Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 27 (1996) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
Patricia Ingham begins her study of six Victorian novels - Charlotte Bronte's Shirley (1849), Mrs. Gaskell's North and South (1855), Dickens's Hard Times (1854), George Eliot's Felix Holt (1866), George Gissing's The Unclassed (version of 1884), and Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure (1895) - by reflecting on the critical commonplace that nineteenth- century representations of gender are concomitantly linked to representations of social class. Broadly speaking, the argument is this: control of the potentially dangerous lower classes by the increasingly empowered middle classes required some sort of justification; the image of the caring, sensitive middle-class woman/soon-to-be-wife eclipsed, or at least helped to offset, the image of the aggressive, competitive middle-class man exercising power over the great unwashed, who, significantly, were often represented by images of fallen or loose women; hence, representations of gender and class were linked, since the representation of one could be used by middle-class apologists to neutralise, if not justify, the presumptuous, often repugnant, representation of the other.
A problem with that argument, however, Ingham points out, is that nineteenth-century England interpreted 'class' in many and very different ways. A multitude of influences meant that notions of 'class' were constantly revised by men and women whose concerns were either moral, social, religious, economic, political, romantic, paternalistic, or combinations of the above. Fluctuating industrial conditions, the passing of the 1832 Reform Act, the introduction of Corn Laws and the New Poor Law of 1834 brought about fundamental changes in political and therefore social standing; economic growth and therefore social development; or economic depression and therefore hardships, social unrest, even riots. Perhaps late eighteenth-century industrial workers could be called the 'lower classes', 'hands', 'workmen', or 'operatives' without risk of insult, but changing times and circumstances in the nineteenth century gradually forced a more sensitive approach to nomenclature. By the middle of that century, for instance, 'lower' and 'hands' had pejorative connotations. As Ingham puts it, using one of her many useful analogies, 'A contemporary linguistic parallel to the avoidance of lower and hands for the working classes is the recent avoidance of terms like negroes or blacks for the currently "correct" "African-Americans'" (8). It follows, then, that if representations of class varied, links between class and gender were not as straightforward as has often been supposed.