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With Mrs Gaskell and her "industrial" or "social - problem" novels,
we will be able to experience a completely new world as readers, that of Victorian industrial cities with their restless, fierce and troublesome citizens: factory owners and factory workers, "masters" and "hands", the rich and the poor.
Industrialization was radically changing the strictly conservative Victorian society but the strife to obtain modernity and basic rights was to be long, hard, paved with sufference and tragedy for workers.
We find very realistic, moving examples of working people's lives in Mrs Gaskell's MARY BARTON (1848) and NORTH AND SOUTH (1855).
Other key issues in her novels are women's social role, faith and religion, individual freedom vs social duty.
Elizabeth Gaskell lived in Manchester, the big industrial city in the north of England, as the wife of reverend Gaskell, and well knew the reality she describes through her writing. She sympathised with workers in their struggle to improve their living conditions; what she never approved of in the working class was the choice of violence as a fighting strategy. She absolutely rejected violence and arrogance both in the employers and in their employees. She invited them to face each other in an open, honest, man-to-man relationship based on dialogue.
Read the following excerpt from MARY BARTON to get in touch with Mrs Gaskell's mastery in involving the reader in poor workers' terrible living conditions. John Barton, the character on which the narrating voice focuses in this passage, is the protagonist's father and one of the key-characters in the novel. He has just lost his wife...
One of the good influences over John Barton's life had departed that night. One of the ties which bound him down to the gentle humanities of earth was loosened, and henceforward the neighbours all remarked he was a changed man. His gloom and his sternness became habitual instead of occasional. He was more bstinate. But never to Mary. Between the father and the daughter there existed in full force that mysterious bond which unites those who have been loved by one who is now dead and gone. While he was harsh and silent to others, he humoured Mary with tender love: she had more of her own way than is common in any rank with girls of her age. Part of this was the necessity of the case; for of course all the money went through her hands, and the household arrangements were guided by her will and pleasure. But part was her father's indulgence, for he left her, with full trust in her unusual sense and spirit, to choose her own associates, and her own times for seeing them.
With all this, Mary had not her father's confidence in the matters which now began to occupy him, heart and soul; she was aware that he had joined clubs, and become an active member of the Trades' Union, but it was hardly likely that a girl of Mary's age (even when two or three years had elapsed since her mother's death) should care much for the differences between the employers and the employed—an eternal subject for agitation in the manufacturing districts, which,however it may be lulled for a time, is sure to break forth again with fresh violence at any depression of trade, showing that in its apparent quiet, the ashes had still smouldered in the breasts of a few.
Among these few was John Barton. At all times it is a bewildering thing to the poor weaver to see his employer removing from house to house, each one grander than the last, till he ends in building one more magnificent than all, or withdraws his money from the concern,or sells his mill, to buy an estate in the country, while all the time the weaver, who thinks he and his fellows are the real makers of this wealth, is struggling on for bread for his children, through
the vicissitudes of lowered wages, short hours, fewer hands employed, etc. And when he knows trade is bad, and could understand (at least partially) that there are not buyers enough in the market to purchase the goods already made, and consequently that there is no demand for more; when he would bear and endure much without complaining, could he also see that his employers were bearing their share; he is, I say, bewildered and (to use his own word)"aggravated" to see that all goes on just as usual with the millowners. Large houses are still occupied, while spinners' and weavers' cottages stand empty, because the families that once filled them are obliged to live in rooms or cellars. Carriages still roll along the streets, concerts are still crowded by subscribers, the shops for expensive luxuries still find daily customers, while the workman loiters away his unemployed time in watching these things, and thinking of the pale, uncomplaining wife at home, and the wailing children asking in vain for enough of food--of the sinking health, of the dying life of those near and dear to him. The contrast is too great. Why should he alone suffer from bad times?
I know that this is not really the case; and I know what is the truth in such matters; but what I wish to impress is what the workman feels and thinks. True, that with child-like improvidence, good times will often dissipate his grumbling, and make him forget all prudence and foresight.But there are earnest men among these people, men who have endured wrongs without complaining, but without ever forgetting or forgiving those whom (they believe) have caused all this woe.Among these was John Barton. His parents had suffered; his mother had died from absolute want of the necessaries of life. He himself was a good, steady workman, and, as such, pretty certain of steady employment. But he spent all he got with the confidence (you may also call it improvidence) of one who was willing, and believed himself able, to supply all his wants by his own exertions. And when his master suddenly failed, and all hands in the mill wereturned back, one Tuesday morning, with the news that Mr. Hunter had stopped, Barton had only a few shillings to rely on; but he had good heart of being employed at some other mill, and accordingly, before returning home, he spent some hours in going from factory to factory, asking for work. But at every mill was some sign of depression of trade! some were working short hours, some were turning off hands, and for weeks Barton was out of work, living on credit. It was during this time that his little son, the apple of his eye, the cynosure of all his strong power of love, fell ill of the scarlet fever. They dragged him through the crisis, but his life hung on a gossamer thread. Everything, the doctor said,depended on good nourishment, on generous living, to keep up the little fellow's strength, in the prostration in which the fever had left him. Mocking words! when the commonest food in the house would not furnish one little meal. Barton tried credit; but it was worn out at the little provision shops, which were now suffering in their turn. He thought it would be no sin to steal, and would have stolen; but he could not get the opportunity in the few days thechild lingered. Hungry himself, almost to an animal pitch of ravenousness, but with the bodily pain swallowed up in anxiety for his little sinking lad, he stood at one of the shop windows where all edible luxuries are displayed; haunches of venison, Stilton cheeses, moulds of jelly--all appetising sights to the common passer-by. And out of this shop came Mrs. Hunter! She crossed to her carriage, followed by the shopman loaded with purchases for a party. The door was quickly slammed to, and she drove away; and Barton returned home with a bitter spirit of wrath in his heart to see his only boy a corpse!You can fancy, now, the hoards of vengeance in his heart against the employers. For there are never wanting those who, either in speech or in print, find it their interest to cherish such feelings in the working classes; who know how and when to rouse the dangerous power at their command; and who use their knowledge with unrelenting purpose to either party.So while Mary took her own way, growing more spirited every day, and growing in her beauty too, her father was chairman at many a Trades'Union meeting; a friend of delegates, and ambitious of being a delegate himself; a Chartist, and ready to do anything for his order.
|The old chartist by Frederick Sandys (1862)|
(The artist represents a mourner near the tombstone of a man who died of his labour, showing his sympathy for the political movement of Chartism, dedicated to the emancipation of working people)
N.B. Download the worksheet for the analysis of the passage above. Look for WS-Mary Barton (word file) in the Widget Box on the right.
The effects of industrialisation in 19th -century Britain were profound and far-reaching. The intense industrilisation of the North and the Midlands, the unrest of workers and their organization into workers' movements (Chartism, for instance) or unions, the continued exploitation of children as workers, unhealthy working conditions and the developing power of a new middle-class of factory owners inevitably became the subject of literature.
The industrial revolution had, of course, begun much earlier but it is in the Victorian Age that industrialisation becomes so intense as to cause major changes in Britain's demography and structure. Britain's economy changed from being that of an agrarian and maritime economy with a relatively small quantity of cottage industry (small craftwork businesses which were based in the home such as spinning or weaving) to being one based on factory-based industry involving an enormous flux of people away from the countryside into industrialized towns.
A new class was born, the industrial middle class, whose firm belief in the inevitability of progress and their materialistic utilitarian philosophy promoted a factory system which brought enormous wealth to themselves and to the country. On the other side were the workers , both beneficiaries and victims of the system. They did , in fact, escape the extreme poverty of other countries such as Ireland, yet they were still very poor, enough for many children to die from hunger.
Workers had to work long hours in horrendous conditions and many died of industrially related diseases and accidents. The injustices of their lives inspired many to organize and attempt to fight the system. Trade unions were born and workers organized strikes, picketing and demonstrations. The first trade unions were accepted and recognized in the 1870s although workers had begun to organize some decades before.
RELATED LITERARY WORKS
Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) MARY BARTON (1848 ) and NORTH AND SOUTH (1855)
Elizabeth Gaskell explores with gravity the moral issues, hypocrisies and social injustices while framing within intriguing stories of love and human relations. We learn about the deseases associated with the textile industry, about early strikes, about black-leg labour brought in from Ireland, about starvation level wages, but we are also entertained by the intrigues and misunderstandings of a budding love affair.Gaskell's characters are realistic and evoke the reader's sympathies.
The key novelists who took up the theme of industrialisation besides Mrs Gaskell include Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte and the politician Benjamin Disraeli.
Charles Dickens (1812-1870)
In addition to his novel HARD TIMES (1845), which takes place in the industrial North, in one of the mill towns of Lancanshire and highlights the effects of the Industrial Revolution on man and the evironment, many of Dickens' novels focus on the plight of children and adults struggling to survive the consequences of urbanisation and industrialisation.
Charlotte Bronte (1816 -1855)
Charlotte Bronte set her novel SHIRLEY (1849) amid the industrial unrest , economic distress and unemployment of early 19th - century, at the time of the Luddites riots. The Luddites were workers who broke machines, "machine-breakers", between 1811 and 1812, their intention was to complain about the unemployment caused by the introduction of industrial machinery. Although the setting is of an earlier period, Bronte was nevertheless drawing attention to the results of industrialisation in contemporary Yorkshire.
Benjamin Disraeli (1804 -1881)
Benjamin Disraeli, one of Queen Victoria's Prime Ministers, gave his novel SYBYL (1845) the subtitle THE TWO NATIONS since , in it, he wanted to stress the enormous economic gap which divided the rich and the poor in Britain. It was as if Queen Victoria reigned on two different nations.