Focusing on the 3 authors, how did their literature reflect the growing concerns of the Victorian reader? Illustrate your essay with specific examples.
The early Victorian literary era had been defined by authors
such as Jane Austen, whose novels of sensibility idealized the
lives, morals and virtues of a nineteenth century elite. However,
half way through the century a 'realist' trend emerged, seeking to
address the real concerns of the Victorians. In examining this, the
works of Charles Dickens, George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell will
be examined in relation to; the effects of the industrial
revolution, crime and changing gender roles.
'Smoky towns expanding into the countryside and densely packed
streets of unhealthy houses rife with crime, drink and disease.'
This is how eminent historian Martin Pugh explains the views of
Victorians in reacting to the Industrial Revolution. Whilst, rural
life had been cruel rapid immigration into towns created much
concern. The population of Manchester and Salford stood at 25,000
in 1772, but by 1851 455,000 perspos resided there. At the height
of the revolution Robert Owen took control of his father-in-law's
Clyde cotton mill, and describes seeing 2000 workers living in,
'ignorance, crime and drunkenness.' Charles Dickens reflected this
in his novel Hard Times, set in coketown, based on Manchester and
Preston. The creation of this story is based upon his viewing of
strikes and employers lockouts on a visit to Preston. At the height
of the radical Chartist movement, which concerned many Victorians,
Dickens reflected a sympathy with the industrial worker praising
their, 'high sense of honour.' In Mary Barton, Elizabeth Gaskell
also seeks to identify with concerns for the worker, with the
strong portrayal of the courageous trade unionist John Barton.
However, some viewed it as too sympathetic. The Manchester Guardian
deplored its, 'sensibility to the conditions of the operatives.'
Not all agreed, Dickens was so taken that he serialized her next
novel in his journal. George Eliot also looked at the new
industrial world, but came to a more balanced conclusion. Gareth
Jenkins identifies that she realized a struggle for improvement was
required, but that she preferred a liberal gradual approach, 'the
good of the world depends on the un-historic acts.'
With respected figures such as liberal John Stuart Mill
campaigning for an extension of the franchise gender was a concern
in the Victorian era. Dickens had a traditional view on gender,
respecting the selfless attitude of women who stay loyal to the
family. However, he is critical of women treated cruelly by men
such as Quilp or Sikes. He also expresses understanding in Oliver
Twist for the wider reasons for the existence of 'fallen women'
like Nancy, who says to the kind Rose Maylie, 'If there was more
like you, there would be fewer like me.' In The Old Curiosity Shop
Little Nell dies because she cares for her gambling father, and in
Our Mutual Friend Jenny Wren has to support an alcoholic father who
she calls her 'child.' Dickens even makes it clear that the hatred
of Mrs. Havisham in Great Expectations is down to a man 'jalting'
her at the altar. Marion Evans showed the limits to enfranchisement
by publishing under the pseudonym George Eliot. She also showed the
increasing independence and options of women in Middlemarch. In the
novel Celia says, 'I should not give up to James when I knew he was
wrong, as you used to do to Mr. Casaboun.' However, A.W. Bellringer
criticizes Eliot for her conservative attitude to gender describing
votes as an 'extremely doubtful good.' Catherine Gallagher praises
Gaskell's work most highly, saying she focuses directly on gender.
She is widely respected for being the Victorian author who most
reflected Victorian females, rather than Dickens who uses it as a
metaphor for worker-employer relationships.
Therefore, Dickens reflected the concerns of Victorians greatly
focusing on life in the new industrial towns. His focus on crime,
being both sympathetic, but also focusing on a penal work ethic
reflected vast opinion. George Eliot takes a more balanced look at
industrialization, whilst Elizabeth Gaskell paints the most
realistic picture of the gloomy industrial town. On the issue of
gender Gaskell most strongly represents contemporary concerns.
Eliot portrays gender issues, but like Dickens ultimately has a
conservative family based attitude. In the final analysis, however,
all these authors represented the concerns of Victorians.