Historical Context

The Beginnings of Social Change
British society was divided at the end of the eighteenth century roughly
into three classes: the aristocracy, the gentry, and the yeoman class. Yet
the revolutionary fervor at end of that century, exemplified by the
American and French Revolutions, was seeping into the social fabric of
England. In the following several decades, class distinctions began to
relax and be redefined. As people in the lower middle classes became more
prosperous, they began to emulate their social betters, as did the landed
gentry of the upper middle class. During the nineteenth century, increasing
numbers of people rose financially through commercial work and factory
production. These middle-class individuals increasingly became absorbed
with a cultivation of the proper manners, dress, and décor, practiced by
the gentry and lesser members of the aristocracy. Examples of this rising
middle class can be seen with the Murdstones and the Steerforths in David
Copperfield. David's parents, his aunt, and the Wickfields are members of
the middle class, but they do not try to adopt the pretensions of the
aristocracy.
Nineteenth-Century London
The contrast between the wealthy and poorer classes, however, was evident
in London during the nineteenth century. A small portion of the city was
occupied by well-kept residences and shopping areas. Upper and middle-class
residents stayed in these areas, predominantly in the West End, fearing to
venture into the remaining threefourths of the city, especially in the
rough East End, which was teeming with poverty, dense population, and
corruption. The gulf between the rich and poor widened each year. New
villages continually emerged, especially near the docks, but even though
Londoners found work in the city's busy port, wages were not high enough to
adequately provide for workers. The extreme stratification of the English
urban centers was studied by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Together, they
wrote the Communist Manifesto (1848), and Engels wrote The Condition of the
Working Class in England (1844), in which he describes graphically the
living conditions in the center of London and Manchester and how these
contrast with the wealthy residences on the outskirts. Together, they
outlined the causes, effects, and political solutions to the problem of
poverty which became the inspiration for the communist revolutions of the
twentieth century.
Benthamism
Benthamism, also known as utilitarianism, became an important ideology in
Victorian society, especially among the middle class. The term was
associated with a philosophy of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), explained in
his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), which
was widely accepted among the Victorian middle class, affecting their
habits and beliefs. By the 1820s, the philosophy gained a number of
disciples who promoted Bentham's theories in debates. Supporters gained
political power in the 1830s when approximately one hundred were elected to
the first reform-focused Parliament in England.
At the core of this philosophy was the belief in "the greatest happiness
for the greatest number," a phrase borrowed from Joseph Priestley, a late
eighteenth-century Unitarian theologian, which appeared in Bentham's
Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. In Victorian
People and Ideas, Richard D. Altick explains:
utilitarianism was wholly hedonistic; it made no allowance for the
promptings of conscience, or for the forces of generosity, mercy,
compassion, selfsacrifice, love. Benthamite ethics had nothing to do with
Christian morality.
At the heart of this belief was the supposition that self-interest should
be one's primary concern and that happiness could be attained by avoiding
pain and seeking pleasure, qualities that emerge in James Steerforth's
character.
Evangelicalism
Another important middle-class movement in the nineteenth century was
evangelicalism, a form of Protestant pietism. Evangelicalism focused less
on doctrine and more on the day-to-day lives and eventual salvation of its
followers. It set rigid patterns of conduct for its practitioners to follow
in order that they might find atonement for their sins. Altick notes that
"the Evangelical's anxious eye was forever fixed upon the 'eternal
microscope' which searched for every moral blemish and reported every
motion of the soul." Edward Murdstone and his sister's treatment of David
provides good examples of this type of rigid, moralistic code.
Both utilitarian and evangelical movements, however, are also noted for
their involvement in humanitarian activities during the Victorian period
and especially for their calls for social reforms. Benthamites supported
universal suffrage and education while the evangelicals successfully fought
for amelioration of brutal prison conditions.
A Victorian Woman's Place
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, women (like men) were
confined to the classes in which they were born, unless their fathers or
husbands moved up or down in the social hierarchy. The strict rules for
each social class defined women and determined their lives. Women in the
upper classes had