Connections — Culture and the Social Order

  • Simon Dentith
Part of the Social History in Perspective book series (SHP)


Nineteenth-century England was a social order undergoing rapid transformation, and one split along multiple different and overlapping lines of fissure. In this chapter I examine those cultural institutions, intellectual positions, and cultural forms, which acted cohesively, as a kind of social cement — which sought to counteract some at least of those lines of division. Above all, this chapter will be concerned with authority, with the attempt to sustain authority in its crucial social sites. Accordingly, I start with religion, the importance of which in nineteenth-century England can hardly be overestimated. I move on from there to consider some of the intellectual alternatives that were proposed to religion when its authority came to be questioned in the course of the century. In effect I argue that the collapse of the intellectual and social authority of religion posed a crisis of hegemony for the social order, which different intellectuals sought to solve in different ways. A crucial figure in the chapter is therefore Matthew Arnold (1822–88), whose project was explicitly to sustain the social authority of religion by refiguring it as ‘culture’. But I conclude in a rather different vein, by considering those cultural forms — the large multi-plot novel, above all — which sought to encompass the whole social order. The very capacity to imagine a whole social order is radically extended via such cultural forms, and the chapter ends with a brief consideration of the political ambivalence of such acts of imagination.


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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    Quoted in Owen Chadwick, The Victorian Church, 2 vols. (Adam and Charles Black, London, 1970), I: 515.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Ibid., II: 151.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    See Doreen M. Rosman, Evangelicals and Culture (Croom Helm, London, 1984).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    See Chadwick, The Victorian Church, II: 56–7, for these figures.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Rev. Legh Richmond, Annals of the Poor (J. Briddon, Ryde, c.1830), p. 122.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Rosman, Evangelicals and Culture, p. 33.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    See Beth Tobin, Superintending the Poor; Charitable Ladies and Paternal Landlords in British Fiction, 1770–1860 (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1993);Google Scholar
  8. and Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class 1780–1850 (Hutchinson, London, 1987).Google Scholar
  9. 8.
    See, for example, Richard Price, ‘Does the notion of Victorian England make any sense?’, in Cities, Class and Communication; Essays in Honour of Asa Briggs, edited by D. Fraser (Harvester Wheatsheaf, Brighton, 1990);Google Scholar
  10. and ‘Historiography, Narrative and the Nineteenth Century’, Journal of British Studies 35 (1996), 220–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Michael Mason, in The Making of Victorian Sexual Attitudes and The Making of Victorian Sexuality: Sexual Behaviour and Its Understanding (both Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1994), argues against the notion that Evangelicalism was responsible for Victorianism, if by the latter is meant, narrowly, an attitude of prudish or high-minded disapproval of sexuality.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 9.
    John Tulloch, Movements of Religious Thought in the Nineteenth Century (Leicester University Press, Leicester, 1971), p. 105.Google Scholar
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    J. H. Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons (n.p., London, 1908–18), I: 320.Google Scholar
  14. Quoted in The Oxford Movement, edited by Eugene R. Fairweather (Oxford University Press, New York, 1964), p. 21.Google Scholar
  15. 11.
    See Chadwick, The Victorian Church, I: 220.Google Scholar
  16. 12.
    Joseph Arch, From Ploughtail to Parliament: an Autobiography (The Cresset Library, London, 1986). See especially ch. 1, ‘Childhood’.Google Scholar
  17. 13.
    Matthew Arnold, Literature and Dogma, in Dissent and Dogma, edited by R. H. Super (University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1968), p. 363.Google Scholar
  18. 14.
    Matthew Arnold, The Popular Education of France, in Democratic Education, Complete Prose Works of Matthew Arnold, edited by R. H. Super (University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1962), II: 385. The quoted phrase appeared in the 1861 edition only.Google Scholar
  19. 15.
    I allude here of course to Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy (1869).Google Scholar
  20. 16.
    Carlyle’s spiritual autobiography is Sartor Resartus (1838);Google Scholar
  21. Past and Present (1843) addresses explicitly the problem of authority in a secular state.Google Scholar
  22. 17.
    For the ‘moral economy’, see Eric Hobsbawm and George Rudé, Captain Swing (Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1969).Google Scholar
  23. 18.
    John Stuart Mill, Autobiography (1873).Google Scholar
  24. 19.
    George Eliot, ‘The Natural History of German Life’ (1856), in Selected Essays, Poems and Other Writings, edited by A. S. Byatt and Nicholas Warren (Penguin, London, 1990), p. 170.Google Scholar
  25. 20.
    Charles Dickens, Bleak House (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1975), pp. 49–50.Google Scholar
  26. 21.
    See Peter K. Garrett, The Victorian Multiplet Novel: Studies in Dialogic Form (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1980).Google Scholar
  27. 22.
    W. M. Thackeray, The Newcomes (1853–55), ch. XXIV.Google Scholar

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© Simon Dentith 1998

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  • Simon Dentith

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