The middle classes

Throughout the course of the 19th century, the middle classes expanded rapidly. Those moving up the social scale had to learn new modes of behaviour and ways of life. How was this sector of society reflected in the literature of the period, and how were the tensions surrounding social mobility explored?

Crop of illustration by George Cruikshank depicting a large beehive filled with people representing a vast range of Britain's professions

The middle classes

Kathryn Hughes explores the role of the middle class in Victorian society.

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The middle classes: etiquette and upward mobility

Article by:
Kathryn Hughes

Professor Kathryn Hughes describes how the expansion of the middle classes in the 19th century led to a new emphasis on upward mobility, etiquette and conspicuous consumption.

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Victorian Christmas

Article by:
Judith Flanders

Judith Flanders describes how many of our own Christmas traditions – from trees and crackers to cards and carols – have their origins in 19th-century industrial and commercial interests.

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Article by:
Matthew Taunton

Dr Matthew Taunton takes us through 19th-century suburbia, showing how aspirations to respectability led the Victorian lower-middle class away from political involvement. The homogeneity and apathy of the suburbs provided rich satire for writers, as well as a setting for dystopian and science fiction.

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Mrs Beeton and the art of household management

Article by:
Kathryn Hughes

Professor Kathryn Hughes explains how Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management helped middle-class urban women run their households and navigate married life.

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The rise of consumerism

Article by:
Matthew White

With increasing variety in clothes, food and household items, shopping became an important cultural activity in the 18th century. Dr Matthew White describes buying and selling during the period, and explains the connection between many luxury goods and slave plantations in South America and the Caribbean.

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Illustration of a Victorian governess standing and looking sombre, next to a seated woman, perhaps a mother, who is comforting two children

The Governess

Kathryn Hughes explains the role of the governess in 19th-century society and literature.

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Set of illustrations of middle or upper class Victorian women in crinoline skirts, hats and with coiffeured hair

Gender in 19th-century Britain

Kathryn Hughes explores the role of women in middle class Victorian society.

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Film still from the 1946 production of Great Expectations, showing Pip and Estella standing inside Satis House

Class mobility in Great Expectations

Professor John Bowen discusses class and social mobility in Charles Dickens’s novel, Great Expectations. Filmed at the Charles Dickens Museum, London.

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Further themes


How did the Romantic poets explore landscape, class, radicalism and the sublime?

The Gothic

What are the key motifs of Gothic literature and how do these works reflect the contexts in which the genre emerged and evolved?

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?


How did the writers of this period portray our iconic capital city?

The novel 1780–1832

From the origins of the Gothic to depictions of the emerging middle classes, what are the key characteristics of late 18th- and early 19th-century literature?

The novel 1832–1880

How did the writers of this period incorporate fantasy, realism, sensationalism, and social commentary into their work?

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.

Poverty and the working classes

How did writers respond to the social inequalities of Victorian society?

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 literature and reading habits during this period?

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 19th-century depictions of the future reflect contemporary fears of social, political and technological change?

Gender and sexuality

How did the literature of this period portray and challenge traditional gender roles?