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  • The Trisected Society:Social Welfare in Early Victorian Fiction
  • Tony Fitzpatrick


Social policy researchers have recently been takin culture and cultural studies (see, e.g., Clarke 2004). This article arguably opens up a new dialogue in its attempt to elucidate the role that popular culture has played in the evolution of British social policy. Histories of popular culture (e.g. Rose 2001) usually make only passing reference to social policies, while histories of the latter tend not to use popular culture as a source of influential historical documents (e.g. Fraser 2003). The premise of this project is that we achieve only a partial understanding of popular culture and social policy unless we are prepared to relate the two more closely.

As a first stage, the following article focuses upon some seminal novels of the 1840s and 1850s, by Dickens, Gaskell, Disraeli, and Kingsley, in their relation to developments in society and welfare policy of the early Victorian period—those most commonly seen by critics as significant in relation to "social problems." These novels have been of interest to literary critics since the 1950s but their social-policy aspects have often been eclipsed by other disciplinary approaches (cf. Berry 1999). The aim of the article is to examine the novels in this light, as involving implicit sociological and welfare-related discourse that challenged some but not all aspects of classical political economics. In what follows I shall infer from these novels a particular view of industrial society and an accompanying set of precepts for its ethical recoordination.

First, some disclaimers. There are two questions that I am not going [End Page 23] to address in this article: how we should model the relationship between culture, socio-cultural studies, and social policy, and how the history of social policy should be conceived. I am not going to hypothesise a relationship between popular culture, social history, and social policy at this stage because I suspect that a convincing account depends upon a prior exploration of popular culture and welfare history as they have connected at specific conjunctures. This article concerns one of these conjunctures.

Cultural Materialism and New Historicism

What cannot be avoided is discussion of an appropriate analytical framework. There have been three main schools of criticism applied to social problem novels: cultural materialism, new historicism, and feminism. I critique the first two below and, throughout the article, draw upon feminist contributions more generally.

According to Raymond Williams (1958: chap. 5; 1961: chap. 2), culture should be understood as socially and ideologically engaged. Literary forms should neither be detached from their material environment nor treated as superstructural reflections of an historical essence. The "structure of feeling" was Williams's (1977: 128-35) term for ideology as a cognitive, emotional, and bodily experience. So, what the so-called "industrial novelists" were doing was articulating and dis-seminating a particular structure of feeling, one that legitimated the fact of industrialism while allowing readers to assuage their guilt at its social damage cathartically, by feeling an escapist sympathy towards its victims; accordingly, Dickens et al are seen as offering the middle class an escape route from the horrors of industrialism while failing to imagine alternative social realities. This cultural materialism was also the platform of Lucas (1977) and Smith (1980). For instance, Smith regrets that, in feeling a genuine horror at urban squalor and social deprivation, the early Victorian novelists were not able to think beyond this reaction and, instead, were content to do no more than invite the same emotions in their readers. Disgust and pity thereby remained unconverted into political forms of mobilisation as the universal claims of the poor were neglected (see Childers 2001: 79).

By the late 1970s, though, some scholars were seeking new forms of interpretation. Whereas cultural materialists brought a strong normative [End Page 24] stance to bear, the new historicists sought to understand what the Victorian novelists did, as opposed to what contemporary critics think they should have done (see R. Williams 1983: 155). For Gallagher (1985), social problem fiction is a site through which complex cultural energies can be seen to flow. Rather than latch onto some of these as real and others as illusory...


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