My current research examines how a mixed group of Victorian social writers think about the nature of collective progress, the fundamental reform they have in mind towards realizing their ideal society. I chart the shifting locus of social change in a chronological series of social visions: Robert Owen’s socialism, Benjamin Disraeli’s Young England, Charles Kingsley’s Christian Socialism, Matthew Arnold’s conception of the state, and George Eliot’s organicist conservatism – as different counterpoints to the Chartists’ focus on a democratized Parliament. I am interested in reading these social visions as essentially variations of a supra-political agency of collective progress, a way for me to argue against the industrial novels’ tendency to displace the political.
My larger goal is to trace a continuous thematic thread connecting these social visions – what do they share in common in envisioning ideal society? Specifically, I look at the different and conflicting ways they drive towards an ideal of community. Firstly, I discuss the temporal disjunction between Owen and Disraeli as they tether an ideal of community to a future cooperative model of society or a romanticized version of feudal England. I move on to contrast Kingsley’s internalized focus on a spiritual basis of social unity in the Christian ideal of fraternity and Arnold’s attempt to formulate social fellowship in a secular humanistic framework of culture. Thirdly, I examine contrastive ways among the Positivists to reconcile individualism to an organic conception of society. All in all, I reflect on the extent to which the Victorians’ attempts to improve society dealt fundamentally with the challenge of enjoining a view of common interest and a course of disinterested action despite the very real and tangible existence of conflicting class interests.