Depictions of Class in Victorian Literature
By Megan Powell, Michael Calder, Hannah Spruce and Yagmur Dur
Throughout history, there have been defining social periods which have dramatically changed the world and strongly influenced its respective literary canon. One such epoch was the Victorian era and 19th century literature, which has fascinated novelists over the last two centuries.
Defined by its industrialism, political upheaval, imperialism and growing economic state, the Victorian period was a melting pot of sociological inspiration for literary contributors. One of the most heavily explored ideas was the era's classicism and hierarchical structures. This hierarchy was embedded in the Victorian social system, but was also common across the world.
Overrun by poverty, tyranny and hypocrisy, the nature of Victorian existence was captured by many classical novelists in Britain such as Charles Dickens, the Brontë sisters and Thomas Hardy. This theme was also indicative across the globe, with many writers exploring their unpleasant experiences through their novels.
Society is a crucial aspect that is typically explored to reflect the growing concerns of the time. Although we have decided to highlight that of the Victorian times, it is important to recall additional examples around the globe. Therefore, in this issue, the classics team will be discussing some of our favourite Victorian novels which broach the subject with driving themes connected with the class structure of the 19th century and look into how similar examples were perceived globally with special insight into one of our favourite French classics.
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
When it came to choosing a novel that explores class in Victorian society, Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South was a no-brainer. Published in 1854, this classic remains highly significant and recommended. As the title hints, the novel addresses a very important issue and one that has persistent elements even today; through Margaret Hale, Gaskell presents attitudes from southern England compared to the north – a fictionalised Manchester. Margaret and her family relocate to Milton which is very different from the wealthy life Margaret is used to with her aunt in London. The effects of the Industrial Revolution are made explicitly clear with the story's focus on worker strikes and social conditions. Gaskell sympathises with the poor and supports a growing modernity pushing for changes to class tradition. The societal shift echoed many contextual experiences and through essential themes of authority and tradition, Gaskell passionately yet accurately depicts the north and south divide, and the effect of larger societal shifts on individuals and small communities.
Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
The theme of social class is deeply rooted in William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. In Victorian England, class was intrinsic to the societal structure and its rigidity meant that many people fell into poverty while trying to maintain their class image and adhere to societal rules.
For the women in the novel, their sexuality and marriage are the only ways to change their social standing. The character Becky is from humble beginnings and spends her whole life trying to charm richer men in order to survive. Contrastingly, her friend Amelia was born into wealth, left in an unstable position following the loss of her family fortune which leaves her ill-equipped for navigating the cruelty of Victorian society.
Thackeray bases this rise and fall of class on his own experiences, which he uses to highlight the futility of the social system and the snobbery of the upper classes. Ultimately, dependence on money and fortune is proven to be worthless as the wealthy spend their lives fearful of losing their position, while the lower classes spend their lives chasing for it. Thackeray’s novel is an interesting and detailed analysis of the hypocrisy of society explored through a set of intriguing and flawed characters who seek to survive in an unforgiving environment.
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Our global example is Madame Bovary, written by the French writer Gustave Flaubert and published in 1856. The novel follows a young woman called Emma Bovary who is married to a small-town doctor in provincial Northern France. Throughout the novel, Emma’s dangerous habit of living beyond her means, and her growing attachment to the materialistic aspects of life as a way to escape the banalities of her provincial life, bring the theme of social class to the forefront of this novel.
Flaubert, through Emma and other characters, focuses on people’s desperate attempt to climb up the ladder to reach high within and beyond middle-class (bourgeoise) status, which he criticises as not only superficial and selfish but also monotonous with dangerous consequences. Emma becomes a victim of the materialistic desires of her social world, and her notions of wealth and romance become entangled within the superficiality and greediness of bourgeois life. Emma’s strong desire for love and money causes her to commit adultery, leading her into a spiralling financial debt which she cannot repay and ultimately causing her to commit suicide. Flaubert’s novel shows the readers the excesses of the bourgeoisie and the hardships and brutality experienced by those trying to survive in a class-obsessed society.