Social class divisions are prevalent in British society and they have been for centuries. This idea was explored thoroughly in 19th Century novels, especially in the Victorian Era when the gulf between the North and the South of England grew more apparent and tensions rose within society.
In this post I’m going to focus on a couple of novels from this era that tried to understand and accurately represent the struggles of the working class and the indulgence of the upper classes. There are many novels from this era that look at class divisions but I know these two novels very well.
Many areas of Britain had slums during the 19th Century and London was no exception. George Gissing explores poverty in London’s slums in his 1889 novel The Nether World. The Nether World does not compare the lives of the poor to the lives of the rich; instead it concerns itself entirely with the lives of the poor. The Nether World has an extremely pessimistic outlook on the lives of the poor and no happy ending is provided to appease its middle-class readers. The Nether World is also a reference to the Underworld, another world deep beneath the surface of our world where the souls of the the dead go. By referring to the slums of London as the underworld Gissing made a conscious decision to portray the poor as lost souls who cannot escape their fates.
There are several intertwining plots that look at the lives of the poor. Two of the most interesting stories are of Clara and Jane. Clara, an aspiring actress who seeks to escape the poverty of her family, suffers a horrific acid attack by a rival actress. She is forced to move back home and marry a man, Sidney, who she doesn’t love. She even contemplates suicide at one point in the story. Her story is one of hope in the beginning as she joins a travelling theatre and her talent is recognised but it quickly degenerates as she is forced to return to a life of poverty.
Jane is a weak child who has an opportunity to live a life away from poverty and even help the poor. Michael Snowdon inherits a substantial sum of money from his deceased son but he spends only on necessities and lives like a poor man, keeping his fortune secret. He rescues his granddaughter Jane from the Peckovers, a mother and daughter who are materialistic and greedy, who force her to work but he does not reveal his wealth to her for a while. Michael plans to give Jane his fortune when he dies but only if she spends it on charity and helping the poor. She is later disinherited and accepts a life of poverty and toil.
The stories of Clara and Jane highlight the inevitably of poverty in 19th Century London. Each of the characters in The Nether World has a tragic ending and the novel offers no chance of escaping from poverty. Gissing offers no solution to poverty at the of The Nether World and while this is a realistic ending it is also a depressing one.
When I first read The Nether World is was consumed by it. I love the Victorian Era and this novel just seems very realistic in its depiction of slum life in the 19th Century. It is a depressing book but it’s extremely interesting and the stories are riveting.
Unlike The Nether World, Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1848 novel Mary Barton does offer some hope for the poor of Manchester but only through emigration to a foreign county. Gaskell was interested in the poor of the North and the North-South divide. She even wrote a novel called North and South which explores this divide in detail. As a Yorkshire woman I understand the North-South divide as it is prevalent even now.
Mary Barton follows the life of two working-class families in Manchester. Mary’s mother dies and John Barton is forced to bring up Mary alone, previously having lost his son at a young age. He falls into depression and involves himself in the Chartist trade-union movement which was happening when the novel was written and published. The family fall into poverty and so Mary takes up work at a dressmaker’s (her father refuses to let her work at a factory.)
Mary becomes embroiled in a complicated relationship with working-class Jem Wilson and Harry Carson, the son of a wealthy mill owner. She plans to marry Carson to secure her financial future but she doesn’t love him. In fact, she loves Jem. Carson is shot dead and Jem is arrested for the crime after his gun was found at the scene. Mary goes to Liverpool in search for an alibi for Jem and he is eventually found not guilty of murder. However, Jem’s reputation is ruined in England and so he moves to Canada with Mary to start a new life.
The happy ending for Jem and Mary was used to placate the middle-class readers who wanted to help the poor but never actually did. By having her characters move to Canada, Gaskell shows that the poor of England cannot find a better life in England because they are trapped by society. Instead, they are forced to move away from their families and work extremely hard to own land and have a good life. England, and Britain as a whole, was not a place of opportunity for the poor during this era and Gaskell is commenting on this.
The book also explores prostitution and ‘fallen women’ in this era as Esther, a “street-walker” and Mary’s aunt, is forced to leave her family because of the shame she has caused. There is no happy ending for Esther because she is a fallen woman but she provides Mary with an opportunity for a better life.
It is obvious that Gaskell wanted to accurately portray the lives of the working-class in Manchester as she even uses Manchester dialect in her novel. She even visited the homes of local labourers to inspire the character of John Barton. Gaskell uses Mary Barton to highlight the plight of the poor and to elicit sympathy for the lower classes from her middle-class readers. She does not offer a viable solution to the difficulty that the working-classes face, instead she merely comments on how the middle class should help the poor. Gaskell is politically passive in this novel and the message of the novel is overshadowed by critics of the time, like W.R. Greg, who are determined to leave the poor to ‘work out their own salvation’. However, these critics demonstrate Gaskell’s point perfectly as they are reluctant to help the poor. Gaskell both succeeds and fails in her attempts to accurately show the lives of the poor but what is most important is that she tried to understand the poor and help them.
Victorian society was obsessed with social class and the lives of the poor and this is reflected in the literature of the time. Whether authors gave their characters tragic or happy endings is of little consequence because the main point of these novels is to realistically portray the struggles of the poor.
Today’s society in Britain is obsessed with social class and the lives of the poor. Working class people are always being targeted by the government in order to relive pressure on the middle-classes. Industries are being systematically shut down and this leaves working-class communities destitute and thousands of working-class people jobless. Poverty is a never-ending cycle which is enforced by the upper classes of Britain and although we are in a different position to the Victorians, poor people are still ignored and othered.
This was a strange post to write. I sort of got into essay-mode towards the end of it but I really enjoyed writing it. It’s a different direction for this blog and I’m not sure that anyone will enjoy reading posts like this. Let me know in the comments if you think I should continue with posts like this or just stick to my normal reviews and weekly memes!
I know that this post got political at the end but I feel so strongly about industrial communities in Britain because, as a girl from an old coal-mining community, I know how communities can be broken by the government.