Class and Family in Victorian Literature

Introduction

The Victorian era in English literature coincided with great reformations in society due to changes brought upon by the Industrial Revolution. Traditional agrarian communities were dissolved, family units became smaller, and the degree of economic instability grew. The expansion of cities and the creation of factories in major English cities formed the creation of a new class of workers, which did not have the support of large peasant communities while remaining poor all the same, exposed to new dangers and challenges of the new society. These major events fundamentally changed the relationships between people, classes, and their homes. The purpose of this paper is to evaluate this relationship by analyzing various pieces of Victorian-era literature, such as Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Browning, and The Man with the Twisted Lip by Arthur Conan Doyle.

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Historical Background

To understand the relationship between home, family, and class in Victorian England, historical context is necessary. For the majority of its history up to the industrial revolution, England was an agricultural country with large farming communities (Craven 1995). The ideas of home and family were very integrated into the peasant class. Children were considered an advantage, as (when they would grow up) they would help farm the fields (Pooley 2013). Getting married also increased the amount of total land available to the family. Although the majority of farming communities were poor due to exorbitant taxes and the unavailability of tools, cattle, seeds, and other commodities, the strong sense of community helped support individuals better.

With the emergence of the industrial revolution at the beginning of the 19th century, the concepts of poverty, home, family, and class have changed considerably (Stearns 2018). The appearance of agricultural machinery and tools made it unprofitable to share the land with large numbers of farmers. In addition, the use of tractors was only economically sound when the fields are large. Small slivers of land owned by individual peasant families could not undergo the mechanization of labor. The ensuing industrialization of the agricultural sector forced many people to migrate from villages to cities and towns to find work. Living in towns was significantly different from being a part of a reasonably united and homogenous farming community. Families were forced to become smaller so that individual workers could support them (Jackson 1987). Children were seen as a burden and not as an asset, which changed the predisposition of parents towards them (Pooley 2013). Lastly, the atomization of the family and the separation of its clusters one from another meant that in case of an emergency, a nuclear family was left without support.

Nevertheless, the migration of individuals into towns was necessary from an economic perspective. Factories and production plants required workers to manufacture utilities and goods. Without them, England would not become an empire. However, as a result, the population of cities increased in proportion. This led to a rise in poverty, crime, and disease, as the natural growth rates of cities could not keep up with the sudden increase of population. Subjects of suffering, poverty, and decay of desperate living are common themes in the literature of the Victorian period.

The Role of Working-Class Men in Preserving the Home and Family

Due to the beliefs and stereotypes about men and women during the Victorian Era, men were viewed as vastly superior to women, who were considered second-class citizens. Men were considered stronger, smarter, and have a greater depth of character and soul, something which women were thought to never be able to achieve. These kinds of prejudice were demonstrated in Aurora Leigh, where the main heroine engaged in scholarly efforts and literature work (Browning 1857). Her cousin, who is trying to live up to the ideals of a perfect husband, constantly berates her attempts to try and engage in areas commonly associated with men.

However, because of the increased privileged position, men in Victorian society also had to live up to various expectations placed upon them. For example, a single man was expected to provide for his wife, children, and any foreign relatives that may have fallen into poverty. This was a significant burden, as the money provided by a single working family member was never enough to accumulate s significant supporting sum. The relationship between class, family, and poverty is demonstrated in Mary Barton, where she is considering between a love of her life and a wealthier suitor (Gaskell 1848). It is implied that a working-class individual did not earn enough to properly provide for a woman and any children they would have together, thus contributing to pressures placed upon the provider.

At the same time, poverty brought upon a great amount of disrespect, especially for men. It was associated with laziness and poor character, which were unbecoming of a man. This was illustrated in Arthur Konan Doyle’s The Man with the Twisted Lip. After being exposed as a professional beggar by Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, his greatest fear was not potential jail time, but the loss of face among his peers and family due to having to fall so low to provide for them (Doyle 1891). Thus, the relationship between class, home, and poverty becomes evident. Working-class men were supposed to protect their families and homes from poverty, while often being put in a vulnerable position while doing so.

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Because of the significant pressures and demands brought upon them, coupled with the increasing incidence of tragedies of losing their wives and children, men are often described as sinful and vile, prone to violence, abuse, and alcoholism. This can be seen in Mary Barton and, to a degree, in The Man with the Twisted Lip. In both stories, men who fall into depression due to the inability to cope with their poverty and escape the low class they have been brought into find solace in drugs and alcohol (Gaskell 1848). Sherlock Holmes has some uneasy remarks about the bottom tier of society, comprised solely of beggars, drunks, addicts, and wife-beaters.

As it is possible to see, although men do have the largest amount of power when it comes to changing their class and family, the amount of power they wield in the greater scheme of things is very small. Most of it is squandered to support the family without receiving much in terms of help in return, from family and society. Because of this, working-class men are doomed to maintaining the status quo or succumbing to various dangers of living in an early industrialized city, exposed to work hazards, addictions, and crime.

The Role of Women in Working-Class Families

The tragedy of being a working-class woman is a red line that goes through many Victorian writings that contain any kind of social criticism behind them. Women are expected to be the pillar upon which hearth and home resides, showing love and obedience to their husband and being a proper example to children. Both of these had to clash with the perpetual poverty most working families faced. To escape poverty, many women taught their daughters to marry well or attempting to re-marry to support themselves. This is seen in Mary Barton, Jane Eyre, and Aurora Leigh, all of which contain financial connotations of marriage as a primary concern – to conduct their duties as mothers and wives, women had to find a way of providing for hearth and home (Bronte 1847).

At the same time, the multitude of duties placed upon working-class women as housekeepers effectively crushed any dreams they may have had during youth, instead of becoming care-worn and burned out, which is another major motif in Mary Barton. In the novel, Mary’s mother dies allegedly because of the grief the disappearance of her daughter caused, becoming the breaking point after years of doing her best to care for the girls (Gaskell 1848). Esther’s disappearance demonstrates another facet of the relationship between class, family, and home – family and mutual obligations are seen as a trap for women, sentencing them to poverty unless they can score marriage or escape poverty somehow.

Thus, to summarize, the position of working-class women is exceedingly vulnerable, as they have to fully rely upon their husbands to maintain their gender-assigned duties while being effectively barred from any trades that require education and skills. They are forced into unhappy marriages based on wealth and economic conditions rather than love to escape the cycle of perpetual poverty. Lastly, the constant care for hearth and home makes them embittered, care-worn and burned out – a theme that is also very common in Victorian literature.

Working-Class Children and their Relation to Home and Family

Children in working-class Victorian households are placed in the most vulnerable position imaginable. They are completely reliant on poor parents throughout most of their lifespan while being exposed to many threats and dangers associated with childhood, such as sickness and violence. In an event of parents dying, these children are either sent to an orphanage or placed under the care of their aunts and uncles, who often do not have the financial and emotional capacity to undertake the burden of raising other children. This story is demonstrated in Jane Eyre, especially during her childhood years.

After the deaths of her father and mother from typhus, she has to live with the Reeds, the majority of which were cruel to her due to her being a step-child, placing an additional burden of care on the family (Bronte 1847). It is speculated that the Reeds themselves used to be kinder and gentler parents, but all of their emotional capacity for empathy was drained while struggling with the consequences of living in relative poverty. Under their care, Jane suffered all kinds of abuse at the hands of her aunt and her adoptive sisters, who used their position in the family to make the girl a scapegoat for many of their pranks and mischiefs (Bronte 1847). The degree of alienation grows so far that when Jane is sent to Lowood Orphanage, she promises never to return or to call Mrs. Reed ever again.

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However, the orphanage is arguably a worse place for an orphan than an uncaring and unloving family. In Jane Eyre, Lowood becomes a true low point in her life, where she is forced to experience constant beatings and humiliation at the hands of Mrs. Brocklehurst, who is cruel and neglectful to all of her wards, giving them poor meals, little to no medicine, and hand-me-down clothes (Bronte 1847). Jane loses her only friend because of consumption. Although the abusive governess is replaced, life in Lowood remains poor, neglectful, and hopeless. The main character eventually manages to escape by becoming a houseworker, but many other children remain where they are, without family, support, and hopeless poverty.

Abusive childhoods were typical in Victorian England, as demonstrated not only by Jane Eyre’s character but also by Marian Erle from Aurora Leigh. Though the character’s entire history is a string of one abuse after another, it initially started with an abusive mother and a lack of a father, which prompted the woman to attempt to sell her daughter into prostitution. Such a story is not unique to Marian alone, as many children (especially women) were forced out of the family out of inability or a lack of desire to care for them. As a result, they were dropped from the working class and towards the bottom, becoming criminals, prostitutes, and beggars. At the same time, climbing back from the bottom is exceptionally hard. As Marian’s story shows, she is brought back and sustained only by the kindness of Aurora Leigh and her cousin Romney rather than through her efforts (Browning 1857). Without outside help, Marian would have remained at the bottom – a poor and single mother of a child born of rape.

These factors demonstrate how vulnerable children in working-class families were. They had to balance between their family, their desires, and the potential abyss. As a result, the perpetual cycle of abuse, hate, pain, and poverty continues. Nevertheless, the relationship between class and home is evident – without a stable home, children are most likely to become victims of circumstance and go to the very bottom of society. The increased vulnerability of working-class families affects children in turn.

Conclusions

The relationships between men, women, and children in Victorian England about class and home (family) were difficult, controversial, and complicated because of poverty. This condition lies at the very core of family dysfunctions described in each of the four literary works reviewed in this paper. Poverty makes women choose wealth over love, poverty forces men into lives of debauchery and crime, poverty pushes children into orphanages and unwelcome homes. Being from a working-class family exacerbates the issue by creating a situation where the family is a burden, the concept of home is continuously demolished, and the individual is put in opposition to the rest of the family. Victorian England was a very scary time to be poor, and laboring 12 hours a day without seeing light at the end of the tunnel created many of the vices described in Victorian novels. In most cases, however, the acts of emotional apathy, uncaringness, and cruelty can be traced to the specific surroundings of the characters. The environment shapes people just as they shape it, trapping each other in the never-ending cycle of tragedy.

References

Bronte, C 1847, Jane Eyre, Smith Elder & Co, London.

Browning, EB 1857, Aurora Leigh, J. Miller, London.

Craven, P 1995, Labouring lives: Work and workers in Nineteenth-Century Ontario, University of Toronto Press, Toronto.

Doyle, AC 1891, The adventures of Sherlock Holmes, George Newnes, Ltd, London.

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Gaskell, EC 1848, Mary Barton: A tale of Manchester life, Chapman & Hall, London.

Jackson, R 1987, ‘The structure of pay in nineteenth-century Britain’, The Economic History Review, vol. 40, no. 4, pp. 561-570.

Pooley, S 2013, ‘Parenthood, child-rearing, and fertility in England, 1850-1914’, The History of the Family, vol. 18. No. 1, pp. 83-106.

Stearns, PN 2018, The industrial revolution in world history, New York, NY, Routledge.

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