in Bode 1995. Butwin 1980 relates Eliot’s depiction of working-class crowds to her representations of workers’ fitness to wield the vote. Hobson 1998 disagrees with the assumption about the novel’s conservative nature in Butwin 1980 and argues that Felix Holt is truly radical.

  • Bode, Rita. “Power and Submission in Felix Holt, the Radical.” Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 35.4 (1995): 769–788.

    DOI: 10.2307/450765Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article argues that political representation is only one form of power relation in Felix Holt and that the novel is concerned to trace multiple power dynamics, including those among family, class, and, particularly, gender.

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  • Butwin, Joseph. “The Pacification of the Crowd: From ‘Janet’s Repentance’ to Felix Holt.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 35.3 (1980): 349–371.

    DOI: 10.1525/ncl.1980.35.3.99p0183dSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Considers the evolution within Eliot’s fiction from depictions of peaceful working-class crowds gathered for social and religious purposes into the violent “mob” and compares it to her representation of the workers’ lack of fitness to participate in representational politics.

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  • Carroll, David R. “Felix Holt: Society as Protagonist.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 17.3 (1962): 237–252.

    DOI: 10.1525/ncl.1962.17.3.99p0141xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Notes the interplay in the novel between the spheres of love, politics, and religion and the organic nature of the society depicted in which the social and individual are equally important. Claims that Holt’s political project is undermined by his self-reliance until his vision is expanded through relationship with Esther.

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  • Hobson, Christopher Z. “The Radicalism of Felix Holt: George Eliot and the Pioneers of Labor.” Victorian Literature and Culture 26.1 (1998): 19–39.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1060150300002254Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Engages with critics who dismiss the novel as reactionary and conservative and argues that Eliot is the first writer to imbue the working-class activist with moral value, to depict an activist as maintaining his radicalism to the end, and to reject social paternalism as a panacea to class conflict.

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Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848) and North and South (1854–1855)

Bodenheimer 1979 denies that North and South (1854–1855) should be classified as a “social-problem” novel at all. David 1981 argues that North and South tries to absolve middle-class readers of their anxieties about class conflict by creating a “fiction of resolution.” Harrison 2011 takes a differing view, drawing upon research into empathy to suggest that the social-problem novel Mary Barton (1848) really does help class reconciliation by enabling its readers to identify with “outgroups.” Markovits 2005 is an original argument, linking North and South’s condition-of-England question to the concomitant Crimean War. Matus 2007 is an excellent essay considering issues of class and emotion in Mary Barton and North and South. Vargo 2016 departs from earlier critics of Mary Barton (in particular Williams 1982, under Marxist Criticism), arguing that Gaskell’s novel was influenced by Chartist ideas. See also the influential essay Lucas 1966 (cited under Marxist Criticism).

  • Bodenheimer, Rosemarie. “North and South: A Permanent State of Change.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 34.3 (1979): 281–301.

    DOI: 10.1525/ncl.1979.34.3.99p0100qSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that North and South is not a “social-problem novel” because it does not identify a clear industrial crisis that requires resolution but that Gaskell breaks down traditional industrial/emotional questions into new ones and “depicts social change as personal change without dissolving either into an ‘industrial novel’ or into a love story” (pp. 281–282).

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

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-05408-4Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Views North and South as attempting to mediate between social actuality and the desires of middle-class readers that the actuality should be different. It creates a “fiction of resolution” consisting of class cooperation in an attempt to assuage the social unease. Insightful comments on the depictions of Frederick and Margaret Hale.

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  • Harrison, Mary-Catherine. “How Narrative Relationships Overcome Empathic Bias: Elizabeth Gaskell’s Empathy across Social Difference.” Poetics Today 32.2 (2011): 255–288.

    DOI: 10.1215/03335372-1162686Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Using Mary Barton as a case study, this article argues that social-problem novels thematize empathy between different social groups and that their narrative strategies facilitate the reader’s identification with “outgroups.” Such literature can therefore help to overcome the usual empathetic bias toward similar social groups.

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  • Markovits, Stefanie. “North and South, East and West: Elizabeth Gaskell, the Crimean War, and the Condition of England.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 59.4 (2005): 463–493.

    DOI: 10.1525/ncl.2005.59.4.463Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Situates North and South’s themes within the context of the Crimean War, arguing that the novel’s portrayal of the condition of England is related to the “Eastern question” in its examination of conflict and peace.

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  • Matus, Jill L. “Mary Barton and North and South.” In The Cambridge Companion to Elizabeth Gaskell. Edited by Jill Matus, 27–45. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521846765.003Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Excellent essay that focuses on “Gaskell’s representation of emotional and psychic states in the context of social change” (p. 27). Compares Gaskell’s representation of working-class emotions to those of middle-class characters.

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  • Vargo, Gregory. “Questions from Workers Who Read: Education and Self-Formation in Chartist Print Culture and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton.” Victorian Literature and Culture 44.1 (2016): 133–161.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1060150315000467Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that Gaskell’s engagement with radical Chartist ideas about education in Mary Barton has been overlooked and that this engagement complicates the dichotomy between public and private on which much previous criticism rests.

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Charles Kingsley’s Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet (1850), and Yeast: A Problem (1851)

Kijinski 1985 is included as a rare example of criticism focusing on Yeast (1851). Rauch 1993 is an examination of Kingsley’s attempts to reconcile scientific advances and religion in Alton Locke (1850) and argues that the novel is a story of spiritual development rather than social improvement. Menke 2000 makes an interesting argument about the significance of Locke being both “tailor and poet,” which is also the subject of Gottlieb 2001. Gottlieb 2001 is particularly worth reading for its consideration of Kingsley’s knowledge of working-class poets. Salmon 2009 is a recent contribution to the debate about the depiction of working-class intellectuals.

  • Gottlieb, Evan M. “Charles Kingsley, the Romantic Legacy, and the Unmaking of the Working-Class Intellectual.” Victorian Literature and Culture 29.1 (2001): 51–65.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1060150301291049Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Considers Alton Locke in light of essays by Kingsley that demonstrate his knowledge of working-class poets and which endorse writing poetry only in order to cultivate middle-class sensibilities. Argues that Kingsley’s novel invokes, only to remove, the threat of the working-class poet by depicting the impossibility of such a poet retaining class loyalty.

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  • Kijinski, John L. “Charles Kingsley’s Yeast: Brotherhood and the Condition of England.” Victorian Institute Journal 13 (1985): 97–109.

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    Rare example of criticism focusing on Yeast, which argues that Kingsley’s solution to the “condition-of-England” problem is a call for universal brotherly love.

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  • Menke, Richard. “Cultural Capital and the Scene of Rioting: Male Working-Class Authorship in Alton Locke.” Victorian Literature and Culture 28.1 (2000): 87–108.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1060150300281060Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Insightful essay that explores Locke’s identity as “tailor and poet” as a representation of the relationship between the “condition-of-England” problem and cultural production. Argues that the novel resolves the problem of radical politics by depicting the artist-radical’s submission to culture and making religion the true source of cultural meaning.

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  • Rauch, Alan. “The Tailor Transformed: Kingsley’s Alton Locke and the Notion of Change.” Studies in the Novel 25.2 (1993): 196–213.

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    Emphasizes the motif of transformation in Alton Locke and how Kingsley uses this to reconcile scientific and religious beliefs.

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  • Salmon, Richard. “‘The Unaccredited Hero’: Alton Locke, Thomas Carlyle, and the Formation of the Working-Class Intellectual.” In The Working-Class Intellectual in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Britain. Edited by Aruna Krishnamurthy, 167–194. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2009.

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    Examines the link between Chartist and middle-class narratives by considering how Alton Locke reflects middle-class anxieties about the proliferation of radical culture.

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Harriet Martineau’s “A Manchester Strike” (1832)

“A Manchester Strike” (1832) was one of Martineau’s bestselling tales in Illustrations of Political Economy (1832–1834). There is debate about whether or not “A Manchester Strike” should properly be characterized as social-problem fiction. Courtemanche 2006 notes that it is a forerunner of such fiction but that it has an “uneasy” relationship to it because its focus is on economic laws rather than individuals. Oražem 1999 is useful for its information on the context in which the Illustrations were produced and on their reception. Peterson 2006 is a pertinent consideration of Martineau’s prior experience of writing didactic tracts and how she reworked that form’s generic features into her Illustrations. Dzelzainis 2006 is an interesting analysis of the religious and ideological antagonism between Martineau and social-problem author Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna, which compares their differing representations of female workers.

  • Courtemanche, Eleanor. “‘Naked Truth Is the Best Eloquence’: Martineau, Dickens, and the Moral Science of Realism.” ELH 73.2 (2006): 383–407.

    DOI: 10.1353/elh.2006.0014Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Suggests that Martineau’s Illustrations have an “uneasy” relationship to the industrial novel because, although they stage conflict between industrialist and worker, they champion “impersonal economic laws” rather than “suffering individuals.” Traces Martineau’s influence on later industrial fiction such as Dickens’s Hard Times (1854).

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  • Dzelzainis, Ella. “Reason vs Revelation: Feminism, Malthus, and the New Poor Law in Narratives by Harriet Martineau and Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna.” 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century 2 (2006): 1–15.

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    A consideration of the ideological antagonism between Martineau and Tonna over religious doctrine, theories of political economy, and notions of gender roles. Compares the representation of female industrial workers in Tonna’s “The Lace-Runners” (The Wrongs of Woman, 1844) and Martineau’s Illustrations of Political Economy (1832–1834).

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  • Oražem, Claudia. Political Economy and Fiction in the Early Works of Harriet Martineau. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1999.

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    Thorough description of the context and sources for, and critical reception of, the Illustrations.

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  • Peterson, Linda H. “From French Revolution to English Reform: Hannah More, Harriet Martineau, and the ‘Little Book.’” Nineteenth-Century Literature 60.4 (2006): 409–450.

    DOI: 10.1525/ncl.2006.60.4.409Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A significant essay on Martineau’s influences; it claims that her experience of writing didactic tracts enabled her to put that form’s generic features to a radically different use in her Illustrations. Argues that Martineau’s tales were a radical counterpart to conservative evangelical writer Hannah More.

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Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna’s Helen Fleetwood (1841) and The Wrongs of Woman (1843–1844)

Most criticism focuses on Tonna’s factory novel Helen Fleetwood (1841) and her four-part work about the abuse of female and child workers, The Wrongs of Woman (1843–1844). Kovačević and Kanner 1970 is one of the first works to draw critical attention to Tonna and her influence on later social-problem fiction. Lenard 2003 builds on this work to argue that Tonna helped create a cultural discourse of reform. Dzelzainis 2003 argues that Tonna’s role in the Ten Hours campaign (to limit factory working hours) was more significant than has been appreciated. Benziman 2011 is another example of the upsurge in critical interest in Tonna, in this instance focused on her depictions of child laborers. See also Dzelzainis 2006 (cited under Harriet Martineau’s “A Manchester Strike” (1832)), which compares Tonna and Martineau’s representations of female industrial workers.

  • Benziman, Galia. “Aspects of Child Labor in Tonna’s Helen Fleetwood.” Studies in English Literature 1500–1900 51.4 (2011): 783–801.

    DOI: 10.1353/sel.2011.0042Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that Tonna’s child laborers become sites of complex and conflicted meaning as they straddle differing religious conceptions of children and of “paternalism.” Sees Helen Fleetwood as a “fusion of religious critique and political protest” (p. 790).

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  • Dzelzainis, Ella. “Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna, Pre-Millenarianism, and the Formation of Gender Ideology in the Ten Hours Campaign.” Victorian Literature and Culture 31.1 (2003): 181–191.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1060150303000093Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Important article contending that Tonna’s role in the Ten Hours campaign was greater than has been recognized. Explores the tensions inherent in her position, as her religious beliefs both reinforced ideology about women’s domestic role and licensed her own political intervention. Considers a range of her fiction and journalism.

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  • Kovačević, Ivanka, and S. Barbara Kanner. “Blue Book into Novel: The Forgotten Industrial Fiction of Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 25.2 (1970): 152–173.

    DOI: 10.1525/ncl.1970.25.2.99p0020dSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Influential article, key to the revival of interest in Tonna’s “industrial” fiction. Notes the pioneering nature of Tonna’s work and its influence on the development of later social fiction. Argues that Tonna’s tales bridge “cheap repository tracts” and “social novels.”

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  • Lenard, Mary. “Deathbeds and Didacticism: Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna and Victorian Social Reform Literature.” In Silent Voices: Forgotten Novels by Victorian Women Writers. Edited by Brenda Ayres, 67–90. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003.

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    Identifies Tonna as one of the first social-problem authors. Argues that Tonna formed a “cultural discourse” of social reform and taught 19th-century audiences how to “read” social problems. Also points to Tonna’s skillful manipulation of Victorian sensibilities around religion and gender to establish her authority.

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Frances Trollope’s Michael Armstrong, the Factory Boy (1839) and Jessie Phillips, a Tale of the Present Day (1843)

Frances Trollope was another best-selling 19th-century female author who was marginalized by literary history and has only recently been rescued from critical neglect. Ayres 2002 is a good introduction to Trollope and why her works repay attention. Adams 2002 is useful on the connections between Trollope and the (now) better-known social-problem novels of Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell.

  • Adams, Susan S. Kissel. “Frances Trollope’s ‘Modern’ Influence: Creating New Fictions, New Readers, a New World.” In Frances Trollope and the Novel of Social Change. Edited by Brenda Ayres, 163–181. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2002.

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    Contends that Trollope’s radically reformist social fictions set the scene for the social-problem novels of Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell.

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  • Ayres, Brenda. “Apis Trollopiana: An Introduction to the Nearly Extinct Trollope.” In Frances Trollope and the Novel of Social Change. Edited by Brenda Ayres, 1–9. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2002.

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    A useful introductory essay that considers the marginalization of Trollope and her work and why her fiction deserves more critical attention.

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