Novel Possibilities: Fiction and the Formation of Early Victorian Culture

By Joseph W. Childers | Go to book overview

4
The Novel and the Utilitarian

In Coningsby, the novel and the world it describes exchange affiliations with the referents of political discourse. For its readers, especially after Disraeli's politicized asides, Coningsby seems more tangible and more immediate, and its claims more persuasive than the world of politics that Disraeli portrays as fraught with unreal expectations and "factitious" representations of itself. In Disraeli's hands, the novel becomes a tool for reworking the world, changing it to meet the material and attitudinal needs that politics no longer perceives. In their constitutive functioning -- creating conditions of possibility for thought and action, determining the bounds of agency, and reconceiving the place of the subject in the paradigms their discourses construct -- the novel and politics vie for discursive dominance. And in using one discourse, the novel, to call another, politics, to account, find it lacking, and attempt to replace it as the way in which Victorians can order their existences (including their political existences), Coningsby foregrounds the increasing tension between these two formidable, competing interpretive enterprises. For that reason, if for no other, it deserves to be seen as a formulative moment for the novel and for Victorian epistemology. But we should also remember that Coningsby is by no means the only instance of the novel's connection to other, often seemingly incompatible, public languages. By the early 1840s the social force of novels was well remarked; and as the novel established itself as a significant interpretive enterprise, it drew an increasing number of admirers who a few years before would not have admitted to reading novels, to say nothing of acknowledging their potential as instruments of social change.

One of these admirers was the prominent social reformer Edwin Chadwick, co-author of the notorious Poor Law Report of 1834, secretary of the Poor Law Commission that was established as a result of that report, and, arguably, Britain's first professional bureaucrat. Upon completing his famous Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain, Chadwick not surprisingly attempted a communiqué to perhaps

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