Albert Pionke’s Victorian Fictions of Middle-Class Status: Forms of Absence in the Age of Reform 

Albert D. Pionke is the William and Margaret Going Endowed Professor of English at the University of Alabama. He is the author and editor of eight books and dozens of shorter articles and essays. His newest publication is Victorian Fictions of Middle-Class Status: Forms of Absence in the Age of Reform (Edinburgh University Press, 2023). Van Newell recently interviewed him to discuss his research. 

Do scholars studying the middle-class status of the Victorian era create their own definition of middle class, or do they look to the novelists of that time to better make a determination?   

It’s probably impossible for scholars entirely to avoid creating their own definitions, whether out of their own experience or based upon the work of previous critics and theorists. In the case of status, two of the most influential precursors in the field are Max Weber and Pierre Bourdieu. My book builds upon but also challenges their ideas by arguing that what I call “negative assertions of value”—essentially, repudiations of more conventional rationales for social authority—lie at the heart of fictional representations of, let’s call it “middle-classness.” That Weber’s “style of life” and Bourdieu’s “cultural capital” play a key role in performing one’s possession of middle-class status seems to me inarguable; however, if what you do translates seamlessly into who you are, then why were the Victorians so anxious about where they fit in the social system? One solution to this anxiety presented itself to the period’s novelists—including Charlotte Brontë, Collins, Dickens, Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, William North, William Makepeace Thackeray, Anthony Trollope, and their contemporaries—who themselves wanted to be considered middle-class. Essentially, they created an absence that was neither aristocratic nor working-class; whose edges were defined by the denial of birth, wealth, numerical and physical force, statistical fact, and, for women, phallic authority within which to locate the middle class. Epistemologically uncertain, this representational and ideological strategy was also professionally efficacious, since it was grounded in appeals to a supposedly disinterested broad public, whose assent, whether fictional or material, modeled and justified the approval implied by such writers’ popular readership. 

Did literacy help create and/or develop the Victorian middle class or did this new class of people educate themselves as a function of upward mobility?  

As is so often the case in the humanities, the answer to this question is not so much a matter of “or” as it is a case of “and.”  In other words, increasing literacy rates helped to expand the middle class, and to enlarge the audience for discussions of the middle class, and to provide paths for upward mobility into the middle class by those eager to learn how best to understand their own new status.   

Regardless of vocation, were people outside the Church of England (Roman Catholics, Jews, non-Anglican protestants, etc.) viewed as lower class because of their religious beliefs? If one considers Prime Minister (and novelist) Benjamin Disraeli, he may seem to be a model of breaking past the limits of middle-class opportunities. Did Disraeli inspire his fellow novelists as a model of middle-class success?   
Strictly speaking, class is defined by one’s relationship to systems of production, and so whether one was Anglican or not was not directly related to one’s class position. Status, however, is often tied to one’s patterns of consumption, and those might well be affected, albeit indirectly, by one’s religion, race, gender, or other identity category. One might not buy a high-status product or service, for instance education at Oxford or Cambridge as a result of religion because one was unwilling to swear to the thirty-nine articles of the Anglican faith. Disraeli was a lightning rod on many issues in the period, but his individual success as a novelist, Member of Parliament, and eventual Prime Minister did not make him a hero or source of professional inspiration or emulation among the authors whom I read while writing Victorian Fictions of Middle-Class Status

Does one encounter similar concepts in Victorian literature to modern ones in our society like “imposter syndrome” or “faking it till you make it?”  

Just these sorts of anxieties are omnipresent in Victorian literature. They were called by different names, of course, but uncertainty about one’s place in the world, or the “sociohistorical condition of status inconsistency,” is, if we are to believe literary and cultural historian Michael McKeon, the defining “curse of modernity” (The Origins of the English Novel [Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987], 210). And novels became one of the key forms for representing this shared “curse” and the many possible responses to it, including buying one’s way to security, performing one’s social role until it became authentically one’s own, and repudiating values, ideas, and persons from which or whom one wished to be distinguished. 

One chapter deals with the repudiation of wealth in Victorian financial fiction. Is this concept one that rejects material possessions, the hoarding of money, both, or something else?  

A keen awareness of the fragility, even disingenuousness of middle-class status legitimated principally by wealth pervades Victorian fiction, which often cautions against over-reliance on the cash nexus to secure one’s place in the world. As repeated financial crashes, banking crises, and individual and institutional monetary scandals reminded everyone, wealth was an unstable basis on which build one’s place in Victorian society. Money was not necessarily the problem, as the numerous novelistic happy endings achieved through a fortuitous inheritance or provident marriage demonstrate; instead, it was the pursuit of money as an end in itself that could transform an abstraction of value into filthy lucre and its fictional possessor into an unsympathetic miser, a profligate gambler, a villainous fraud, or a pathetic bankrupt. 

Has writing this book led to any ideas as to where you wish to focus your future research?  

I hope to apply my deep familiarity with sociological theory and the history of women’s gradual enfranchisement and eventual suffrage, which combine in chapter five of Victorian Fictions of Middle-Class Status, to poetry. My next book-length project, tentatively entitled “Victorian Women’s Poetry and the Science of Society,” will diversify the objects of socio-literary analysis along the axes of gender and genre simultaneously, by repositioning Victorian women’s poetry at the center of nineteenth-century Britain’s reception, construction, and representation of sociology. Despite the overwhelming focus within histories of both disciplines on male founders, developers, and early institutional leaders, women contributed to the conceptual integration and eventual professionalization of literature and sociology from the beginning. And they did so not only in prose—including both the long-acknowledged fictions of George Eliot, as well as more recently recognized novels of Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Elizabeth Gaskell, Sarah Grand, Ellen Wood, Charlotte Yonge, and others—but also in verse. My hope is to begin both to recover women poets’ place in Britain’s socio-literary history, by rereading poems written by Victorian women who engaged self-consciously with the latest sociological ideas and public figures or presciently anticipated subsequent insights from sociological theory; and to account for their exclusion from this history, by revisiting the sociologically informed process of literary canonization that accompanied the expansion of public education in the final decades of the nineteenth century.