chapter
15 Pages

‘The thin crust of refinement’: culture, socialism, naturalism

Throughout the nineteenth century, as P.J.Keating points out in The Working Classes in Victorian Fiction,1 fiction about the working class and its politics was predominantly a non-working-class affair. From Dickens and Mrs Gaskell to Walter Besant and Rudyard Kipling, non-working-class authors turned to working-class settings, characters and stories from the outside, often if not always equipped with statistical, even ‘empirical’ information. Apart from some ‘temperance fiction’, their writings were intended for a non-working-class audience as well: posing as ‘explorers’ of regions of London and the industrial North unknown to the reading bourgeoisie, writers often professed to impart to their readers an amount of ‘realistic’ knowledge, a ‘slice of life’, which the audience was not in a position to find out about. The working class itself, though allegedly central to these literary exchanges, remained essentially foreign to writer and reader as well as narrative. Keating observes that in these ‘workingclass fictions’ ‘we find time and again that the novelist has unconsciously set into motion a process of avoidance which prevents him [sic] from dealing with his professed subject-the working classes’:2 a process which takes shape in various typically ‘romantic’ displacements of character and plot. It seems that bourgeois novelists were as much attracted by the working class as they were daunted by its vastness, its equivocality and its virtual incomprehensibility-a contradiction foregrounded in periods of sharply articulated class conflict:

During the nineteenth century, there were two periods when a significant number of novelists seriously attempted to present the working classes in fiction. Both were times when real or imagined class fears compelled people to look afresh at the basic social, economic and political structure of society. In the 1840s and 50s the motivating force was the outcry over the conditions of industrial workers, together with the middle-class panic engendered by Chartist politics: in the period 1880-1900 it was the problem of slum conditions and the widespread public debate on Socialism. The fictional response in both periods was almost entirely non-workingclass.3