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Social issues: Valentine Cunningham

The novel has always demonstrated how the human subject intersects and interacts with the social, and one of the most important functions of the novel has been its acting as an instrument of social critique. Novelists have often been possessed by strong partisan political visions (frequently socialist) of how society should fare. Conservative and right-wing novels are far less usual.

For an archetypal fictional vision of humankind as necessarily social I turn to Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719). This magnetic tale of a marooned sailor planting and harvesting, keeping animals, building shelters, painfully learning how to make bread, pots, baskets, and clothes, kick-started the whole western capitalist myth of the individual who makes it economically by his own efforts (sanctioned, of course, by Protestantism's capitalist God: the baskets of provisions multiply wonderfully). But in fact, the novel powerfully celebrates the necessity of society. Crusoe would not manage without his Man Friday, effectively his slave. Crusoe needs social consolations. Isolation only spells anxiety. Fear of invasion and robbery keeps Crusoe neurotically reinforcing his shelter's barriers and walls. The misery of the self merely as owner, all on its own, could not be more starkly revealed. It was a foundational lesson about society that the novel genre, if not all the novel's readers, absorbed utterly.

The threat of social forces is what animates one of the best big novels by one of the greatest social-protest novelists, Charles Dickens's Bleak House (1852–3). This bursts at the seams with people variously oppressed by the slow grindings of Law and by religious, moral, and economic prejudice. One of England's first detective stories, and one of the most potent of our city fictions, Bleak House shows how human misery embraces every class and group from London's slum-kids to the poshest inhabitants of grand country houses. With garish, nightmarish detail, it rivetingly demonstrates the personal and civic ruin entailed when the old social divisions and moral prejudices get to run unchecked.

Even more convinced about the need for human goodness and sympathy in a world where the old cohesions of Christian belief have come unglued is George Eliot's Middlemarch, a Study of Provincial Life (1871–2). In the title's Midlands town—a place much like the Coventry George Eliot grew up in—connected lives (especially intellectually frustrated Dorothea Brooke, scientifically ambitious Dr Lydgate, and corrupt evangelical banker Bulstrode) converge in compelling stories of greed, bad marriages, failing ambitions, and of people learning to settle for less and to be truly human for the sake of true community.

George Eliot's aim was to win her public over to a religion of humanity by a steady inspection of the multiple human flaws in a large social scene. The social criticisms of Thomas Hardy—one of George Eliot's greatest admirers—are more narrowly focused and also more emotionally stressed-out in Jude the Obscure (1896), the marvellously grim story of a stonemason, Jude Fawley, beaten down and eventually done to death by social opposition. Anglican Christminster (i.e. Oxford) University won't admit him, despite his intelligence and great bookishness ('I have understanding as well as you; I am not inferior to you'). The marriage laws of Church and State and consequent ingrained popular prejudice make him and his common-law wife into moral and social outcasts. It's an utterly sad story, emotionally almost too much to bear. As is Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906), another classic protest about the dire fates of ordinary working-class people, this time the immigrant labourers in the meat industry of turn-of-the-century Chicago. The meat products big Jurgis Rudkus and his Polack neighbours have to produce are unhealthy muck, produced in filthy conditions for the great money profits of the bosses' tight cartels. The grossly ill-paid workers are forced into perpetual misery, ill-health, injury, early death. Communist Sinclair had done serious research among the foul abattoirs and the awful hovels of the Chicago poor. Scandal erupted when his novel came out. America's hearts and minds were greatly touched (as they'd been earlier by Harriet Beecher Stowe's anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, 1851–2, and would be later by John Steinbeck's novel about midwestern agricultural depression, The Grapes of Wrath, 1939). Changes in pure food law followed. The novel's strong gusts of horror still turn one's stomach and stir one's social anger.

D. H. Lawrence is less simply wholehearted about the virtues of the Midlands working-class community he represents in Sons and Lovers (1913)—and, after all, this writer from the Nottingham-Derbyshire coalfield had long rejected his coal-mining father's life as a model for his own by the time he produced his great novel. None the less Sons and Lovers is the first major English novel to be written completely from the inside of a provincial labouring community, and it offers unrivalled access to the lives of working men and their fraught home-running wives—and what it means in particular for Paul Morel and his first girlfriend, Miriam, to grow up into life and art and love in the socially pinched but admirably thoughtful atmosphere of provincial chapel Christianity. Choppy and long-winded (much of the rambling original was cut out by Lawrence's anxious London editor), Sons and Lovers made one of the big breakthroughs in the progress of the English Bildungsroman—the novel about growing up.

A social world away from Lawrence, Virginia Woolf (middle-class, London, intellectual, bohemian) was eager for her own part to make the English novel-reader sit up with her particular less-than-conventional vision of social life. Her Mrs Dalloway (1925) is a still astonishing narrative of a day in the life of a group of Londoners, their memories packed with ghosts, especially the dead of the First World War, their paths and eyes crossing as they move about their city's centre, advancing towards evening, a party, a suicide. Mrs Dalloway does for our sense of the crowded modern city what James Joyce's Ulysses (1922) had earlier done for Dublin, and for that is one of the great classics of modernist urbanism.

D. H. Lawrence's friend the satirist Aldous Huxley aimed to examine twentieth-century society with the range and energy Dickens and George Eliot (and Dostoevsky) had brought to the nineteenth century. Pursuing the life of sociologist Anthony Beavis from its beginnings to the 1930s era of totalitarian dictators, his Eyeless in Gaza (1936) is hawkishly busy with a whole period's moral shifts and political shiftinesses. Beavis is even writing chapters of an Elements of Sociology in parallel with the chapters of the novel he's in. Huxley is particularly keen to advocate pacifism as a response to the threat of war, especially from the air, and there's no fiction I know offering a better allegory of war's violent horror than the moment when Beavis and a girlfriend sunbathing naked on a roof in the South of France are struck by a dead dog chucked from a passing aeroplane.

Even more troublingly war-preoccupied is the parable-like Party Going (1939) by Henry Green, one of modern English fiction's most attractively restless experimenters. In it a group of rich chums is holed up at a London railway terminus. Fog has stopped the boat trains leaving for France. Dissatisfied proletarians throng the station. The pals take fearful refuge in the management offices. We get a wonderfully tense revelation of how the privileged live in terror of the mob whose diminished lives essentially pay for their luxurious ones. Everyone lives in fear of bombing planes, but some groups do so more comfortably than others. The Old Etonian Green weighs into the moneyed with all the scathing dyspepsia of the socialist principles which drove him to leave Oxford early to work on the shop floor of his family's factory in Birmingham.

Money, the greed for it, the making of it, the failure to make it, are what animate the grippingly grisly transatlantic tradings of Martin Amis's Money (1984). John Self, a piece of bodily and moral junk seeking to make it in the New York porno movie scene, is on a kind of Pilgrim's Regress which calls into question every assumption of contemporary moral, cultural, and social value. The toughest prose around packs a compellingly old-fashioned critical punch.

Money's exact contemporary, Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus (1984), has more sheer relish for the grotesque behaviour its richly jammed paragraphs embrace, but it too shares the generally adversarial posture of the social-novel tradition. Carter's theme is the lives and treatment of women in a traditional patriarchal culture—the world of Victorian entertainment, brothels, freak-shows, circuses. Her main character is Fevvers, lovely, lively, motor-mouthed, vulgarian, magic woman (she can sprout wings and fly). Social panoramas—this one takes us from low-life London all the way to Tsarist Russia—never came more vividly cinematic, more naughtily exuberant, nor more demandingly critical.

Dickens remains a strong inspiration for contemporary social novelists of London. Iain Sinclair's typically comprehensive low-life Downriver (or, the Vessels of Wrath), a Narrative in Twelve Tales (1991) finely illustrates this. His London is a vast crowd of oddballs inhabiting places reeking with trouble, black memory, magic, crime, all fired by a sturdy political rage about the years of post-industrial Thatcherite depredations which these fictional encounters starkly reveal. The tradition of the utterly compelling angry social novel is safe in such hands.

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionAuthors on Fiction