Victorian Home and Society: in Victorian Novels

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      Of all the literary forms the novel is one in which the relationships of Victorian homes to social life is the closest. This is particularly true of the Victorian novels. Indeed, the social history of the era in its manifold aspects is reflected in the novels of the time. It is possible to reconstruct the history of the times from the pages of the novelists. Social analysis was the main pre-occupation of all the novelists. Dickens, Thackeray and Geroge Eliot analysed and exposed Victorian domestic ambience, the social evils and bourgeoisie snobbery with insight and ability, although their attitude was not revolutionary or radical. Mrs. Gaskell in her Cranford and North and South made a searching analysis of the industrial and agricultural problems. Trollope in his Barchester Towers points to the ecclesiastical politics of a provincial cathedral.

Dickens, Thackeray and Geroge Eliot analysed and exposed Victorian domestic ambience, the social evils and bourgeoisie snobbery with insight and ability, although their attitude was not revolutionary or radical.
Victorian home & lifestyle

      It was a part of Charles Dickens artistic programme to draw the pointed attention to the evils in the various spheres of society and inhibition, not merely to entertain his readers but with a view to moral reform. His novels are thus not merely faithful transcripts of life but they are novels with a purpose. His vision of life is strongly coloured by his morality. Indeed, there is no better chronicle of his own time than Dickens, among his contemporaries. Of course, Dickens lacked the vision of the upper strata of the society which Thackeray has faithfully pictured in his novels. But what Dickens new most from his personal experience, he has painted with great realism. He knew life at a lower abode of social level and that is the theme of his brilliant novels, treated with rest imagination and humour. As a story-teller, he was the romancer of the London life and inhabitants. The life in the office, the streets, the workshops, the elementary schools, and prison house, he knew intimately. The age of Dickens was one of humanitarian reforms, urged by Benthamite Radicals. It was the age of the Reform Bills, the Chartist movement, etc. Much was done towards improving the life of Victorian home, the working classes, to abolish the savagery of the law in respect of punishments, to transform the conditions of the prison rooms or elementary schools. Yet there was still much to be desired. And the stories of Dickens faithfully mirrored all that was still to be accomplished "The deplorable state of the Debtors' prison, the Fleet Street and Mershalsea; the dismal abysses of elementary education, the sorry type of the muses available in sickness; the oppression of little children; the prevalence of religious hypocrisy - these and many other dark comers in the life of London, were illuminated by the searchlight of his genius." David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, The Old Curiosity Shop, Donmbey and Son are some of his novels which have a documentary value as a picture of the life of the times apart from the rich human interest and social and literary qualities of the novelist that they illustrate. As we read these novels, we seem to relive in that age and breathe its atmosphere.

      The social interest is also explicit in the novels of George Eliot. As a painter of contemporary society she was more in touch with the intellectual life and inhibition of the times than any other Victorian novelist. Essentially a critic of life, and shrewd observer of what she saw around her and using her experience in fiction, she was however not merely contented with chronicling the life of the times. She had a philosophy of life and this directed and controlled her representation of life. As a picture of contemporary abode of life, her novel Middlemarch has the highest value. It has been subtitled 'A Study of Provincial Life' and the novelist says, "I wanted to give a panoramic view of provincial houses and life." But actually she has gone far beyond that purpose. The novel is set against the background of the national habitation in the period of the Reform Bill with the apparent intention of giving it a representative quality. Many of the problems of the time, political reforms, industrial development, the medical science, etc. supply its materials. But the tone of the period or its historical interest are of subordinate interest to her philosophy of life toward human abode. Nevertheless, it has a great topical interest. We get here a vivid impression of the life of the town Middle-march, ranging from a pot-house to the town's best inn (Green Dragon), from horse-dealers, auctioneers, and grocers to the lawyers, physicians, merchants and landowners who stand at the head of the social scale. Although the activities of these people are not presented in details, from their talks, pitched to the tone of their desires, we get a full of impression of the lives and works of these multifarious people. George Eliot's method is impressionistic and psychological and as a picture of contemporary life the novel has a great value. In Felix Holt, Eliot portrays the social life of England during the Reform Bill controversies of the 1830's. Felix is the spokesman of the Carlylean doctrine that a renovating of the spirit rather than political machinery is essential to progress. The scrutiny of the provincial middle class is another engrossing sociological analysis.

      Thomas Hardy's contribution to the English novel is unique. He presents in his novel a new aspect of contemporary life and Victorian inhabitancy. He stood in revolt against the conventional life of the age. He denounces the whole of modern civilization which has created so many problems in the lives of the dwellers of the towns. Civilization produces moral prigs, theorists, artificial and complex types of humanity. In deliberate reaction against this, he took up for his themes the lives of the lowly, humble rustics, who live far from the madding crowd. He is, indeed, the first of the English novelists to choose English peasant types for the heroes and heroines in the series of his masterpieces. The scenes of his novels are laid in a primitive corner of England, where civilization has not yet made its appearance. For this region he has revived the ancient name of 'Wessex' and he has recreated it partly as a land of the imagination. Hardy spent the greater part of his life in this domicile and studied it with the scientific precision of an antiquarian and the imaginative enthusiasm of a poet. In his novels he has given to 'airy nothings' a local habitation and a name. Dorset was the centre of this region and it was extremely conservative and backward, scarcely touched by the industrial revolution which had transformed the midlands and the north of England. Wessex is a country of sleepy old towns and secluded villages, where traditional customs, manners and beliefs still prevailed. Thus it is a romantic idyllic life that Hardy represents in his charming romances. Agriculture is the main occupation of the people. It is the focus of the lives of the rustics. The men and women of the place are essentially the children of the soil untouched by the faintest sprinkle of civilization. If civilization sometimes encroaches there in the persons of Troy, Farfare, Wildeve etc. It produces disasters in the lives of the people. These people are simple-minded, old-fashioned, ignorant and superstitious. Theirs is a robust vitality unimpaired by the disease of thought, which is the product of civilization. They live a life of instinct rather than of thought. They love, hate, drink, chatter, suffer without protest and die calmly. They live on the whole of self-satisfied life; their hopes and ambitions do not run high; they little rebel against circumstances and their resignation to fate is characteristic. This is the idyllic picture of the life of the primitive children of the soil that emerges from the novels of Hardy. Indeed, Hardy has accepted and executed in his novels the same programme that Wordsworth had undertaken in his poetry, namely to choose incidents and situations from humble and rustic life and at the same time to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, so as to make them more appealing than reality.

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