North and South

The English Nineteenth-Century Novel
Dr. Christina Lupton
27th January 2015

“The phrase ‘getting on’ became established usage in the 1840s.   It meant making a success of one’s life, building a career, finding a place in the mainstream of society, often from beginnings that were disadvantaged or isolated” (Rick Rylance).   Examine the figure of the “self-made man” in two or more novels.

For much of the 19th Century, the transformative effects of the Industrial Revolution were still being keenly felt by Victorian society. The British social consciousness had been dramatically re-structured by the systematic shift away from the economic inheritance and governance of the upper-middle classes and towards a capitalist modernity in which – in theory – it was possible for any man to earn a place in the Victorian bourgeoisie through financial gain. The literary figure of the ‘self-made man’ became increasingly prevalent in popular literature during this period, with characters such as Wuthering Heights’ Heathcliff or Frederick Wentworth in Austen’s Persuasion capturing the public imagination. But these new ‘self-made’ protagonists did not just reflect support for the rapidly-modernising era. Rather, they functioned in part as a tool by which the advantages and limitations of the new capitalist system could be navigated. When the self-made man character was successful in his endeavours, then the readership were able to measure the respective successes of the new method of societal organisation. When the character failed, the flaws of modern society were accordingly called into question. The relationship between the reader and the character was therefore one which served a purpose outside of the confines of the text; it aided an understanding of the changes that were occurring as a result of the effects of Industrialism.

Despite being written twenty years apart, the self-made male protagonists of Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now (1875) and Elizabeth...