Novel Possibilities: Fiction and the Formation of Early Victorian Culture

By Joseph W. Childers | Go to book overview

7
Religion, the Novel, and Speaking for/of the Other

Edwin Chadwick's Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain reveals to its primarily middle-class audience how far apart economically and socially the middle and lower classes had grown by the end of the 1830s. The differences between the two classes were seemingly irreconcilable. Yet one of the most notable features of the Report is its impulse to smooth over those differences by having all acknowledge and participate in a common moral culture. Reform, the Report implies, can only work if all affected (i.e., all society) share the same (or at least very similar) aspirations, standards of moral judgment, and beliefs -- a premise that partially explains the impetus of several of Chadwick's informants to challenge the moral standards of their working-class subjects with a zeal that is nearly Pauline in form and content. As I argue in Part II, the informers' questions often gave way to remonstrance, and lessons on proper thought and conduct frequently replaced the "objective" collection of data.

For Chadwick himself the issue of ethical conduct occupied a prominent place in his recapitulation of "the extent and operation of the evils which are the subject of [his] inquiry" (422). He concludes the Report by arguing that

the removal of noxious physical circumstances, and the promotion of civic, household, and personal cleanliness, are necessary to the improvement of the moral condition of the population; for that sound morality and refinement in manners and health are not long found co-existent with filthy habits amongst any class of the community. (425)

Because uncleanness was seen as leading to systemic demoralization -- to which no class is immune -- much more is at stake than the health of individual members of the working classes; the soundness of an entire society is in jeopardy, and concern for its well-being often looked beyond the ma

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