Popular Novels With a Social Conscience

Dickens and Eliot

Apart from the self-centred but compellingly exaggerated autobiographies of de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1822) and Borrow’s Lavengo (1851), the novel tended to retain its predominantly fictional basis. The horror within everyday life was also to be investigated by Dickens and George Eliot, the former in, almost without exception, urban settings and the latter in bleak, out of the way, nowhere towns. Dickens’s early work was both unrealistic and by-and-large humorous without being as satirical as his more complex later fiction. The Pickwick Papers (1835-7) is a joy of a novel, but its characters have no weight that is not derived from their downright lazy lifestyle. Even the sinister characters are more ridiculous than ominous. This was to change, however, when the freedom bought by popular success allowed him to begin to depict the real and miserable underside of the metropolis: the criminals, vagabonds and dispossessed, while never losing sight of the rotten core of the rich. Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House (1852-3) is, for instance, an example of the danger of snobbish idiocy, ignoring and neglecting her family while selfishly making a name for herself rushing around supporting philanthropic enterprises in far away lands. Miss Havisham in Great Expectations (1860-1) is similarly disturbing with her bitter enmity for all men due to a single man’s cruelty to her.

While Dickens was essentially a populist with a conscience, George Eliot seemed to care not a jot about entertaining her reader. Rather she presented a world of dire occurrences in rural backwaters and littered her novels with uniquely didactic authorial interjections. Thus, in her first novel, Adam Bede (1859), Hetty Sorrell falls pregnant to Arthur Donnithorne before betrothal to Adam, is convicted of infanticide, is imprisoned and is preached at by a Methodist. This is typical of the Eliot humour, as is The Mill on the Floss (1860) where the heroine’s family falls apart through death and bad luck - everybody of consequence dying horribly or turning out to be wretched and dislikeable. Critically acclaimed, often brilliant but equally often sanctimonious or wholly absurd (see the entire Jewish plot of Daniel Deronda (1876)), Eliot is at her best when bearing polite witness to misery.

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