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Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The New Condition of England Novel?

We Brits are in an odd situation at the moment.

We’re sick of hearing about the national debt rising far beyond sustainable levels, but wanting the problem to go away doesn’t necessarily mean it will. George Osborne, the new Chancellor, will soon spell out measures that will likely alter life for most people in this country and I wondered what effects this might have on fiction production. Are we heading into a new ‘Condition of England’ novel era?

Arguably, novels have been about social issues since Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson began writing in the 18th Century. You can’t get through a book without there being some commentary on the condition of contemporary life, even if that book is set in the past like Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. For want of a better term, contemporary life sinks in to a piece of work whether the author likes it or not. I haven’t been a big reader of modern fiction lately (having had my head buried into Victorian Sensation Fiction) but I would imagine a lot of the issues that gnaw at society at the moment – the recession, immigration, child abuse – have been present in modern novels in one form or another.

So in that case, has the ‘Condition of England’ novel ever really receded into the background? If what occupies authors, consciously or otherwise, is the state of their own world then surely the ‘Condition of England’ has been around since the year dot?

The answer, for me, lies in the original coining of the term.

The Victorian period was actually an era of great upheaval for the country. The transition from being a rural nation to urban Industrialisation is something that modern readers may underestimate because we’re so used to living in towns and cities ourselves. Equally, the Reform Act 1832 altered the political system in an unprecedented way. It’s perhaps no surprise that new Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, is describing his hopes for Proportional Representation in Government as the biggest change to the voting system since 1832.

Aside from this, morality was usually a large factor in the writing of a ‘Condition of England’ novel. Authors used their platform to push for social change in a way that would benefit the working classes. I’d argue that whatever your political affiliations it’s easy to see the parallels with the contemporary situation: the adage ‘the rich get rich and the poor get poorer’ seems painfully apt in the run up to our Emergency Budget.

History would suggest we’re about to get an influx of problem novels bemoaning the state of the country and pushing for change. However, there is also another school of thought. Comedy thrives during times of hardship. In the Victoria era the working classes flocked to music halls to enjoy themselves and forget their woes for a few hours. The modern equivalent of this – the West End theatre – is doing remarkably well at the moment, despite the ticket prices. People seem to love the escapism of seeing Wicked or Sister Act! on stage, and amateur productions seem to be thriving also.

If the masses are being distracted so thoroughly do we need a new ‘Condition of England’ novel? Or have we got the stage where we don’t believe we can solve our social problems anymore and just want to accept our lot while praying it doesn’t get any worse around here?

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