Bourgeois ideology in nineteenth-century England confronted a severe problem. footnote1 Its withered roots in the sparse soil of utilitarianism seriously limited its ability to produce a richly symbolic, potently affective set of mythologies capable of permeating the texture of lived experience and so of performing the functions of an ideology in the fullest sense. Permanently crippled in phenomenological capacity, it needed to have constant resort to the Romantic humanist heritage—to that nebulous, elusive amalgam of Burkean conservatism and German idealism, forged by the later Coleridge and transmitted to Carlyle, Disraeli, Arnold and Ruskin, which offered an idealist critique of bourgeois social relations coupled with a consecration of the rights of capital. Part of the specific complexity of English nineteenth-century bourgeois ideology, founded on a complex conjuncture of bourgeois and aristocratic classes within the hegemonic bloc, lies in this contradictory unity of ‘organic’ and ‘traditional’ elements, whereby an impoverished empiricist liberalism exploits the symbolically fertile, metaphysically coercive resources of Romantic humanism, with its nostalgic, reactionary, quasi-feudal social models, to stabilize and ratify bourgeois property relations. The ‘Culture and Society’ tradition is the literary record of this ideological conjuncture; footnote2 John Stuart Mill, mechanistically harnessing Coleridge to Bentham in the late eighteen thirties, provides one of its more palpable instances. footnote3

Antonio Gramsci has commented on this ideological formation in nineteenth-century England. ‘There is a very extensive category of organic intellectuals—those, that is, who come into existence on the same industrial terrain as the economic group—but in the higher sphere we find that the old land-owning class preserves its position of virtual monopoly. It loses its economic supremacy but maintains for a long time a politico-intellectual supremacy and is assimilated as “traditional intellectuals” and as directive (dirigente) group by the new group in power. The old land-owning aristocracy is joined to the industrialists by a kind of suture which is precisely that which in other countries unites the traditional intellectuals with the new dominant classes.’ footnote4

That assimilation of ‘traditional’ and ‘organic’ intellectuals is the key to the historic significance in Victorian England of Matthew Arnold. The thrust of Arnold’s social criticism, partly concealed by his best-known work Culture and Anarchy, is to convert a sectarian, internally divided and visionless industrial bourgeoisie pragmatically sunk in its own material interests into a cohesive, truly hegemonic class, capable of elaborating in the ideological sphere the predominance it has come to hold in history. To achieve this goal the bourgeoisie must be inserted into the organic footnote5 totality of ‘Culture’, that spiritual Absolute which subsumes one-sided class interests into transcendental unity. More specifically, it must appropriate the civilized aesthetic heritage of the aristocracy in order to equip itself with a world view capable of incorporating the proletariat. ‘The middle classes, remaining as they are now, with their narrow, harsh, unintelligent and unattractive spirit and culture, will almost certainly fail to mould or assimilate the masses below them.’ footnote6 For Arnold, the aristocracy is losing political hegemony but its historical successor, the bourgeoisie, is disastrously unprepared ideologically to assume it; as a Government Inspector of Schools and the son of Thomas Arnold of Rugby, his insistence is accordingly on the historical necessity for the bourgeoisie to attain to ‘higher’, more unified forms by enshrining itself in national culture and educational institutions.

Idealist and historicist though Arnold’s conception of ideological hegemony is, his relation of ‘organic’ cultural modes to the drive to consolidate a corporate social formation in which the bourgeoisie can install itself as a ‘national’ class has a significance for Victorian and modern literature which it is the purpose of this article to examine. Arnold’s work belongs to a significant mutation in nineteenth-century liberalism: as Victorian capitalism is driven to transcend its earlier, nakedly competitive phase of primitive accumulation and organize itself into more corporate forms, footnote7 a transformation of the classical liberalism which finds a late formulation in Mill’s On Liberty (1859) proves increasingly essential. In this process, ‘organic’ bourgeois ideology (in Gramsci’s sense) has more intensive resort to the social and aesthetic organicism of the Romantic humanist tradition, finding in aesthetic production models of totality and affectivity relevant to its ideological demands. During the period of Arnold’s social criticism, the initially poetic notion of ‘organic form’ becomes increasingly extended to the dominant literary mode of the time, fiction. footnote8 A serious aesthetics of fiction consequently develops, to discover its major ideologue at the end of the century in Henry James. This article will survey in skeletal and schematic form some relations between a sector of the major literature of the last century and the ideological formations in which it is set, taking the concepts of ‘organic form’ and ‘organicism’ as one crucial nexus between history and literary production.

George Eliot’s literary career from her translation of Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu (1846) to Daniel Deronda (1876) is almost exactly coterminous with the period of Victorian prosperity which follows the severe depression and fierce class struggles of the eighteen thirties and forties. During this period productive output increased spectacularly, Britain’s volume of world trade grew rapidly, and money-wages probably rose by at least a third between 1850 and 1870. A familiar political consequence of this prosperity was a partial though marked incorporation of the working class. From the mid-century onwards, until the resurgence of proletarian militancy in the depressed eighties, corporatism becomes a prominent characteristic of wide areas of the working-class movement. Having defeated the first wave of working-class militancy, the industrial bourgeoisie had begun by 1850 to consolidate its victory. Sections of the working class advanced economically, only to become at each stage politically incorporated. On the eve of the second Reform Bill, R. H. Hutton argued in Essays in Reform (1867) that the trade unions had taught the workers the value of co-operation, sacrifice and solidarity, and that this principle might be usefully integrated into society as a whole. Through the unions, the working class had come to appreciate the value of true government and a ‘distrust of mere scattered energies’. This ‘class-patriotism’ must at all costs be channelled to national account; the spirit of trade unionism must be grafted ‘into the richer growth of our national politics’.