I am new to literature and was trying to find material on social change. The names of Mrs Gaskell, William Hale White and Thomas Hardy came up. I am interested in turning points in social history and what literary criticism says about recognizing that we are passing through one and change is needed.
I am interested in turning points in social history and what the literature says about recognizing that we are passing through one and change is needed.
The Industrial Revolution in the 19th century was a dramatic time of social change and it did indeed lead to a group of novels called the "social problem novels," including the "industrial novels" of the 1830s to 1860s. The Industrial Novels include (among others):
- Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton, North and South, and Cranford
- Charles Dickens, Hard Times
- Charles Kingsley, Alton Locke
- George Eliot, Felix Holt: The Radical
- Frances Trollope, Michael Armstrong: The Factory Boy
- C.E Tonna, Helen Fleetwood
- Benjamin Disraeli, Sybil
But the "social problem novel," also called the "condition of England novel," was a larger category that explored the new social order, often without any references to factories. Charles Dickens' novels are the most well known of the group, beginning with Oliver Twist, but his Dombey and Son, Bleak House, and Our Mutual Friend are the most widely read today, with all of them passionately addressing different social problems and calling for social reform.
Other important examples focus on the "Woman Problem," or the impossible predicaments faced by women at the time. The best examples are Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre and George Eliot's Middlemarch.
This is barely scratching the surface, of course. You might look at The Victorian Social Novel as Genre as a free academic starting point for more information.
But novels about social problems are widespread and the Victorian novel is only one particularly prominent example. For others in English, look at the novels of American Naturalism, such as Theodore Dreiser's Carrie or Kate Chopin's The Awakening. You'll find an bibliography at Naturalism in American Literature, which includes an brief introduction to the term "naturalism."
It is a very broad question, but one always worth exploring.
There are two interesting questions posed here: 1) Which novelists – with an emphasis on the Victorian novelists – recognized contemporary changes in society and took them into account in their books? 2) Which of them, if any, expressed a need for such changes?
A book could be written on these questions.
Off the top of my head, from my own limited reading (William Hale White is a new one on me): Social change seems to be the engine behind most of Wharton’s novels – although she’s interested in how that change effects only two or three narrow and adjacent levels of society. Social change is the subject of “Cranford” (the only Gaskell novel I’ve read); there it is treated as a source of tender comedy. Social change is Gissing’s main concern, although for him it is usually a source of tragedy – of the domestic sort. Thomas Hardy certainly is aware of social changes, but sees them more as social eruptions than changes which are part of a historical progression. Social change is an important element in Arnold Bennett’s novels; his view of it is even-handed – it’s a good thing for some of his characters, a bad thing for others.
As for novelists who see a need for social change and promote it in their books, the muckrakers immediately come to mind. Off-hand, I’d say that writers who express a need for social change are less likely to recognize that it is happening under their noses.