The Birth of Liberal Guilt in the English Novel: Charles Dickens to H.G. Wells

The Birth of Liberal Guilt in the English Novel: Charles Dickens to H.G. Wells

The Birth of Liberal Guilt in the English Novel: Charles Dickens to H.G. Wells

The Birth of Liberal Guilt in the English Novel: Charles Dickens to H.G. Wells

Synopsis

Daniel Born explores the concept of liberal guilt as it first developed in British political and literary culture between the late Romantic period and World War I. Disturbed by the twin spectacle of urban poverty at home and imperialism abroad, major novelists including Charles Dickens, George Eliot, George Gissing, Joseph Conrad, E. M. Forster, and H. G. Wells offered a host of characters who reflect distinct moral responses and sensibilities.

Motivated by the belief that evil is a product of social and economic disparities rather than individual depravity, these characters exhibit guilty consciences in which the guilt is not at all like that envisioned by Victorian Christianity. But at the same time, they are premodern, in that they do not possess our therapeutic culture's notion of guilt as neurosis or pathology.

Liberal guilt declined in the Edwardian period, as exemplified in Wells's postmodern masterpiece, Tono-Bungay. But Born contends that it is a key aspect of 'the liberal imagination' expounded by Lionel Trilling and that it offers correctives to the simplistic individual moral economy of Christianity, the authoritarian modernisms that followed the Edwardian era, and even the strains of liberal nationalism that define the present day.

Excerpt

The bad conscience is an illness,
there is no doubt about that, but an illness
as pregnancy is an illness.

Friedrich nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals

We almost invariably associate the death of God with the name of Nietzsche, even though that death is presumed within the British Romantic tradition over half a century before the ringing pronouncement of Zarathustra. the English version of God's death is less dramatic and thus occupies a lesser place in intellectual history. But J. S. Mill provided the understated capstone to what had become standard doctrine for many liberal British intellectuals already in the 1850s, namely:

The value, therefore, of religion to the individual, both in the past and present, as a source of personal satisfaction and of elevated feelings is not to be disputed. But it has still to be considered whether in order to obtain this good, it is necessary to travel beyond the boundaries of the world which we inhabit, or whether the idealization of our earthly life, the cultivation of a high conception of what it may be made, is . . .

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