This is the introduction to an article first published in English Studies, Vol. 95, No. 8 (December 2014): 890-906, in an earlier form, under the title of "The Conduct of Life in Walter Besant's The Ivory Gate and The Alabaster Box." The Victorian Web version appears here by kind permission of the publishers, Taylor and Francis. You may use the images added to this version without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the sources and (2) link your document to this URL or cite it in a print document. Click on the thumbnails for larger pictures, and for more information where available.

Walter Besant. Source: Autobiography, frontispiece.

A social topographer, commentator and campaigner on behalf of the lower classes, Walter Besant (1836-1901) was also a popular and prolific novelist, best known now for the books that marry his several interests — that is, his novels dealing with and proposing remedies for the plight of London's East Enders. These novels are generally categorised as slum fiction, since they draw not only on his unparalleled knowledge of life in the capital, but also on the various seams of cultural thinking opened up by Carlyle in his Chartism (1839) as the "Condition of England" debate. These included the Christian Socialism of F. D. Maurice and Charles Kingsley, the social theories of John Ruskin, the social and political writings of William Morris and perhaps particularly the essays of Matthew Arnold, who saw the social uses of culture in Culture and Anarchy (1852), and had long believed in "civilising the next generation of the lower classes" — who, he realized, "as things are going, will have most of the political power of the country in their hands" (Letters I: 227). The prospect of having a massive and unruly underclass in an era of increasing democratisation was a frightening one, and Besant himself, in his particularly popular novel, All Sorts and Conditions of Men (1882), can be seen as presenting a way of "channelling off the dissatisfaction of the working classes and subverting their revolutionary tendencies" (Goode 248).

Besant's novels are therefore close in spirit to the social-problem novels of the mid-century, such as Mrs Gaskell's North and South (1855), with its sympathetic portrayal of northern mill-workers. They express and rouse the conscience of late Victorian England in order to promote the kind of social leavening defined in the last section of Besant's own non-fiction work, East London (1901), under the title "The Helping Hand." Given the right encouragement and opportunities, Besant felt, the individual slum-dweller could climb out of degradation and achieve a place in society which he could then hand on to succeeding generations of the family: "the lad who has climbed remains, he and his children after him, in the rank, so dear to the British soul, of undoubted gentility.... and the virtues of the father shall bring their rewards to the children — yea, even unto the third and fourth generation" (East London, 336). Ultimately, then, the whole of society would benefit. Besant made a virtue out of this novelistic commitment to social justice: "When I read the criticcasters' paragraphs about 'novels with a purpose,'" he said in his autobiography, "I ask myself what novel I have written that had not a purpose" (212).

The People's Palace on the Mile End Road, with its grand exterior and equally grand Octagon, designed by E. R. Robson and completed in 1888. It is now part of Queen Mary University, London.

As a professional writer who founded and later chaired the Society of Authors, and as a critic who saw the novel as a "universal teacher" that "converts abstract ideas into living models," Besant expected results, and judged his own novels accordingly (The Art of Fiction, 19). On this count, All Sorts and Conditions of Men was undoubtedly his most successful book. Reprinted five times by March 1884, it directly contributed to the establishment of the People's Palace on the Mile End Road, and sold a quarter of a million copies by 1905 (see Goode 246, and Eliot). Besant himself was one of those presented to the Queen by the Lord Chamberlain after the opening of its splendid main hall in May 1887 ("The Queen's Visit to the East-End," 12).

But the assumptions (or prejudices) on which his ideas are based seem horribly dated now, as does the didacticism itself, especially when his work is compared to that of his closer contemporaries. Late Victorian novels like George Moore's Esther Waters (1894) are more naturalistic in their approach. They too bring out such problems of working-class life as drink, debt and criminal behaviour, but provide no answers for them, easy or otherwise: "one isn't so anxious as one was to reform the world," says the good-hearted Mrs Barfield succinctly in the play Moore later made of his most famous book. "One feels that to be impossible" (145). Besant's novels also draw fire from the "criticcasters" for their old-fashioned narrative techniques. Paradoxically, despite his knowledge of and concern with the realities of working-class life, he freely introduced stock characters, developed the action through coincidences, and provided overly providential endings. So blatant are the coincidences that the narrator himself will sometimes pause to justify them: "Life is entirely made up of coincidences, though in novels, which should be pictures of real life, as much is generally made out of a coincidence as if the thing was unusual," he says defensively in his novel of 1886, Children of Gibeon (187). One modern critic goes so far as to describe the plots of this novel and All Sorts and Conditions of Men as "ludicrous" (Keating, The Working Classes, 97). As a result, Besant's fiction is now likely to be read not for its more memorable passages and often acute psychological insights, but for its socio-historical interest, and for the more incidental pleasures of its topographical and (when it comes to the dialogue) linguistic accuracy. Yet they contain some passages of fine writing and psychological depth, and some also reveal a certain complexity both of vision and design — a complexity that makes them still well worth reading today. The discussions that follow will focus on two of these novels: The Ivory Gate of 1892, and The Alabster Box of 1896.

Related Material

Works Cited

Arnold, Matthew. Letters. Vol. I, 1829-1859. Ed. Cecil V. Lang. Charlottesville and London: The University Press of Virginia, 1996.

Besant, Walter. "The Art of Fiction." In The Art of Fiction (bound with Henry James's lecture of the same title). Boston: Cupples, Upham and Company, 1885. 3-48. Internet Archive. Internet Archive. Contributed by the University of Michigan. Web. 3 January 2015.

_____. Autobiography of Walter Besant. London: Hutchinson, 1902. Internet Archive. Uploaded from the library of the University of Michigan. 3 January 2015.

_____. East London. New York: Century, 1901. Internet Archive. Uploaded by Robarts Library, the University of Toronto. 3 January 205.

Eliot, Simon. "Besant, Sir Walter (1836-1901)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Web. 3 January 2015.

Goode, John. "The Art of Fiction: Walter Besant and Henry James." In Tradition and Tolerance in Nineteenth-Century Fiction: Critical Essays on Some English and American Novels. Ed. David Howard, John Goode and John Lucas. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966. 243-81.

Keating, Peter. The Working Class in Victorian Fiction. London: Routledge, 1971.

Moore, George. Esther Waters: A Play in Five Acts. London: William Heinemann, 1913. Internet Archive. Uploaded by University of British Columbia Libraries. Web. 3 January 2015.

"The Queen's Visit to the East-End." The Times. 13 May 1887: 12. Times Digital Archive. Web. 3 January 2015.

Created 6 January 2015