Author Archives: Audrey Buechel

“The Novel of Purpose”: Informing and Reforming Victorian England

Group 1

What exactly is the genre of the novel and how did it begin, rising to such prominence at the start of the 19th century? In The Rise of the Novel, Ian Watt claims that the defining characteristic of the novel is the mode of realism through which it operates and that this, as a result, sets the novel apart from that of other works both of its time and those of the past. The most general definition of the novel is that it is often fictitious in nature, in narrative form, about book length, and represents both the characters and the actions of the story with some degree of realism. If we compare Jane Austen, an author who was considered one of the first true novelists to, say, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, who often times gets mistakenly lumped into the same category as the former, we begin to see how and why the novel as a genre branched off into a territory of its own, so to speak. On page 14 Watt says:

“Nevertheless a broad and necessarily summary comparison between the novel and previous literary forms reveals an important difference: Defoe and Richardson are the first great writers in our literature who did not take their plots of mythology, history, legend or previous literature. In this they differ from Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton, for instance, who like the writers of Greece and Rome, habitually used traditional plots” (Watt, 14).

Here, we see that authors like Defoe, are essentially the forerunners of the novel as a genre, as, he was one of the first of his time to place significance and value on originality and individuality rather than the traditional or typical plots woven throughout the history of most of the early texts in the Western world. Novelists like Defoe used literature in such a way that “most fully reflect[ed] this individualist and innovating reorientation,” as, many previous literary forms were based solely on either past history, myths, and/or religious matters.

Northrop Frye also contributes to the conversation in trying to define what exactly makes a typical novel the “typical novel” and illustrates this through comparing Jane Austen and Wuthering Heights, in an effort to separate the novel from what he calls the “miscellaneous heap of prose works now covered by that term” (Frye, 6). Northrop Frye claims that the “essential difference between the novel and romance lies in the conception of characterization” and that “the romancer does not attempt to create ‘real people’ so much as stylized figures which expand into psychological archetypes” (Frye, 6). Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is a prime example of the typical conventions of the romance genre as opposed to the novel. In contrast, he asserts that the novelist, “deals with personality, with characters wearing their personae or social masks” and that he (or she) “needs the framework of a stable society” (Frye, 6)– much like what we see through the eyes of Esther Summerson, the protagonist in Dickens’ novel, Bleak House. While the stories and characters within the novel may be fictional, most of Dickens’ works fit very well within the conceptual model of the novel as he often creates a fictional approach to history in his works. Unlike others of his time, Dickens invests what Frye refers to as a “chief interest in human character as it manifests itself in society” (Frye, 7) and this, as a result distinguishes literature being written and viewed through this lens and why it was perhaps so infectious in its appeal beginning in the 19th century to modern day.  It is also interesting to note that the word novel comes from the word “nuvel” meaning new in French, and that in its beginnings, the novel served as a platform to disseminate information and/or news.

The yearly output of fiction in English.

The yearly output of fiction in English.

This idea of the novel as “the novel of purpose”, one in which authors would use realism, to allow the audience to relate to the events of the story and apply them to their own lives, is prevalent in chapters 2 and 3 of Amanda Claybaugh’s book, The Novel of Purpose: Literature and Social Reform in the Anglo-American World. Claybaugh focuses on the idea that reformists writings of the 1800s influenced the way authors viewed the purpose of the novel. This book also posed an interesting view of Charles Dickens’ use of the novel. Claybaugh proposes that Dickens did not view/set out to write his work as reformist until the late 1840s. Under this time frame, Oliver Twist, our debut novel that started our journey into Dickens’ universe, wouldn’t have been written to reform: “It was only in the late 1840s, after he had already written five novels, that Dickens began to identify himself publicly as a reformer, and only sometime after that he began to write in a straightforwardly reformist mode himself” (Claybaugh 52). She provides evidence for the claim that “Dickens himself did not understand these scenes [workhouse, debtor’s prison, etc.] to be reformist at the time he wrote them” by citing his prefaces to his early works. Claybaugh states that Dickens’ preface to Oliver Twist merely “defends the propriety of writing about thieves” (52) and doesn’t mention the workhouses or the slums, which modern readers view as the central aspect of reform in the novel. Claybaugh then demonstrates Dickens’ view of himself as a reformist novelist by citing his prefaces to the Cheap Editions of his novels, wherein he urges his audiences to concede that socioeconomic reform is necessary. She claims that Dickens began to view himself as a reformist after he conceived that the publication of Nicholas Nickelby, a story about the terrible conditions in Yorkshire boarding schools, led to the closing of many of these schools. He also took a more definitive role of the reformist after his tour of American schools, prisons, and slums, noting the similarities between the American and English versions of these institutions and becoming determined to change his nation’s socioeconomic atmosphere (54.)

London's book market 1700, distribution of titles according to Term Catalogue data. The poetical and fictional production does not have a unified place yet.

London’s book market 1700, distribution of titles according to Term Catalogue data. The poetical and fictional production does not have a unified place yet.



rise of the novel –

Possible discussion questions:

#1. How does Bleak House fulfill its purpose as a novel according to Frye and/or Claybough?

#2. (If the class is alright with going back to Oliver Twist) How does Claybaugh’s theory of Dickens’ purpose for writing present itself in OT and Bleak House? Explain whether or not you believe there are differences in Dickens’ writing that convey Claybaugh’s idea of Dickens’ self-perceived transformation from informer to reformist.

Blog post written by: Elizabeth Messana and Audrey Buechel

Group Members: Jenna Cecchini, Elizabeth Messana, Alexis Donahue, and Audrey Buechel

Social class and the impact of the poor law

The novel Oliver Twist is a vivid illustration of the literary connections that can be drawn between Dickens’ writings and the surrounding sociopolitical issues of his time; more importantly what some might speculate to be the driving force behind the very works themselves. One law specifically, the New Poor Law of 1834, irrevocably marred the already grim atmosphere that engulfed a poverty-stricken England in the 19th century. The middle and upper classes denounced the system of relief that was in place for the poor at the time, as, they believed, they were merely creating or perpetuating the cycle of further stagnancy amongst the lower classes, encouraging them to continue to avoid work rather than seek it. Despite the fact that these were mere speculations from the upper class, once the New Poor Law was established due to the complaints in 1834, over 500 workhouses were built throughout the course of the next 50 years, wherein the conditions were so deliberately horrendous that only those desperate enough to leave their homes and voluntarily enter the workhouses to receive help would—but they were far and few between. Therefore, many of those that genuinely required assistance, opted out of the only option available to them via the workhouses, because they refused to subject themselves to an even harsher setting then the ones they were already well accustomed to. Dickens’, like many others at the time, was repulsed by the enactment of the New Poor Law and first published his monthly installments of Oliver Twist in an attempt to portray the new relief system’s treatment of a child innocent of fault born and raised in the workhouse system. Dickens’ essentially paints Oliver as a “child of the workhouse” with no consolation or nourishment available to him—much like the empty system in place that set out to operate efficiently and charitably, of which it did neither. In Chapter I, titled “Treats of the Place Where Oliver Twist Was Born; And of the Circumstances Attending His Birth”, he immediately adopts a both a satirical tone and stance towards the workhouse when he refers to being born in one as, “in itself the most fortunate and enviable circumstance that can possibly befall a human being,” (Norton, 17). Given the description of the circumstances surrounding Oliver’s birth, it seems anything but fortuitous or what anyone would consider worth “envying”. The doctor who helped Oliver’s (nameless) mother through labor just before she passes away “talk[s] of hope and comfort,” the narrator recounts, who, “had been strangers [for] too long,” (Norton, 18). In this opening scene, both Oliver and his mother are emblematic figures of those affected by the poor laws of 19th century England, as, they are strangers to a world where any hope or comfort resides, further underscoring Dickens’ emphasis toward the newly implemented law’s lack of efficiency and charity. Furthermore, with his mother now gone and no “female in the ‘house’ who was in a situation to impart to Oliver twist, the consolation and nourishment of which he stood in need” (Norton, 19), not only is hope and consolation inaccessible to him, but what was to be his sole source of nourishment, too. As a pale and thin child of the workhouse, “diminutive in stature, and decidedly small in circumference” (Norton, 19), such a description illustrates the fact that this ‘system’ does not provide the appropriate climate through which anyone brought up in it can thrive and flourish—Oliver being a chief example of this, as both a literally and figuratively undernourished child of the English workhouse.

Online Post by: Audrey Buechel

Researchers: Lizzie Messana, Jenna Cecchini, Alexis Donahue, Amanda Trantel

Discussion Question:

How does Dickens say what he wants to say about the new poor law in such a way as to make it appeal to a wide audience (across social classes)?