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Fiction, Feeling, and Social Change

2012 January 23

Feeling for the Poor: Bourgeois Compassion, Social Action, and the Victorian Novel, by Carolyn Betensky, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010, 224 pp., £33.95 (hardback), ISBN 0813930618

Victorian Social Activists’ Novels edited by Oliver Lovesay, London: Pickering & Chatto, 2011, 4 Volume Set, 1456 pages, £350.00 (hardback), ISBN 978 1 85196 629 5

Is there inherent ethical value in feeling for, or with, the suffering of others?  In Feeling for the Poor, Carolyn Betensky argues that Victorian novels about poverty were centrally invested in the affirmative answer to this question.  Early social-problem fiction, on Betensky’s account, valorized feeling as the essential element of a socially conscious response to suffering, thus playing a special role in the “construction and annexation of interior experience” (1) associated with the novel form more broadly.  The most enduring legacy of the subgenre, she argues, is “the invention and valuation of the idea of a bourgeois social conscience” (2), a social conscience that is mediated through reading and enacted in feeling. 

Rather than prompting a new spirit of reform or even individual acts of caring, however, social-problem fiction, on Betensky’s account, promoted bourgeois feeling as a goal in and of itself: the novels teach readers that “reading and knowing and feeling are in themselves socially valuable” (10).  Reading about suffering, on this model, becomes an ethically suspect (or as Betensky puts it, “ambiguous”) behavior rather than an ethically productive one; because the subgenre values feeling over acting it allows readers to feel complacent, even self-congratulatory, that they have felt so keenly.  Even more damning, Betensky suggests, the novels defer rather than prompt interventions that would ameliorate the suffering they represent.  This argument is not altogether new; Lauren Berlant’s essay “Poor Eliza” argued that sentimental rhetoric replaces “the ethical imperative towards social transformation” with the “passive ideal of empathy.”[1]  Betensky transports this critique across the ocean, arguing that British social-problem novels played a pivotal role in constructing “what it means to be a middle-class person faced with the suffering of others” (2-3).  As Feeling for the Poor illuminates, social-problem fiction is significant not only for what it says about class relations in the mid-nineteenth century, but also for what it tells us about how Victorians viewed fiction, feeling, and the ethical implications of reading. 

Betensky offers compelling readings of Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1837-8); Frances Trollope’s The Life and Adventures of Michael Armstrong, the Factory Boy (1840); Disraeli’s Sybil; or, The Two Nations (1845); Gaskell’s Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life (1848) and North and South (1855); Eliot’s Felix Holt, the Radical (1866); and, in a less traditional selection, Henry James’s The Princess Casamassima (1886).  Although she includes influential novels in her archive, Betensky probably overstates her case for social-problem fiction’s “invention” of a bourgeois social conscience.  She largely ignores the American context, not to mention the powerful and popular British Abolition movement in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries.  She also does not mention the influential role of poetry about poverty in the mid-nineteenth century.  But Betensky’s focus on a subgenre that has already received considerable critical attention is certainly merited.  Because the novels offer reading and feeling as a viable—even virtuous—response to suffering, they are key texts in understanding bourgeois identity in the nineteenth century and beyond.

Betensky’s argument is most convincing in some of its individual case studies.  In her reading of Frances Trollope’s Michael Armstrong, for example, Betensky shows how Trollope relentlessly surveys characters’ ignorance, knowledge, and the gradations in between, creating a knowledge economy in which characters gain “moral capital” through learning about poverty, but not necessarily doing anything about it.  The knowledge economy operating within the plot of the novel reflects and produces a knowledge economy in which readers participate through the act of novel-reading.  The ethical risk of this seemingly perpetual labor of learning about suffering is that it can defer actions that would relieve poverty.  As Betensky puts it, if “knowing, wanting to know, and trying to know are constituted as good in their own right,” then “the pursuit of knowledge of the poor may actually preclude the very consequence of intervention that it is supposed to activate” (29).

Given her interest in “bourgeois selving” (7), it is not surprising that Betensky is interested less in the representation of the poor and working classes or conditions of industrial poverty than the stories the novels tell about the middle and upper-classes and the rhetorical and ethical impact on a privileged audience.  In Betensky’s words, “New characters drawn from the poor and working classes mean new characters for the middle classes” (3).  Although Betensky’s self-proclaimed theoretical loyalty is to psychoanalysis, the book’s most intriguing contributions are to the diverse field of reading studies.  The development of feeling through the act of reading, Betensky argues compellingly, becomes the “central drama” (10) of the subgenre because of the “fundamental analogy” (9) between middle- and upper-class characters and middle- and upper-class readers.  Both come to know and care about the suffering of the poor—the former through personal contact, the latter through the act of reading itself.  This analogy allows Betensky to examine “reading” as both a performance within the novels—characters “confronting, decoding, calculating, mastering, and enjoying the strangeness of new situations and people and their relations to themselves” (11)—and as an act performed by readers of the novels.  The most influential contribution of Feeling for the Poor, I predict, will be Betensky’s notion of the spectral working-class reader, a reader who isn’t “actual, intended or implied” (85) but rather “a fantasy of a poor reader reading the individuated, feeling, caring person of means” (92).  The self-serving pleasure of middle-class readers, Betensky argues, is bolstered by the sensation of reading alongside a working-class reader who comes to better understand sympathetic members of the dominant classes at the same time working-class characters within the novels are similarly enlightened. 

Betensky’s reading of middle and upper-class women’s role in the knowledge economy is an interesting addition to discussions of “separate spheres”; not only were women an important demographic as consumers of novels, but the idealized middle-class woman’s “domestic cocoon” (30) ostensibly insulates her from the knowledge that would (should?) inspire acts of helping.  Although Betensky does not fully draw out the connection to reading, it is significant that middle-class readers of social-problem fiction confronted poverty in the pages of novels read primarily within the home.  Betensky asks whether reading about poverty might paradoxically lessen their need to combat it.  She extends this argument in her reading of Gaskell’s Mary Barton, which, on her account, assures middle-class readers that suffering workers don’t, in fact, want economic justice, but rather demonstrative caring.  Because readers of the novel are assured of their own caring (after all, they just read Mary Barton!), they are exculpated from blame—and made virtuous for their choice of recreational pastime.  Thus the valorization of feeling in social-problem fiction valorizes the novel form itself, an equation Betensky challenges with her own reading of the novels. 

Ultimately, Betensky’s close readings of the novels are more convincing than her conclusions about the effects of them on real-world readers.  Betensky’s book is a polemic against the kind of reading she claims social-problem fiction fosters, reading that displaces intervention with feeling for suffering.  This is all well and good, but she has done no more to prove inaction as a response to reading than those who would blithely claim that fiction makes us better people.  In part the problem is methodological.  As historian David Potter put it (talking about the effect of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on American attitudes towards slavery), “history cannot evaluate with precision the influence of a novel upon public opinion.”[2]  But this methodological problem cuts both ways; both sides  need new methods of investigating how narratives impact readers subsequent to reading (a project being pursued by researchers in fields like social psychology and communication studies, and a few in literary criticism).  To be fair, Betensky is not setting out to investigate the effects of novels on empirical readers, but without this evidence her claims for the ethically suspect consequences of reading remain speculative.  They also feel familiar; among modern literary critics it is more popular to credit fiction with deleterious effects on ideology while denying its role in positively (or even ambiguously) shaping readers’ attitudes or actions.

Victorians themselves were confident that fiction had tangible, real-world repercussions on public opinion and public policy.  The Water Babies (1863), for example, was such a powerful argument against child labor that it was widely credited with the passage of the 1864 Chimney Sweeper Regulation Act.  Betensky is convincing in her account of social-problem fiction’s apotheosis of feeling, but she does not consider ways in which the novels explicitly and implicitly encourage action.  In Alton Locke, for example, middle-class readers might feel keenly, but the novel also asks them to make more conscious and conscientious consumer choices after the act of reading is completed, choices informed by their new knowledge of labor conditions and the exploitation of sweated workers.  I agree with Betensky’s argument that social-problem fiction creates reading as “a social act in itself” (10).  But the novels also conceive of reading as a precursor—and prompt—to other social and ethical acts.  As literary critics we should examine, not downplay, this aspect of reading novels. 

A new four-volume collection of Victorian Social Activists’ Novels edited by Oliver Lovesay and published by Pickering Chatto will help critics do just that, while at the same time expanding the canon of activist fiction in the nineteenth century beyond the social-problem novels and “new woman” fiction.  Lovesay has collected five novels by women writers best known for their social activism: Caroline Norton, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Ellice Jane Hopkins, Mary Eleanor Benson, and Margaret Todd.  These are all first (and in three cases only) novels, and Lovesay has included examples of their social activist writings in the appendices to contextualize and compare with their fictional production.  These novels remind us that Victorian authors and readers had a broad sense of the role of fiction in public life, and Lovesay’s collection allows us to investigate more fully Victorians’ attitudes about the relationship between literature and social change.  Indeed, diversifying our notion of Victorian activism through fiction is perhaps the most important contribution of the collection; these novels all seek to intervene in the public sphere, but the issues in which they intervene, their political, moral, and social commitments, and their strategies for changing public opinion are various.

A brief introduction to the activists and their novels:  Caroline Norton (1808-77) is best known, beyond her scandalous and tragic personal life, as a campaigner for marriage and custody law reform.  Norton’s first novel, The Wife (1835), drew on her own unhappy and ill-matched marriage in its portrayal of repressive, abusive, and exploitative matrimony.  It is also a rumination on the stigmatization of physical and intellectual “deformity”, as the heroine enters her marriage of convenience to provide a home for her disabled sister.  Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847-1929) was a leader of the suffrage movement who worked for constitutional change while distancing herself from more militant strategies.  She also wrote Political Economy for Beginners (1870) and co-founded Newnham College at Cambridge.  Fawcett’s Janet Doncaster (1875) criticizes laws that would force a woman to live with an unsuitable spouse; Fawcett’s eponymous heroine finds love outside of her unhappy marriage, although it is not consummated until the death of her first husband.  Ellice Hopkins (1836-1904) was a social purity campaigner who helped establish the White Cross Army, a pledge society that combated sexual double standards and advocated for male purity.  Hopkins’s Rose Turquand  (1876) is a capacious novel that defies easy categorization, although Lovesay describes it as a “new type of spiritualized sensation fiction” (8), treating themes of disability, female desire, sexual violence, and medical professions for women.  Mary Eleanor [Nelly] Benson (1863-90) was a philanthropist and social work activist who helped establish the Women’s University Settlement and documented the poverty of the Lambeth area of London in Streets and Lanes of the City (1891).  At Sundry Times and in Divers Manners (1891) fictionalizes Benson’s social investigations and explores the effect of mission work and religious devotion on several women characters.  Margaret Todd (1859-1918) was one of the first female doctors in Britain as well as a professional writer, and she supported women’s medical education alongside her more well-known partner, Sophia Louisa Jex-Blake.  Her bestselling novel Mona Maclean, Medical Student (1892) advocated for the radical political agenda of women gaining entry into the medical professions within a more conventional romance plot.

Although Lovesay mentions in a footnote that “underread” examples of Victorian fiction range in quality, he does not evaluate the literary or artistic merit of the five novels he has selected (xxiii).  Instead, the emphasis of his introductory essays is on the “nature of Victorian fiction’s intervention in the sphere of social activism” (ix).  Significantly, novels could attract a broader audience than pamphlets or articles, playing an especially key role in the education of women.  In addition to scholars interested in the political and social issues the novels address or the relationship between fiction and activism more broadly, this collection will be of interest to scholars of George Eliot, Florence Nightingale, and Jane Eyre (Lovesay’s introduction discusses significant interlocutions with each).  Scholars interested in disability studies and the Victorian period should take particular note; nearly all of the novels have treatments of physical or psychological disability, most notably Norton’s The Wife and Hopkins’s Rose Turquand.  Finally, this collection will be a fruitful resource for comparative prose and fiction studies.  Why did these women turn to fiction, and why did several of them subsequently turn away?  How does fiction persuade, and how does it engage readers in more open or ambiguous ways than strictly polemical tracts?  And, to return to the terms of Betensky’s study, how does the “feeling” conventional to fiction shape readers’ social and ethical commitments?  These five novels and Betensky’s monograph make important contributions to theorizing the relationship between fiction, feeling, and social change. 

Mary-Catherine Harrison

University of Detroit Mercy.


[1] Berlant, Lauren, “Poor Eliza,” American Fiction 70.3 (1998), pp. 635-668, (p. 641).

[2] Potter, David M, The Impending Crisis: 1848-1861 (New York: Harper Collins, 1976), p. 141.

Mary-Catherine Harrison is assistant professor of English at University of Detroit Mercy, where she specializes in Victorian literature and the psychology of reading.  Her articles on Victorian fiction and the ethics of empathy have appeared in the journals Narrative and Poetics Today.  She is currently working on a project that examines the ethics of direct address.

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