decorated capital 'l' auren Goodlad's excellent book examines the New Poor Law, sanitary reform, and civil service reform within their political and literary contexts, particularly that provided by Victorian liberalism, a philosophy that holds that the best government is that which governs least. "Victorian Britain," she explains, "was a liberal society: 'liberal' first and foremost in the sense that, throughout the century, centralized institutions and statist interventions were curbed to preserve the 'self-governing' liberties of individuals and local communities" (vii-viii). Victorian liberalism, which is thus almost diametrically opposed to the modern political position of that name, is what we today would call neo-conservatism or libertarianism.

After an opening chapter that uses the late writings of Foucault and Victorian theories of a liberal state to illuminate each other, she moves in the second to discuss the New Poor Law and its appearance in novels of Frances Trollope and Charles Dickens. A third chapter examines the battles over sanitary reform and Dickens's conflicted reaction them while a fourth looks at the civil service reform that followed the disasters of the Crimean War and its relation to early Trollope. Chapter five uses Dickens's Our Mutual Friend to focus on issues concerning the debate over character and education. A final chapter carries the debate between liberalism and centralization into writings of H. G. Wells and Winston Churchill.

Victorian Literature and the Victorian State, which benefits from strong, clear writing, makes a number of important points, not the least of which involves her correction of literary critics and historians who naively apply Foucault's Discipline and Punish to the United Kingdom in the nineteenth century (x, 5, 10-11). Goodlad reminds us that Foucault himself pointed out the crucial differences between continental centralization and the very different British situation. Using Foucault's later writings, she examines the struggle between individualism and centralization in the context of specific political debates and the literary contribution to them.

Goodlad also uses the debate over liberal constructions of individual and state to chart the shifting balance of power between the middle and upper classes. As she points out "the liberal constitutional consensus of the mid-Victorian years" involved a "trade-off in which Britain's dynamic middle classes ceded the nation's leadership to an upper-class elite in exchange for free rein over business and local affairs" (119). Afterwards, a public school and Oxbridge elite used institutional reforms and associated parliamentary reports "to dislodge the middle-class foothold in the Victorian state" and in so doing "diminish Benntham's legacy" (121). As part of this continuing battle to retain power, the Victorian emphasis upon the gentleman served as an effective means of retaining upper-class political power while keeping down the middle class.

By closely examining the positions of Chadwick, Chalmers, and other reformers, Goodlad convincingly demonstrates how debates over the Poor Law and later reforms revealed fundamental conflicts about the understanding of human nature. As she points out, the reformers mistakenly assumed that simply curbing centralized bureaucracy would halt "the spread of a depersonalizing bourgeois-materialist rationality" (83). The 1834 New Poor Law, which was intended to strengthen the character of the poor, had the opposite effect: "By promoting atomized, competitive, and materialistic notions of individual status, and objectifying 'tests,' the same law that stigmatized pauperism also undermined the idea of character as an antimaterialist concept of human individuality" (83). In fact, Goodlad claims, this particular act turned out to be "the chief legislative means through which homo economicus — the calculating subject of bourgeois individualism — was concretized and propagated" (83).

Goodlad, who provides many examples of fine close reading, repeatedly offers convincing explanations for the "extraordinary contradictions" (111) in Dickens's novels and between the novels and his journalism. She is particularly good on "Dickens's anti-feminist assault on middle-class women's extradomestic activities" (108), explaining how his assault on Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle derives from his fears that by going outside the home, these women will simultaneously destroy the last refuge of the personal and "take on the cast of administrative machinery" (110). As Goodlad points out,

Dickens's inability to embrace Mrs. Pardiggle, like the absence of a fictional Southwood Smith [an effective philanthropist], is, therefore, symptomatic of the paradoxes that pervade his midcentury novels and, more generally, the self-consciously liberal society these novels represent. Britain's social body manifestly lacked the kind of order, method, and efficiency which makes the Bagnet family thrive. But neither Dickens nor his contemporaries was prepared to vest such comprehensive powers in any but the most homely, personal, and charismatic of agencies. Dickens's ideal of a world that is "pleasantly irregular" requires a catachrestic supervisory power: one that is rational but unbureaucratic, personal but omnipresent, charismatic but institutionalized, authoritative but liberatory, efficient but English. Incapable either of realizing this antithetic ideal, or of recognizing the "seditious" implications of his own critique, Dickens falls back on a conservative mystification of domestic and female personality. [111-12]

Ever since E. D. H. Johnson's The Alien Vision of Victorian Poetry (1952), students of the nineteenth century have seen the Victorians as people trying to make a near-impossible synthesis of opposites — personal and political, private and public, individual and group, subjective and objective, religious and scientific. By setting these conflicts within the contexts of liberal ideology, notions of character, and the inexorable growth of statist attitudes, Goodlad makes a valuable contribution to the study of the period.

Materials Related to Victorian Literature and the Victorian State

References

Goodlad, Lauren M. E. Victorian Literature and the Victorian State: Character and Governance in a Liberal Society. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2003.


Victorianism Overview Victorian History reviews of recent scholarship

Last modified 2 June 2004