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British Literature and Society: 1847-1848

"Mrs. Tox introduces 'the Party'"

A typically large Victorian family, the Toodles, from Dickens' Dombey and Son (1848).


In The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence (1970), literary critic Raymond Williams writes that there was something about "those twenty months, in 1847 and 1848" that produced some of the most canonical works in British literature (9). Among the ranks of authors whose works appeared during these two years include Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë, and Elizabeth Gaskell, to name a handful. These novelists were all reading each other's works and participating in a literary market geared toward storytelling.

At the same time, the 1830s and 1840s marked a period in British society in which the periodical press thrived and fiction was more readily available to the middle and working classes. Consequently, authors began to shift the novel's focus towards the representation of middle-class domestic life.  Novels now captured issues of social mobility and class-consciousness, which explored a plethora of social anxieties and the quest for self-determination and social identity. Moreover, novelists continued to explore social issues through their works, from Dickens' treatment of the working poor and prostitution, to Charlotte Bronte's study of the governess, to Elizabeth Gaskell's plight of the Irish during the great Famine.

The late-1840s in particular saw much political upheaval and reform at home, in addition to imperialism abroad. Back in London, the city could often be a dangerous place, but one filled with the melodrama of the middle and working classes, which authors like Dickens and Thackeray especially attempted to capture through their work. Thus, this exhibition will explore a select group of authors during the 1847-1848 period and how they treated historical issues and social problems of the Victorian Era.

 

Introduction
British Literature and Society: 1847-1848