The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

XI. The Political and Social Novel

§ 2. Harriet Martineau

In the second place, the condition of affairs in this country during the years 1830 to 1850 (in which fell the greater part of the new productivity of the English political and social novel) was one of constant ferment, of great fears as well as of high hopes, of terrible sufferings and of ardent efforts for better things. The prophet of this period was Carlyle, who proclaimed the message of an idealism no longer satisfied with the old aims and methods of a political philosophy which, in fiction, too, had not been left unrepresented. Here, it was taught with premeditated emphasis, by a writer so successful in her work that the sage was himself fain to declare her “the only instance he knew of clear activity being compatible with happiness.” But Harriet Martineau, though, besides her justly celebrated Illustrations of Political Economy (1832–4) and Illustrations of Taxation (1834)—confessed hybrids of directly didactic purpose in innocently narrative form—she published two novels of ordinary length and an effective series of short tales for the young, collected under the title The Playfellow (1841), cannot properly be classed among English novelists, and will be more fitly spoken of among historical and political writers, in whose ranks an honourable place is her due. Indeed, in that brief Autobiographical Memoir where Harriet Martineau tells, with a frankness so frank as to have no humour in it, the story of her own life up to the time when she believed it to be drawing to its close, she states that

  • none of her novels or taleshave, or ever had, in the eyes of good judges, or her own, any character of permanence. The artistic aim and qualifications were absent—she had no power of dramatic construction; nor the poetic inspiration on the one hand, nor critical cultivation on the other, without which no work of the imagination can be worthy to live
  • Such candour disarms; and her further admission that, in some of her political economy tales, perhaps her best achievement in fiction, the plot which she was elsewhere unable to create was furnished by the doctrine which she desired to enforce, may readily be accepted as part of the disclaimer.

    In the field of fiction, with which alone we are at present concerned, no agency on behalf of the new idealism, and of the resolve to set right by speedy action what was out of joint in the social condition of the people, could approach in effectiveness that of Dickens, who was able to touch chords of popular sentiment with a masterhand that had no equal. Both these writers, and, with them, a group of young men, partly clergy, partly barristers and university scholars, who took pride in ranging themselves under the moral and intellectual leadership of Frederick Denison Maurice, pressed upon the nation the necessity of continuous effort on behalf of the suffering and struggling working classes, as entitled to a share in the blessings of human life as well as in the privileges of citizenship, and thus became the leaders of a movement which has been given the name of “interventionism.” Their endeavours were most memorable while they were most needed, and while the material sufferings of the working classes embittered their sense of their political grievances. About 1846, a time of greater prosperity began to set in; and, in 1848, chartism came to what seemed a rather abrupt end; but the mid-Victorian age, and the tranquil enjoyment during its course by the middle class of an assured predominance in English political and social life, can hardly be said to have begun much before 1851, the year of the festival of peace—the first great international exhibition.

    This period, then—from about 1830 to about 1850—is that to which the great body of the literary work of the first three eminent novelists discussed in this chapter belongs. With Dickens, as has been already pointed out, their relations are more or less close, while Thackeray holds aloof from “novels with a purpose,” be that purpose conservative or socialist. For the eager productivity of these writers and of those who shared in their endeavours, it would not be easy to account, had they not been under the influence of the spirit of the times in which they lived and had their being. Instead of contenting itself with the new inheritance of political rights into which it had entered, their age was ready to recognise that a social regeneration must follow, and prepare the ground for further political progress. The new reformers must be men and women arguing not from theories but from facts, writers whose sympathy with the people proceeded from a study of its actual condition, and who refused to remain deaf to the unanswerable grievances, and blind to the unendurable lives, of town and country. Before relief came, in the latter part of this period, it had seemed as if a revolution more like the first than the second French revolution must break out in England, and as if “the two nations” at home would be ranged in warfare, the one against the other. Such, deep and serious, was the nature of the problems faced by the “young England” of Disraeli, by the disciples of Maurice, from whose earnest ranks Charles Kingsley stood forth in bright literary panoply, and by tender-hearted women whose hearts went out, like Mrs.Gaskell’s, to their neighbours in the great industrial towns, while to George Eliot’s critical but sympathetic intelligence these questions were familiar traditions. The genius of none of these writers was absorbed by their social or political interests; and of each of them this chapter will speak as distinguished by what was individually the writer’s own. But the influence of their times was upon them all— times in which, amidst great political storm and stress, the spirit of England stood high and her soul renewed itself in the struggle onward.