Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton and the Industrial Novel
Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton belongs to a small, short-lived form of Victorian literature called the industrial novel. The primary authors of this genre—Charles Kingsley, Frances Trollope, Charlotte Brontë, Benjamin Disraeli, Charles Dickens, and Elizabeth Gaskell—all were, what Herbert Sussman describes, as primarily middle-class authors writing for middle class readers in a rapidly changing world, where both author and reader struggled to comprehend their transforming society. The English people new not whether to accept this newly industrialized world as a necessary result of capitalism, or reject it for its inherent inhumanity. Writers like Gaskell portrayed the victims of this new world with sympathy, but expressed fear that the working-class would someday rise to overthrow the economic system that had treated them with such cruelty. As working conditions improved, and people became tempered to this new world, the industrial novel, with few exceptions, ceased to exist, but we can use this genre to look back on how the industrialized world—the world in which we now live comfortably—came into being.
It was just about 40 years before Elizabeth Gaskell published Mary Barton that Great Britain was primarily a rural, agricultural society. Many people grew their own food, and clothes and household materials were usually made within the home. Any specialized occupation almost always centered on the home and family, with children and parents both contributing to the family business. Three inventions, however, swiftly changed this system. The invention of the spinning mule and spinning jenny allowed mass production of woven cloth, which was more economical than the home-based system which it replaced, and required the building of large factories with large numbers of employees. It was the invention of the steam engine, however, that proved to be the fatal blow to the small family businesses of pre-Victorian English society, and allowed the rapid transformation detailed in the industrial novels.
The steam engine did three major things for the English economy. Before the steam engine the primary form of power for any factory or machine would have been the waterwheel, which provided little power, and required that any industry be located around a river. With the development of the steam engine, factories could be much larger, and could be located anywhere. Also, with the further development of the steam engine came the locomotive, which allowed rapid transportation of goods and people. Finally, because the steam engine required coal to operate, coalmines were built all over the English countryside. All of these things pushed people out of the country and into places like Birmingham, Bradford, and Manchester—cities that would soon become capitals of a new industrial English society.
It’s important to remember that the...