Social novels, also known as social problem novels or realist fiction, originated in the eighteenth century but gained a popular following in the nineteenth century with the rise of the Victorian Era and in many ways was a reaction to industrialization, social, political and economic issues and movements. In the 1830s the social novel saw resurgence as emphasis on widespread reforms of government and society emerged, and acted as a literary means of protest and awareness of abuses of government, industry and other repercussions suffered by those who did not profit from England's economic prosperity. The sensationalized accounts and stories of the working class poor were directed toward middle class audiences to help incite sympathy and action towards pushing for legal and moral changes, as with the Reform Act of 1832, and crystallized different issues in periodicals and novels for a growing literate population.
The Effects of the Social Novel
A debate rages over whether or not the social novel ever declined but elements of the genre have permeated into different mediums since the 1850s. The social problem novels were not confined to England but were written throughout Europe and the United States. An example is Russian author Leo Tolstoy, who championed reform for his own country, particularly in education and added his novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina to the realist fiction genre. Newspapers would continue to sensationalize stories and novels would continue to inspire and thrill the public and elements of social novels still provide the messages of marginalized parts of different societies today.
Elements of the Social Novel
Different sub-genres of the social novel included the industrial novel that focused on the country’s working class rural and urban poor and also the later ‘condition of England’ novel that was geared toward education, suffrage and other social movements. Deplorable conditions in factories and mines, the plight of child labor and endangered women, and the constant threat of rising criminality and [epidemics] due to over-crowding and poor sanitation were all laced into the storyline lines of these novels.
On a moral level the social novel became the medium for authors who either took in common experiences of a marginalized group or those in the midst of dire circumstances and composed sensationalized stories for members of the middle and upper classes of Victorian society. Many of the different novels held a moral or supernatural element that linked reform to Christianity and played on the perception that the middle class were more economically sound but also more devoted to their religiosity, therefore more prone to assist the lower classes before the aristocracy. An example of this was Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol where the lead character Scrooge is instructed by several ghosts to live a Christian life and help his less fortunate neighbors and employees. Though the majority of these novels were to sensationalize and shock the middle class into political action and reform work, opposition against these novels was rapid throughout their peak years during the nineteenth century. An element of the growing mass culture that came with more economic prosperity and literacy in the middle class led to a saturation of literature that combined the respectable and the scandalous and meant wealth to the authors, editors and distributors of these novels.This was often read as an underhanded way for outsiders to make a profit off the struggles of disenfranchised, uneducated and underemployed populations, but the genre of the social problem novel was also an indicator of the social changes within Victorian society. Therefore the social novels did not determine the structures, government or institutions of the nation but the social novel was determined and was a reflection of the nation.