What Victorian Literature Can Teach Us about Social Justice

One of my favorite things about Kenyon is that it affords students the opportunity to delve into specific sub-sections of the broader topics that we’ve already begun studying before coming to the Hill. For me, this meant jumping at the chance to take a 19th Century British Women’s Literature course as soon as I had fulfilled the prerequisite.

I have always loved Jane Austen, George Eliot, and the general undercurrent of relatable emotional passion filtered through the propriety of the 19th century that colors the novels we study in class. I find it fascinating that this culture was so concerned with moral righteousness and exemplary behavior. I also find it fascinating that such a culture offered its charity to so few.

Another one of my favorite things about Kenyon is that its students don’t shy away from conversations about the limitations of movements that advocate tolerance and equality. We as a student body are very critical of the mechanical and ideological faults of social justice movements while fiercely championing their message: no one is to be left out of the progress we make towards equality.

Victorian Lit, though, doesn’t always hold true to this message. That cognitive dissonance—knowing that the literature I love to read and study doesn’t advocate intersectionality—has made me question exactly how much we should revere the era and its works. I’ve always been of the belief that novels are the medium that can convey the most subversive ideals of a time; they are open to not only baseless slander, but nuanced critique, because of the guise of fiction.

Why, then, didn’t authors include diverse characters and settings, or even examples of advocacy for minorities in their works?

One of the most disappointing examples of Victorian literature’s lack of intersectionality came from one of my favorite novels, Charlotte Brontё’s Jane Eyre. It is a perfect example of the fierce, headstrong proto-feminism we all love about this era’s literature. The eponymous novel follows a protagonist who endures abuse, loss, and tragedy, but pursues her own goals and desires with an unrelentingly determined spirit. I really do believe that everyone should aspire to be a little more like Jane in that she never gives in to anyone else, and she always speaks her mind, even though her outspokenness often defied convention.

However, something problematic arises when we turn to (spoiler alert) Bertha Mason, the insane ex-wife of Jane’s love interest. Bertha is often interpreted as Jane’s alter-ego, the manifestation of her un-repressed rage and visceral passions. Bertha is also a mentally ill, mixed-race, immigrant woman who is described as “dark” and “savage.” Yikes.

When rereading the book for class, I often found myself pitying Bertha more than anything. She had lost her ability to communicate, she had little conventional agency, and she had been an outlier in British society because of her race. Most troublingly, Bertha had no advocate in the novel but her brother, who makes two quick appearances: once to be victimized by Bertha and once to derail Jane’s happy ending. Her final action in the book (spoiler alert) is literally to destroy the house to which she was confined, maiming Jane’s love interest and killing herself in the process. It’s not a very nuanced portrayal of the novel’s only minority character.

Why couldn’t anyone advocate for Bertha?We have to consider, of course, that these novels and their authors are a product of their time. The Brontё sisters grew up in a time and place where there was little progress to be witnessed in; for example, social equality for the gay community, quite simply because that community’s existence was barely recognized.

The Victorian Era did include the Abolitionist movement, which eventually abolished the slave trade in England and put legal reparations in place to help former enslaved persons assimilate into society. Certainly, Victorian society recognized that slavery and slave trade were barbaric and antiquated institutions, and it extended its efforts to America’s Abolition movement as well as its own. However compelling the moral duty to end slavery seemed to be, though, Victorians were not eager to fully accept the equality and integration of blacks, fomenting a racial prejudice that lasts to this day.

Another passionate cause of the time was the movement to end child labor, a plight brought on by Industrialism’s demand for cheap, compliant workers. The advocacy of the upper and middle classes, notably of their women, helped to greatly ameliorate conditions for workers and reform the labor system to spare children. In fact, many of the factors that added pressure to influence labor reform came in the form of poems and short stories, many from women authors.It is true, then, that advocacy and social justice existed in Victorian literature. Upon reflection, I realized that although Victorians hadn’t worked for justice regarding our modern society’s issues (e.g. equality of sexual orientation, race, and religion), they had ameliorated issues that we haven’t had to endure. (Of course, child labor is still a horrific and prevalent injustice, but in England and America, Victorian advocacy helped to abolish it.)

This means that though our remnant of the time—its literature—may be lacking in representation and advocacy, the Victorian era was a starting point for where we are today. Think of the most recent social justice movements: marches on our capital city, fictionalized media portraying the struggles of minorities, protests and strikes and boycotts. Weren’t all of these happening in Victorian times?

Though it’s hard to accept that the society harbored unforgivable prejudices and social injustices, we have to remember that without their efforts in advocacy, we may very well be several steps behind where we are today. The issues have changed, but our methods of solving them—speaking up, speaking out, and writing about them—have not.


Image Credit: Feature, 1, 2, 3, 4