Thursday, February 7, 2013

Industrialism and the Victorian novel

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The industrial revolution created an entirely new dynamic in British society. Whilst a population explosion quadrupled the number of people, millions also migrated to the large cities in search of work in factories, creating a new urban underclass that had never existed previously. While London had a population of 00 thousand in 1801, a century later it had increased nearly seven fold, the majority of these being working class country people who had come to the cities in hope of work, or the children of these. They often lived in abject poverty, working long hours for little money and much of their living and working conditions are reflected in the literature of the time.

Some idea of what life might have been like for the urban working class in the Victorian era is given in Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Mary Barton (1848). The eponymous heroine is a young working class woman living in urban Manchester, and much of what goes on around her is clearly described to give the reader an idea of what her life is like. Many descriptions are designed to evoke sympathy for the plight of the working classes. In particularly the numerous deaths, especially infant deaths, which occur almost as a sideline to the thrust of the narrative, although none the less would have been a distinct part of the lives of working class Manchester people in the “Hungry Forties”, are obviously designed to play on the reader’s sympathies. By establishing the characters of family members and the personal effect such deaths have on them, it helps the reader identify with their losses, encouraging them to imagine themselves in the same situation. For example, John Barton’s disgust for the upper-classes could at first seeming almost irrational, yet once the circumstances of his sons death through want of the basic necessities is explained the bitterness he feels towards those who had enough money to save his child but did not care is understandable. This device can be seen at its height in the final chapters where Mary is left orphaned, and Jem with only his widowed mother, thus leaving only three of the two principle families alive and inviting the reader to consider how they would cope with such a profusion of needless death.

Yet not only does the novel help to convey a realistic idea of what life might have been like by creating empathy between reader and characters, it also highlights the disparity of the situation between rich and poor by juxtaposing luxury and starvation. Specifically the chapter entitled ‘Poverty and Death’ where John Barton and his friend Wilson visit a family where the breadwinner has fallen ill and then dies for lack of medical attention is the most bleak and hopeless scenes in the novel. Yet it is made more effective by the distinct contrast with the luxury displayed in the Carson household when John goes to get a medical form. The “luxurious library” with its “well spread breakfast-table” seem almost criminal decadence, while one of the Davenport’s two rooms is said to be unfit for any “human being, much less a pig, [to] have lived there many days”. Comparisons can be drawn between the bedridden mother of the Carson family who is in a bad mood and has a headache, and the mother of the Davenport family who must lie on the floor despite her starvation and sickness, because her husband has greater need for the bed. This scene shows both sides of the ever widening gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” that was noticed by so many writers.

H.G.Wells Time Machine (185) shows a horrific vision of the future if such a social structure were to continue. The upper-classes have evolved into the idle, easily bored and ultimately incapable Eloi, beautiful beings of pleasure that live on the surface of the earth. Meanwhile, due to their working hours and living conditions, the working classes have become the Morlocks, allergic to sunlight due to lack of exposure to it, and staffing massive underground industries for the Eloi’s use. Ultimately the Morlocks have the greater power, tolerating the Eloi only because they are seen similar to cattle in a field, present only as the Morlocks use them as a source of food. Though it is presented as a fantasy world of one writers imagination, the characters listening to the travellers tales often disbelieving themselves, the novel is obviously a call for a change in the system, aiming to shock and disgust the public into the realisation that not only is such a disparity unjust, it is simply detrimental to both sides. It is hard to imagine any contemporary readers would have liked to view themselves as either Eloi or Morlock, and yet when presented in such basic terms to them it seems perfectly possible that this vision could indeed be the future if some reformation did not occur.

While Time Machine is a good example of a work emphasising the need for change, there are also many contemporary writings that comment on possible solutions to the problem. In Mary Barton while the character’s prospects are only joyous because they are choosing to emigrate, which while being one solution to the poor standard of living that existed for the urban underclass, is one that would be open to very few, Gaskill does pass judgement on the Trade Union movement. Trade unionism was increasing as a force throughout the Victorian era, with many of the working classes seeing strength in numbers as an asset. Chartism, the often violent movement offering an attempt to change working class conditions, was often connected with them. In his essay Chartism written in 18, Thomas Carlyle defines Chartism as “the bitter discontent grown fierce and mad, the wrong condition therefore or the wrong disposition of the Working Class of England”. This could be considered a rather Liberal view of the movement, Thomas Carlyle having great sympathy with the conditions of the working class, where as others of his station simply saw the violence and “Glasgow thuggery”. It is distinct distaste for unionism that is shown by Elizabeth Gaskill, who is otherwise sympathetic to the Working Class plight. The character of John Barton becomes increasingly neglectful of his daughter as his interest in unionism grows after his wife’s death, until he can be adequately described as “a Chartist, ready to do anything for his order”. His union activity is directly proportional to his degeneration as a character, until he is prepared to murder for his cause. Along with her indirect condemnation of Union activity through the degeneration of John’s character, another of Gaskill’s reasons against unionism is put into the mouth of Job Leigh when he says “I were obliged to become a member for peace…they will force me to be wise as they are; now that’s not British liberty”. Whether or not Gaskill’s opinions on unionism are justified could be a matter of historical debate, any chartist would have to contend with far more difficult opposition than simple negativity.

The despite their protests and all the attempts to raise the profile of their plight, Chartists had to contend with gross ignorance. Mr Bounderby in Charles Dickens Hard Times (1854) sees unionists as “as set of rascals and rebels whom transportation is too good for!” and any union activity he exclaims is due to a desire to be fed “turtle soup and venison with a golden spoon”, as the work in the mills is “the pleasantest work there is, and it’s the lightest work there is, and it’s the best paid work there is…we couldn’t improve the mills themselves, unless we laid down Turkey carpets on the floors”. However, the living and working conditions of Stephen Blackpool and Rachael show this to be far from the case. The utilitarian ideals that are embodied by Mr Gradgrind and Mr Bourderby, are proved distinctly lacking by the end of the novel. The dysfunctional lives of all of those brought up through Gradgrind’s school, the distinct contrast between Sissy Jupe and Bitzer being a case in point, shows that the ideology while maybe not terminally flawed, creates heartless and unfeeling individuals, whose necessity for statistics leaves them incomplete. Facts are not all that is needed; sympathy for other human beings is also required.

Chapter II of Thomas Carlyle’s Chartism deals solely with the problems of using only statistics. He uses illustrations such as employment figures leaving uncounted the number of people who no longer have need for jobs as they have died through starvation. While he later claims “He that will not work according to his faculty, let him perish according to his necessity” he believes that the chartists complaints are justified, feeling great sympathy for those he dubs the “Sanspotatoes” (ie. Those without potatoes, or any other staple to eat). He ultimately believes that most of these people work to the best of their ability but are still unable to earn a living. Despite being somewhat idealistic, attributing all the anger and violence of the Chartist movement to a gross feeling of injustice on the part of the working class, whereas it probably springs from the more basic need of starvation, his call for action from the government, condemning the Laissez-Faire attitude and Poor Law regulations as insufficient is commendable for its time, despite how moderate it may seem to the modern reader used to the comforts of the welfare state.

It was indeed the same view of Industrial England that inspired Das Kapital, Karl Marx work that founded the communist ideals. Yet the “two classes…daily becoming more opposed to one another” did not cause a revolution in this country as it did in so many other parts of Europe. The year Mary Barton was written, 1848, saw a wave of revolutions across Italy, Austro-Hungary, France and countless other places, and though the principles behind them were Liberal and Nationalist, they gained mass support because the masses were starving. Britain’s different political system meant they were not subject to such individual causes, but ultimately “mutual interests and mutual respect” between the classes are what saved this country from a mass uprising later on. Though reform was slow in coming, the situation did not reach such a desperate pitch as to make revolution and overhaul necessary. Although ultimately the range of texts covered in this essay is limited to ones that show only sympathy for the working classes, this situation in England was not as bad as it could have been, other European countries suffering much more from the wake of the industrial revolution.

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