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Historical Context

The Beginnings of Social Change

British society was divided at the end of the eighteenth century roughly into three classes:
the aristocracy, the gentry, and the yeoman class. Yet the revolutionary fervor at end of
that century, exemplified by the American and French Revolutions, was seeping into the
social fabric of England. In the following several decades, class distinctions began to
relax and be redefined. As people in the lower middle classes became more prosperous,
they began to emulate their social betters, as did the landed gentry of the upper middle
class. During the nineteenth century, increasing numbers of people rose financially
through commercial work and factory production. These middle-class individuals
increasingly became absorbed with a cultivation of the proper manners, dress, and dcor,
practiced by the gentry and lesser members of the aristocracy. Examples of this rising
middle class can be seen with the Murdstones and the Steerforths in David Copperfield.
David's parents, his aunt, and the Wickfields are members of the middle class, but they do
not try to adopt the pretensions of the aristocracy.
Nineteenth-Century London
The contrast between the wealthy and poorer classes, however, was evident in London
during the nineteenth century. A small portion of the city was occupied by well-kept
residences and shopping areas. Upper and middle-class residents stayed in these areas,
predominantly in the West End, fearing to venture into the remaining threefourths of the
city, especially in the rough East End, which was teeming with poverty, dense population,
and corruption. The gulf between the rich and poor widened each year. New villages
continually emerged, especially near the docks, but even though Londoners found work
in the city's busy port, wages were not high enough to adequately provide for workers.
The extreme stratification of the English urban centers was studied by Karl Marx and
Friedrich Engels. Together, they wrote the Communist Manifesto (1848), and Engels
wrote The Condition of the Working Class in England (1844), in which he describes
graphically the living conditions in the center of London and Manchester and how these
contrast with the wealthy residences on the outskirts. Together, they outlined the causes,
effects, and political solutions to the problem of poverty which became the inspiration for
the communist revolutions of the twentieth century.
Benthamism, also known as utilitarianism, became an important ideology in Victorian
society, especially among the middle class. The term was associated with a philosophy of
Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), explained in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals
and Legislation (1789), which was widely accepted among the Victorian middle class,
affecting their habits and beliefs. By the 1820s, the philosophy gained a number of
disciples who promoted Bentham's theories in debates. Supporters gained political power

in the 1830s when approximately one hundred were elected to the first reform-focused
Parliament in England.
At the core of this philosophy was the belief in "the greatest happiness for the greatest
number," a phrase borrowed from Joseph Priestley, a late eighteenth-century Unitarian
theologian, which appeared in Bentham's Introduction to the Principles of Morals and
Legislation. In Victorian People and Ideas, Richard D. Altick explains:
utilitarianism was wholly hedonistic; it made no allowance for the promptings of
conscience, or for the forces of generosity, mercy, compassion, selfsacrifice, love.
Benthamite ethics had nothing to do with Christian morality.
At the heart of this belief was the supposition that self-interest should be one's primary
concern and that happiness could be attained by avoiding pain and seeking pleasure,
qualities that emerge in James Steerforth's character.
Another important middle-class movement in the nineteenth century was evangelicalism,
a form of Protestant pietism. Evangelicalism focused less on doctrine and more on the
day-to-day lives and eventual salvation of its followers. It set rigid patterns of conduct for
its practitioners to follow in order that they might find atonement for their sins. Altick
notes that "the Evangelical's anxious eye was forever fixed upon the eternal microscope
which searched for every moral blemish and reported every motion of the soul." Edward
Murdstone and his sister's treatment of David provides good examples of this type of
rigid, moralistic code.
Both utilitarian and evangelical movements, however, are also noted for their
involvement in humanitarian activities during the Victorian period and especially for their
calls for social reforms. Benthamites supported universal suffrage and education while
the evangelicals successfully fought for amelioration of brutal prison conditions.
A Victorian Woman's Place
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, women (like men) were confined to the
classes in which they were born, unless their fathers or husbands moved up or down in
the social hierarchy. The strict rules for each social class defined women and determined
their lives. Women in the upper classes had the leisure to become educated; however, like
their counterparts in the lower classes, upper-class women were not expected to think for
themselves and were not often listened to when they did. Urges for independence and
self-determination were suppressed in women from all classes. The strict social morality
of the period demanded that middle-class women and those in classes above exhibit the
standards of polite femininity, culminating in the ideals of marriage and motherhood.
David Copperfield both reenforces (David's mother, Dora) and challenges (Betsey
Trotwood) the period's attitudes toward women. Most female characters, however,

operate within the confines of the middle class. Miss Trotwood's quick mind and
independent spirit is tolerated because she is considered eccentric and is a widow.
Realism as a movement first appeared in Paris in the early 1800s as an effort to insure
that art would not merely imitate life but would instead be an exact representation of it. In
this sense, realistic works could be considered the literature of truth. Realism became a
popular form of painting, for example in works by Gustave Courbet, and some literature
in the mid-nineteenth century, for example in the novels of Gustave Flaubert. Novelists in
this movement turned away from what they considered the artificiality of romanticism to
a focus on the commonplace in the context of everyday contemporary life. They rejected
idealism and the celebration of the imagination typical of romantic novels and instead
took a serious look at believable characters and their often problematic social
In order to accomplish this goal, realist novels focus on the commonplace and eliminate
the unlikely coincidences and excessive emotionalism characteristic of romanticism.
Novelists such as Thomas Hardy discarded traditional sentimental elements as they
chronicled the strengths and weaknesses of ordinary people confronting difficult personal
and social problems. Writers who embraced realism use setting and plot details that
reflect their characters' daily lives and realistic dialogue that replicates as far as possible
the natural speech patterns of individuals in various classes.
One realistic part of David Copperfield is Dickens's portrait of the harsh conditions in
London among the lower classes. Dickens was one of the first to chronicle in his fiction
the monotonous, harsh, and sordid life of this group of people. Some scholars, however,
determine that the endings of his novels, including the ending of David Copperfield,
follow the romantic tradition.