The Condition of England novel

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.

In the preface to her 1848 novel, Mary Barton, Elizabeth Gaskell reflected on the ‘unhappy state of things’ in Victorian England. Through the pages that followed she would, she said, highlight the divisions between ‘the employers and the employed’; she would speak for those who worked in the factories in appalling conditions, who struggled to feed their families, and who watched their children die from typhus. With its focus on the industrial North of England, and its use of Mancunian dialect, the novel had a pioneering quality. It was, Gaskell claimed, an attempt to break a silence and ‘to give some utterance to the agony which, from time to time, convulses this dumb people’.

Gaskell was writing in a period of acute economic depression known as the ‘hungry forties’. Food shortages resulting from bad harvests swept across Northern Europe, factories laid off their workers, banks failed, and trade unions threatened strike action. A scene from Benjamin Disraeli’s 1845 novel Sybil: Or, the Two Nations, touches on the people’s sense of alienation. We live, one of his characters argues, in ‘two nations’:

‘between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets ….’
‘You speak of –’ said Egremont, hesitatingly.
‘THE RICH AND THE POOR’ (Book II, Chapter 5)

Novels by Fanny Trollope and Harriet Martineau, and works such as Gaskell’s North and South (1855), Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley (1849), Charles Kingsley’s Yeast: A Problem (1848) and Alton Locke (1850), and Charles Dickens’s Hard Times (1854) and Bleak House (1852), tried to capture atrocious working conditions, diagnose social problems, and render the disparate parts of society legible to one another. A common feature of these novels is a preoccupation with the need for reform at a Parliamentary level, initially provoked by the perceived failures of Factory Reform Acts of the 1820s and 1830s, and revelations of widespread pauperism following the introduction of the New Poor Law in 1834. The generic label is taken from Thomas Carlyle, whose 1839 work, Chartism, first posed the ‘Condition of England question’ in its very first chapter.

Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell, with Two Lectures on the Lancashire Dialect by William Gaskell

Page containing the opening of the Preface to Mary Barton

In the Preface to her 1848 novel Mary Barton, Elizabeth Gaskell wrote of her 'deep sympathy with the care-worn men, who looked as if doomed to struggle through their lives in strange alternations between work and want'. 

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The difficulty of ‘giving utterance’ to contemporary problems

The Condition of England novel was not without its difficulties. Disraeli’s capitals, the typographical equivalent of a raised voice, suggest how hard it might be to ‘give utterance’ to contemporary problems. This was an age of statistics. Government reports discussing reform were published in what were known as ‘blue-books’, but despite this availability of data and opinion, little changed. ‘It had rained blue-books’, MP William Ewart complained in 1865, and while some were read, many ‘languished in government warehouses finally to be sold as wastepaper’.[1]


Although Dickens generally despised the blue-book statisticians, men ‘who see figures and averages, and nothing else’, he was deeply concerned by the contents of some of these blue books.[2] As Michael Slater notes, 1843 saw him ‘perfectly stricken down’ by the Second Report of the Children’s Employment Commission. A Christmas Carol was written ‘at white heat’ that same year, in partial response to the report’s contents, with the aim of ‘opening the hearts of the prosperous and powerful towards the poor and powerless’.[3] For Dickens, as for Gaskell, the challenge for the novelist was how to convey the scale of a national problem without losing contact with individual lives. Nearly a decade later, his Hard Times dwells satirically on such matters again, focussing on the way in which factory workers were dehumanised and accounted for. ‘[G]enerically called “the Hands’’’, the workers were, he writes, ‘a race who would have found more favour with some people, if Providence had seen fit to make them only hands, or, like the lower creatures of the seashore, only hands and stomachs’ (ch. 10). With what power the author’s ‘hand’ might have, Dickens tried to piece these fragmented lives back together by imaginatively embodying the plight of the working-class.

Hard Times page proofs with manuscript notes

Page containing the opening of Chapter 5, from the proofs for Hard Times with Dickens's handwritten notes

In Charles Dickens’s Hard Times (1854) Manchester is portrayed as ‘Coketown’, a miserable city marked by identical buildings covered with soot.

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Make-believe was no refuge

Hard Times was one of many 19th-century novels to be published serially in a magazine. Dickens’s weekly episodes in Household Words jostled for page space with non-fictional articles on subjects ranging from disability to drainage. One, entitled ‘Idiots Again’, praises the ‘great improvement in the treatment of … lunatics’ in recent years.[4] ‘A Lesson in Multiplication’ reflects on 19th-century demographics, noting that ‘in the year eighteen-hundred and fifty one the population was above twenty-one millions’.[5] In a poignant article about city conditions, which chimes with the sentiments of Hard Times, readers were urged to ‘turn aside’ from themselves and ‘care about the quiet poor’.[6] The layout and miscellaneous material of magazine print meant that readers of Condition of England fictions were literally forced to ‘turn aside’, moving their gaze from the novel to the news. Make-believe was no refuge.

Indeed, one of the distinctive features of the ‘Condition of England’ novel is its delineation of the specific and detailed realities of working-class life. Charles Kingsley’s Yeast, for example, highlights the impracticality of ill-conceived clean-up operations in slum-dwellings. ‘Where’s the water to come from to keep a place clean?’ asks one character. ‘We’ve work enough to fill our kettles’ (ch. 13). A scene in chapter 30 of Dickens’s Bleak House picks up this theme when a meddling evangelical missionary visits a poor brickmaker’s cottage. After rejecting the missionary’s message of spiritual salvation, the brickmaker points out that moral hygiene seems irrelevant in the face of literal dirt:

Look at the water. Smell it! That's wot we drinks. How do you like it, and what do you think of gin, instead? An't my place dirty? Yes, it is dirty – it's nat'rally dirty, and it's nat'rally onwholesome; and we've had five dirty and onwholesome children, as is all dead infants, and so much the better for them, and for us besides. Have I read the little book wot you left? No, I an't read the little book wot you left.

There’s comedy in this strident passage – a comedy which the contemporary illustrator, Hablot Browne Knight, recognises in his accompanying etching which highlights the ‘multiplicity of uses’ to which this small space has catered– from cooking to washing to lounging or nursing.[7] For the steely-faced missionary, Mrs Pardiggle, it is very much a parlour, and she sits complacently, surrounded by top-hatted junior acolytes.

But there’s also tragedy. Tucked away near the fire, the brickmaker’s wife holds the body of their dead baby in her arms – a victim of typhus contracted from the polluted water. The ‘little book’ that is so firmly rejected contains religious tracts that were intended to improve the brickmaker’s spiritual life. But the reference to a book which has been cast aside has a wider resonance which reflects back on the novel itself. It raises the question of whether, in the face of physical suffering, books like Bleak House might too be beside the point.

Bleak House first edition with illustrations

Double page from Bleak House, with text and illustration of Tom All Alone's, a street of poor quality and dilapidated housing

In Bleak House, Charles Dickens confronts the depths of hardship, disease and loss suffered by the poor.

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Cautious about change

Questions of novelistic purpose and utility haunt the cluster of Condition of England novels. In dramatising the horrors of child-labour in factories and extreme poverty, there was always a risk of apocalyptic elaboration. The quotidian boredom of grinding poverty rarely makes it to the page, and is sometimes lifted by what one critic calls ‘the short cuts of melodrama and allegory’.[8] Given the reality of wearying repetition, what to do with the end of such novels posed a challenge to their authors. While writers could be radical in their representations of working-class hardship, they were usually cautious in their suggestions for change, tacitly aligning themselves with laissez-faire capitalism. Brontë’s Shirley, for example, ends with a vision of ideal care for the ‘houseless, the starving, and the unemployed’, but, as critic Jean Jacques Weber notes, ‘this better future will not be brought about by any radical change in the socio-economic system’ but by the end of the Napoleonic Wars.[9] Both Gaskell and Dickens were equally moderate, discouraging trade union action, urging their readers to forge emotional bonds between the classes, and for the wealthier to cultivate benevolent paternalism towards the poor – what Gaskell termed ‘the sympathy of the happy’ (‘Preface’, Mary Barton). During the latter part of the 19th century, reform and legislation did in fact improve. From the 1850s onwards, ‘their message having been heard, industrial novels ceased to have a topical message that readers were willing to pay to read’.[10] Nevertheless, the legacy of the mid-19th-century Condition of England novel, and its attempts at fierce realism, was felt by later writers, such as George Gissing, George Moore, E M Forster, and George Orwell. Its tensions, and its convictions, continue to this day.

Letter from Charlotte Brontë to W S Williams, with remarks on the life of a governess, 15 June 1848

Handwritten letter from Charlotte Brontë to W S Williams, with remarks on the life of a governess, 15 June 1848

Charlotte Brontë opens this letter by saying that she has recently stayed in a 'pretty South-of-England village, so different from our northern congregations of smoke-dark houses clustered round their soot-vomiting mills'.  

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[1] Oz Frankel, ‘Blue Books and the Victorian Reader’, Victorian Studies, 46.2 (2004) 308–318 (p.308).

[2] Charles Dickens to Charles Knight, January 30 1854, The Letters of Charles Dickens, ed. by Walter Dexter (Bloomsbury: Nonesuch, 1938), p. 277.

[3] Michael Slater, ‘Introduction’ to A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings (London: Penguin, 2003), p. xviii.

[4] Household Words, no. 212 , Saturday April 15, 1854.

[5] Household Words, no. 220, Saturday June 10 1854, p.398.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Martin Hewitt, ‘District Visiting and the Constitution of Domestic Space in the Mid-19th Century’ in Domestic Space and its Interior, ed. by. Janet Floyd and Inga Bryden (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), p. 127.

[8] Alan Horsman, ‘Elizabeth Gaskell and the Kingsleys’ in The Victorian Novel (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), p. 256.

[9] Jean Jacques Weber, ‘Cognitive Poetics and Literary Criticism: Types of Resolution in the Condition of England Novel’, European Journal of English Studies, 9.2 (2005), 134.

[10] James Richard Simmons Jr., ‘Industrial and Condition of England Novels’ in A Companion to the Victorian Novel, ed by Patrick Brantlinger and William Thesing (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 2002), p. 350.

  • Sophie Ratcliffe
  • Sophie Ratcliffe is a Lecturer in English at the University of Oxford, where she specialises in 19th-century literature. She has published work on ideas of sympathy and emotion in Victorian writing, and is currently working on the ways in which conscience and attention are figured in 19th-century texts.

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