Poverty and the working classes

With extravagance and luxury at the top of the social scale, and starvation and disease at the bottom, how did Victorian writers respond to the shocking inequalities they saw around them, or those they experienced first-hand?
Slums

Slums

Article by:
Judith Flanders

Judith Flanders examines the state of housing for the 19th-century urban poor, assessing the ‘improvements’ carried out in slum areas and the efforts of writers, including Charles Dickens and Henry Mayhew, to publicise such living conditions.

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The working classes and the poor

The working classes and the poor

Article by:
Liza Picard

Liza Picard examines the social and economic lives of the Victorian working classes and the poor.

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Oliver Twist and the workhouse

Oliver Twist and the workhouse

Article by:
Ruth Richardson

The hardships of the Victorian workhouse led to Oliver Twist uttering the famous phrase ‘Please Sir, I want some more’. Dr Ruth Richardson explores Dickens’s reaction to the New Poor Law, which established the workhouse system, and his own experiences of poverty and hardship.

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William Blake's radical politics

William Blake’s Chimney Sweeper poems: a close reading

Article by:
George Norton

George Norton shows how William Blake’s Chimney Sweeper poems highlight the injustice and brutality suffered by child chimney sweeps in the late 18th and 19th centuries.

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Class in The Time Machine

Class in The Time Machine

Article by:
Matthew Taunton

Dr Matthew Taunton reveals how The Time Machine reflects H G Wells’s fascination with class division, the effects of capitalism and the evolution of the human race.

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Prostitution

Prostitution

Article by:
Judith Flanders

What was the place of prostitution in 19th-century society? Judith Flanders looks at documents and publications that provide an insight into attitudes towards the profession.

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The figure of the governess

The figure of the governess

Article by:
Kathryn Hughes

From Jane Eyre to Vanity Fair, the governess is a familiar figure in Victorian literature. She is also a strange one: not part of the family, yet not quite an ordinary servant. Kathryn Hughes focuses on the role and status of the governess in 19th century society.

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Juvenile crime in the 19th century

Juvenile crime in the 19th century

Article by:
Matthew White

Novels such as Oliver Twist have made Victorian child-thieves familiar to us, but to what extent did juvenile crime actually exist in the 19th century? Drawing on contemporary accounts and printed ephemera, Dr Matthew White uncovers the facts behind the fiction.

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The Cries of London

The Cries of London

Article by:
The Gentle Author

The Gentle Author explores William Marshall Craig’s Cries of London prints, which portray the realities of life for street traders in the early 19th century.

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The rise of technology and industry

The rise of technology and industry

Article by:
Liza Picard

Liza Picard considers how the development of technology and industry affected all areas of 19th-century life and work.

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The origins of A Christmas Carol

The origins of A Christmas Carol

Article by:
John Sutherland

Professor John Sutherland considers how Dickens’s A Christmas Carol engages with Victorian attitudes towards poverty, labour and the Christmas spirit.

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Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor

Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor

Article by:
Mary L Shannon

London Labour and the London Poor is a key work in the development of investigative journalism. Dr Mary L Shannon describes how Henry Mayhew conducted numerous interviews with street-sellers, sweepers and sewer-hunters, in order to share their stories with the reading public.

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William Blake's radical politics

William Blake's radical politics

Article by:
Andrew Lincoln

The French Revolution inspired London radicals and reformers to increase their demands for change. Others called for moderation and stability, while the government tried to suppress radical activity. Professor Andrew Lincoln describes the political environment in which William Blake was writing.

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Manchester in the 19th century

Manchester in the 19th century

Article by:
Emma Griffin

Professor Emma Griffin explains how industrialisation, and in particular the cotton industry, transformed Manchester into the United Kingdom’s third most populous city.

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The Condition of England novel

The Condition of England novel

Article by:
Sophie Ratcliffe

Writers such as Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell and Charlotte Brontë illuminated contemporary social problems through detailed descriptions of poverty and inequality. Dr Sophie Ratcliffe considers how the Condition of England novel portrayed 19th-century society, and the extent of its calls for reform.

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Foundlings, orphans and unmarried mothers

Foundlings, orphans and unmarried mothers

Article by:
Ruth Richardson

Ruth Richardson explores the world of poverty, high mortality, prejudice and charity that influenced the creation of Oliver Twist.

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Further themes

Romanticism

What inspired the iconic poetry of the Romantic period?

The Gothic

What characterises Gothic literature and what does it reveal about the periods in which it was written?

Childhood and children's literature

Was children’s literature intended to entertain or instruct?

Crime and crime fiction

Why was crime such a popular subject in 19th-century fiction?

The novel 1780-1832

From Georgian gentry to Gothic horror, what characterised the literature of this period?

The novel 1832 - 1880

How did the iconic writers of this period experiment with fantasy, sensationalism, realism and social commentary?

Fin de siècle

How did the literature of this period reflect attitudes to gender, sexuality, immigration, class and scientific discovery?

Victorian poetry

How did the Victorian poets approach composition, form and language, and what inspired their subjects?

Popular culture

From music hall to pleasure gardens, explore the extraordinary range of entertainments on offer in Georgian and Victorian Britain.

Power and politics

How did writers respond to the tumultuous political events of this period?

Reading and print culture

How did rising literacy rates, libraries and new technologies influence the literature people read?

Technology and science

How did 19th century authors respond to the new possibilities afforded by technology and science?

The middle classes

How were the tensions surrounding social mobility explored in the literature of the period?

Visions of the future

How did the 19th-century literature reflect contemporary fears of social, political and technological change?

Gender and sexuality

How were gender roles embedded in the literature of the period and were they ever subverted?