Social Conditions The 19th century was characterized by sharp contradictions. In many ways it was an age of progress: railways and ships were built, great scientific discoveries were made, education became more widespread; but al the same time it was an age of profound social unrest, because there was too much poverty, too much injustice. The growth of scientific inventions mechanized industry and increased wealth, but this progress only enriched the few at the expense of the many. Dirty factories, long hours of work, child labour, exploitation, low wages, slums and frequent unemployment -these were the conditions of life for the workers in the growing industries of England, which became the richest country in the world towards the middle of the 19th century.
The Industrial Revolution gathered force as the 19th century progressed, and worked profound changes in both the economic and the social life of the country. Quiet villages, sailing vessels and hand-looms gave way, within a hundred years, to factory towns, railroads, and steamships. Queen Victoria was monarch of England from 1837 to 1901, and it has been found convenient to group the writings produced during that long stretch of years as "Victorian“. This philosophy of unrestricted individualism in economics vastly increased the holdings of the middle class as well as its material comforts. The British Colonial Empire expanded in Asia and Africa by conquest and colonization. The Victorian Age, from a working-class point of view, is the record of a long struggle of wage-earners to win recognition from the government. A People's Charter was drawn up in 1838, and began the so called Chartist movement, which demanded universal manhood suffrage, the secret ballot, and abolition of property qualifications for members of Parliament.
CHARTISM IN LITERATURE The Chartists introduced their own literature, which was the first-attempt to create a literature of the working class. The Chartist writers tried their hand at different genres. They wrote articles, short stories songs, epigrams, poems. Their leading genre was poetry. Though their verses were not so beautiful as those of their predecessors, the romantic poets, the Chartists used the motives of folk poetry and dealt with the burning problems of life. They described the struggle of the workers for their rights, they showed the ruthless exploitation and the miserable fate of the poor.
The ideas of Chartism attracted the attention of many progressive-minded people of the time. Many prominent writers became aware of the social injustices around them and tried to picture them in their works. Thus this period of fierce class struggle was mirrored in literature by the appearance of a new trend, that of Critical Realism. The greatest novelists of the age are Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell. These writers used the novel as a means to protest against the evils in contemporary social and economic life and to picture the world in a realistic way. The critical realists introduced new characters into literature: they described the new social force in modern history — the working class. They expressed deep sympathy for the working people; they described the unbearable conditions of their life and work; they voiced a passionate protest against exploitation and described their persistent struggle for their rights. Hard Times by Charles Dickens and Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell are among the best works of 19th century Critical Realism. The greatness of these novelists lies not only in their truthful description of contemporary life, but also in their profound humanism
CONTRIBUTION OF THE CRITICAL REALISTS TO WORLD LITERATURE They wanted to improve the existing social order by means of reforms. Some of them wanted to reconcile the antagonistic classes - the, bourgeoisie and the proletariat, to make the rich share the wealth with the poor, but being great artists they showed social injustices in capitalist England in such a way that the reader cannot help thinking that changes in the existing social system as a whole were necessary. Charles Dickens began to write at a time when the labour movement, known as the Chartist movement, was at its height. Continuous demonstrations in defence of workers' rights took place in many manufacturing towns and in London as well. The actions of the Chartists had considerable effect on Dickens. Though he did not believe in revolutionary action, he was on the side of the people with all his heart. He wanted what the people wanted.