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The political novel . . . juxtaposes the houses and halls of power with the factory and the dwellings of the poor; it already sets the over-rationalized schoolroom against the circus; contrasts North and South; past and present; city and country; honest and vicious; clean and filthy; victim of industrial life and prosperous (sometimes even well-meaning) factoryowner. The characteristic gesture of the Victorian political novel is to expose the shocking world (Gaskell's homes of workers; Dickens' schools and workhouses; Kingsley's sweatshops and dwellings of the urban poor) and to insist that these zones of disease, degradation, and dehumanization are not only part, but the other hag; of England. To call attention to (if not to redress) the evils that afflict the whole nation, political novels choose representative evils to stand for this other nation. These choices notoriously fail to represent working people either as convincing individuals or as diverse groups with their own elaborate social strata. Furthermore, the binary structure of the two nations occludes the variety of suffering endured by workers and the poor in Britain, and this effect was often manipulated to serve political ends. (The history of the Corn Law Repeal and the sequence of Reform Acts is one of alliance politics, which requires the oversimplification of losses and gains in order to consolidate support.) Condition of England novels record the desires of a culture that hopes to reconcile its material needs with both its political and its altruistic hopes. By attempting diagnosis, these novels distance themselves from the "condition" of the others they describe, even as they expose selected targets within the economic, industrial, and political establishments. [149]


Suzanne Keen. Victorian Renovations of the Novel: Narrative Annexes and the Boundaries of Representation. Cambridge UP, 1998.

Last modified 14 October 2002