I always find it interesting how through reading fiction written by authors at about the time that the story is set, or shortly afterwards, you can get authentic background detail about various aspects of everyday life.
This varies as to the social position of the author, of course, and how far he or she is writing about the whole of society, as distinct from the part in which s/he belonged.
Most writers before the mid twentieth century at least – with a few notable exceptions – were by definition from a comparatively wealthy background in order to have had the education and leisure to become writers at all.
This does not mean that they did not write about ordinary people, but that their understanding and experience of them was necessarily limited. Hence the ‘devoted retainer’ servant type so frequent in various classical novels, the jolly landlords, pert village maidens, harassed and servile schoolmasters and other stereotypes. Unfortunately, there was no British Zola or Balzac, writing a series of novels that aimed to encompass in their sweep the whole of society.
However, people from a less comfortable backgrounds who had climbed the social ladder, had necessarily a broader experience of daily life for most people. Their occasional comments on this – even in novels about the tribulations of wild young earls, can be instructive.
For instance, here is some realism from – of all people – Charles Garvice – that best selling writer of melodramatic tripe. He is describing the sort of standard of living a single man or woman living on a weekly salary of £1 a week may enjoy in the England of approximately 1900.
‘…Compared with the other inhabitants of The Jail, she was quite well-to-do, not to say rich; for she earned a pound a week; and a pound a week is regarded as representing affluence by those who are earning only fifteen shillings; and that sum, I fancy, represented the top income of most of Celia’s neighbours.
‘You can do a great deal with a pound a week. Let us consider for a moment: rent, which includes all rates and taxes, five shillings a week; gas, purchased on the beautiful and simple penny-in-the-slot system, say, one shilling and threepence, and firing one shilling and sixpence— at Brown’s you only have a fire when it is really cold, and it is wonderful how far you can make a halfpenny bundle of wood go when you know the trick of it.
‘Now we come to the not unimportant item of food. It is quite easy; breakfast, consisting of an egg, which the grocer, with pleasing optimism, insists upon calling “fresh,” one penny; bread and butter, per week, one shilling and sixpence; tea, milk, and sugar, per week, one and fourpence. Lunch, a really good, substantial meal, of savoury sausage or succulent fish and mashed potato, and a bun… This substantial lunch costs sixpence.
‘On Sundays, you dine sumptuously at home on a chop, or eggs and bacon, cooked over your gas-ring, and eaten with the leisure which such luxury deserves. Tea, which if you are in Celia’s case, you take at home, consists of the remains of the loaf and the milk left from breakfast, enhanced by a sausage “Made in Germany,” or, say, for a change, half a haddock, twopence. Of course, this meal is supper and tea combined.
‘If you tot all this up, you will find it has now reached the not inconsiderable sum of fifteen shillings and tenpence. This is how the rich person like Celia lives. There still remains a balance of four shillings and twopence to be expended on clothing, bus fares, insurance and amusement. Quite an adequate— indeed, an ample sum. At any rate, it seemed so to Celia, who, at present, was well set up with clothes, and found sufficient amusement in the novelty of her life and her surroundings; for, only a few months back, she had been living in comfort and middle-class luxury, with a larger sum for pocket-money than had now to suffice for the necessaries of existence…’
This description comes from The Woman’s Way. I haven’t been able to find out the original date of publication of this novel, as so many of his novels were originally published by various magazines in serial form, and he only bought back the rights when he became phenomenally successful.
(Note the complete absence of fruit in that diet. This isn’t necessarily due to its frugal nature. Seasonal fruit would be available in the summer months, sold by costermongers abundantly and relatively cheaply, but many Victorians and Edwardians were rather suspicious of fruit. Some even thought that it was so indigestible that it should only be eaten with bread. )
For another, far more detailed and serious depiction of poverty in the fiction of the late Victorian and early Edwardian England, there is, of course, Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philantropists (1914).
Marcella, the 1894 novel by ‘Mrs Humphrey Ward’ (her full name was Mary Augusta Ward) also depicts poverty in late Victorian England, with this time the majority of the locations being rural.
For earlier in the Victorian era, Dickens, of course, built his literary reputation on writing about the condition of the poor in mid Victorian England in Oliver Twist (1838) and subsequent novels. His fellow writer Elizabeth Gaskell’s depictions of day to day life for both the comfortable middle classes and the embattled working class in Mary Barton (1848) and North and South (1856) are classics.
There are very few novels by contemporary authors which touch upon life for the masses in the Britain of the early nineteenth century, let alone the eighteenth century when the novel as an art form generally began. Those which do depict such lives are often ones written at a later date, ie, those by Harrison Ainsworth.
Jane Austen rarely writes about ‘the lower classes’. Her families are generally from the landed gentry, professionals such as lawyers, or families who have thrived on trade, and who now wish to join the landed gentry (ie Sir William Lucas) . In fact, the sisters Lucy and Anne Steele, cousins to the coarse Mrs Jennings, are about as low down the social scale as she allowed her main characters to be. There is also Harriet Smith in Emma, the illegitimate daughter of a country tradesman who has paid for her education at a private school (she eventually marries a thriving farmer whom Emma has always considered to be vulgar).
Samuel Richardson almost certainly came from a poor background himself. That is presumably how he came to write the heroine of Pamela (1740) as a lady’s maid, though he maintained that he actually based the novel on a story he had heard in real life. If it is really based on real life, I assume Richardson must have wildly exaggerated the behaviour of everyone concerned, unless that particular squire was mentally unbalanced.
Generally, though, Richardson was more comfortable writing about the rising bourgeois of which he, through becoming a master printer, was now a member.
Henry Fielding didn’t write romantic tales about masters marrying servants – perhaps because he did it himself. Instead, he was probably the author of Shamela, the 1742 satire of Pamela, which mercilessly lampoons the moral and structural weaknesses of the work, especially the ludicrously improbable moral conversion of Squire B.
The male lead of his comedy Tom Jones (1749), however, is described as ‘a foundling’, and in following his adventures after his estrangement from his foster father Squire Allworthy, Fielding gives an invaluable ‘..Presentation of English life and character in the mid-18th century. Every social type is represented, and through them every shade of moral behaviour.’ (Wikipedia).
In the early days of the novel, while male writers being so scarce, female writers were invariably even more so. However, I have always found it odd that Eliza Heywood is not considered the first writer of English novels, given that she first published works which can be described as such in the 1720’s, as in her novella, Fantomina: or Love in a Maze’ (1725).
As I have only a small part of her massive output, I may be mistaken in saying that she does not generally write in a realistic style, though she does provide interesting insights into eighteenth century life and particularly the mindsets of that time. Slightly off topic, in common with Fielding, she satirised Fielding’s Pamela with The Anti Pamela Or Feigned Innocence Detected (1741).
Fanny Burney’s work offers fascinating insights into daily life for the upper and upper middle classes in the UK of the last quarter of the eighteenth century, with even some incursions into the lifestyle of the middle classes (Interestingly, the heroine of Evelina (1778) has some vulgar cousins, who own a silversmith’s shop in the city). I personally found that heroine to be an unbearably smug and priggish Mary Sue, but bearing with her and the impossibly perfect hero Lord Orville can produce some useful research.
Then, there is of course, W M Thackeray, who, while writing in the mid nineteenth century, did in fact remember the Regency era as a boy. That is probably why his depiction of it in Vanity Fair (1847) is so convincing. Another book set in the Regency era is Mrs. G Linnaeus Banks 1876 novel The Manchester Man. This gives a far wider picture of everyday life in that era than is usually found in fiction and is based on historical anecdote and memory (though not that of the author). I found it invaluable when writing about the Peterloo Massacre a couple of years ago.