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Associated with the development of mid-century realism, "social fiction" is the broadest of the terms encompassing industrial novels, Condition of England novels, socialproblem novels, novels-with-a-purpose, and the roman à thèse. Stimulated variously by the examples of William Godwin, Thomas Carlyle, and by religious tracts, the social novel as a genre does not espouse a fixed political position. Early practitioners include Harriet Martineau, in her Illustrations of Political Economy (1832-5), Mrs. Trollope, in Michael Armstrong, The Factory Boy (1839-40), and Charles Dickens, in Oliver Twist (1837). In the Hungry Forties the social problem novel becomes the vehicle of Disraeli's Tory "Young England" movement, in Coningsby, Sybil (1845), and Tancred (1847). Kingsley offers a Christian Socialist version in Yeast, A Problem (1848) and Alton Locke; and Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton and North and South present a more nuanced Christian consideration of the Condition of England. By most accounts, the social problem novel of the 1830s, 1840s, and early 1850s loses impetus when the Chartist moment passes, but the long process of enfranchisement initiated by the first Reform Bill and the Chartist agitation continues through the 1880s, and late Victorian novels such as Hardy's and Gissing's still grapple with social problems. While the explicitly "industrial" novel fades out after the 1850s, the Condition of England remains a topic for British novelists throughout the century and up to the present day .
Suzanne Keen. Victorian Renovations of the Novel: Narrative Annexes and the Boundaries of Representation. Cambridge UP, 1998.
Last modified December 2004