Does the nineteenth century social problem novel document reality in order to educate readers? Essay

The social problem novel as demonstrated by Gaskell’s Mary Barton and Hard Times by Charles Dickens, was an attempt to come to terms with the events of the 1840s, and to communicate to the reader the various implications of these events. Although not political treatises, they nevertheless succeed in remaining true to the realities of the time, and succeed in educating the average reader of these fictions about their society’s problems, whilst at the same time remaining works designed to entertain.

The social problem novel in the Mid Victorian era arose out of what Thomas Carlyle had referred to as the “Condition of England question” in 1843. From the beginning of the nineteenth century, England had undergone a massive transformation from being a largely agricultural economy to an increasingly industrialised one. This industrial revolution brought with it both enormous economic benefits to Britain, but also huge problems regarding the new manufacturing towns and the workers therein.

By the ‘hungry forties’, the period in which both Mary Gaskell and Charles Dickens were writing, protests and demonstrations on the part of the workers were growing, and certainly their fate was attracting more attention. Although the expression ‘condition of England’ is a general one, it refers to some quite specific events: the economic slump of the beginning of the 1840s which had left many out of work and hungry, and the growing influence of Trades Union and Chartism, a social movement proposing various political changes, which was seen as dangerously radical in outlook.

There was a growing hostility between industrial manufacturers and their hands, exacerbated by poor standards of working and living in the towns, and mutual mistrust. This was the ‘reality’ of the 1840s. Gaskell and Dickens were by no means the only authors to document the period. Much of the writing about the social problems of the time came not from fictional sources but from factual reports, the “blue books” of Mr Gradgrind in Hard Times. The role of these reports was symptomatic of the general Victorian obsession with classification and cataloguing, which Dickens particularly satirises in Hard Times. fact, fact, fact everywhere”. 1 Of course, not all of these reports were dry and dusty statistics. Many revealed the horrendous conditions of the time graphically, for example Chadwick’s investigations of the Poor Law2, or Frederich Engel’s The Condition of the Working class in England in 18443 which graphically and sympathetically describe the appalling living and working conditions of many British citizens. Therefore in the sense that these studies and reports were written to educate and inform, do Mary Barton and Hard Times fulfil the same role?

How much is the reader educated by the reality that these two novels portray? Let us look at the reading public of the 1840s. Although there had been advances in printing and the availability of printed material since the beginning of the century, seen in the continuing rise in the periodical magazine and the availability of cheap editions of books, it cannot be denied that the large majority of the country was illiterate, and reading was still a leisure activity reserved for the middle and upper classes.

The average reader of the 1840s would not have had ready access to government-commissioned reports, or technical studies of social conditions in various parts of the country. Furthermore the plight of factory hands was not necessarily, in public opinion, portrayed sympathetically. Thus the easy availability of serialised fiction, provided a platform for much wider readership and diffusion of ideas. From this basis, let us first examine Gaskell’s ability in Mary Barton to ‘document reality in order to educate readers’.

According to Gaskell herself I had always felt a deep sympathy with the care-worn men … the more I reflected on [the] unhappy state of things between those so bound to each other by common interests, as the employers and the employed must ever be, the more anxious I became to give some utterance to the agony which convulses this dumb people… 4 We see from the author’s preface that her intention is primarily to give a voice to “the care-worn men” and then to document “the woes, which … pass unregarded by all but the sufferers”.

Gaskell clearly has an agenda; the aim of Mary Barton is not to ‘document’ but to champion a cause and to raise our awareness of the poor man’s lot in Manchester. So although Gaskell is not engaging in a work of impartiality, as the word ‘document’ would imply, necessarily she has to portray with accuracy the lives of the inhabitants of Manchester. From the beginning of the novel, Gaskell provides us with the many physical details which touch the lives of her characters. Giving us the minutae of their daily lives is a key element in giving us a thorough understanding of ‘Manchester Life’.

The second chapter is important in this respect for it introduces us to the environment in which the characters live. Gaskell manages to convey to her middle class readers, unfamiliar with much of what is being portrayed, both a sense of the poverty of the dwellings – “a gutter running through the middle to carry off household slops, washing suds, etc”5 and a sympathy with the inhabitants forced to live in such circumstances “two geraniums, unpruned and leafy, which stood on the sill, formed a further defence from out-door pryers”6.

The details provided in this tableau are also important as markers of the family’s relative comfort in those “good times”. When, later in the novel, the Bartons are forced to sell everything, even the ‘bright green japanned tea-tray’, the reader cannot help but feel empathy and compassion with their plight, we who have witnessed the tea-making ceremonies that bring so much conviviality to the family. Gaskell is neither adverse to showing her readers the worse effects of slum dwellings, and glosses little of the realities either of Manchester slums, or the contrasting luxuries of the mill-owners. As they passed, women from their doors tossed household slops of every description into the gutter; they ran into the pool which overflowed and stagnated … the smell was so foetid as to almost knock the two men down”. 7 The following scene, in which the Davenport’s cellar is contrasted with the opulence of the mill-owner Carson’s home; “a kitchen hung round with glittering tins, where a roaring fire burnt merrily, and where numbers of utensils hung round … he cook broiled steaks, and the kitchen maid toasted bread, and boiled eggs”8 Gaskell establishes the context in which a desperate working man might turn to Chartism, and even to murdering a factory-owner. Although, in the preface to Mary Barton, Gaskell issues a disclaimer that she knows “nothing of Political Economy or the theories of trade”9, it appears that she had read current articles on the topic. However, just as Gaskell’s portrayals of living conditions in Manchester are invested with a desire to provoke sympathy in the reader, where political ideology is involved, Gaskell’s statements are loaded.

Her personal belief – and one that was common at the time – was that there was no other solution to the system of laissez-faire economics (with the lack of provision for the workers when times were lean, which is what this policy implied), and that the solution was merely a mutual understanding between workers and owners rather than any political change in favour of, for example, equality. Dickens, in Hard Times comes under the same sort of attack for his lack of a political solution. “In place of Utilitarianism, Dickens can only offer good-heartedness, individual charity and Sleary’s horse-riding”10.

It is with this lack of any political solution that the authors of the ‘social problem’ novel come under the most criticism. As a ‘social problem’ novel, Mary Barton shows the reader some of the problems facing mid-Victorian industrial society. However the text is a work of fiction, neither a social history nor a political diatribe. The lack of political engagement is partly due to the type of freedom offered to the writer “at a time when periodicals could smell radicalism a mile away”11.

On the other hand, a different sort of approach is given by presenting the novel through the eyes of the working man or woman, and individualising the type of conflicts society was facing, through the characters. An example of this in Mary Barton is in Mr Carnson’s attack of Jem: the policeman immediately asks Mr Carnson “shall I take him to the lock-up for assault, sir? “12. This social assumption in favour of the mill owner’s son receives no authorial comment, and perhaps one could argue that the entire novel speaks for itself in this way, and that direct opinion from the omniscient narrator is unnecessary.

Secondly, the lack of a solution is also a result of Gaskell’s choice to write fiction. Mary Barton has often been criticised for subordinating the socio-political themes which dominate the first half of the novel to the love between Mary and Jem, and Jem’s trial. It is clear that he novel has two distinct halves, and the conclusion, in which the couple emigrate to America can be seen as to facile a solution “Gaskell’s concern is with people’s hearts and minds, and with how they behave to each other.

She does not try to cover the full range of the analytical tables prepared by the recently formed Manchester Statistical Society”13. Similarly, Dickens’ portrayal of Coketown can be accused of sacrificing realistic description for the phantasmagorical leitmotif of the “melancholy elephants”, and to almost all of his characters being caricatures, not just the obvious Bounderby and Gradgrind. However it is undeniable that the ridiculous argument of Bounderby that every worker “has but one object in life.

That object is to be fed on turtle soup and venison with a gold spoon”14 rests longer in the mind of the reader than had Dickens tried, like Gradgrind to “settle all their destinies on a slate and wipe out all their tears with one dirty little bit of sponge”15. Although Dickens leans towards caricature, the basic world which he was describing – unimaginative Utilitarian systems of education and the inhuman modes of thought which they engendered, the reluctance of factory owners to face up to the realities of their workers lives – were fully extant in the 1840s.

Let us not discount, either, Dickens’ preoccupation, like Gaskell’s, with dialect and slang (for example, Sleary’s circus). This was an area which they both took great pains to render true to life, and to impress on their largely southern, or London-based readership what the northerners actually sounded like – and the validity of their dialects. Why else would Gaskell reference the Lancashire dialect of her characters to Chaucer and other literary figures, were it not to educate her readers?

As authors of fiction, Gaskell and Dickens were aiming to appeal to the idea of a mutual understanding in society, to incite thought and to help mould attitudes. I would argue that Mary Barton and Hard Times as examples of ‘social problem’ novels, surely do document reality in order to educate readers to this way of thinking. The reality these novels present is not all-encompassing and is as much a selective choice as any author whether of fiction or fact is inevitably faced with.

If we consider the type of information contemporary readers of Gaskell and Dickens would have had access to, the new ideas presented in these works would have been considerable. Inevitably, the education provided by the social problem novel is as much a sentimental one as a politically or socially motivated one. It must be remembered, though, that a novel is also intended to entertain. This should not be seen as mutually exclusive from educating the reader.