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 ...
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...oughout Europe, forced the English government to create new restrictions that outlawed child-labor, decreased working hours, increased worker safety, and implemented a host of other policies that allowed an overall improvement in living conditions for the working-class. By the end of the 19th century, the condition of the working-class was better than it had ever been, and England had survived the most rapid century of change in its history. Literary works like Mary Barton were Gaskell’s attempt to understand this period of change, and they are our best hope of fully understanding them ourselves.
Victorian Britain. Ed. Sally Mitchell. New York: Garland, 1988. “Factories,” “Factory Acts,” “Textile Industry,” “Working Hours.”
A Companion to Victorian Literature. Ed. Herbert F. Tucker. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999. “Industrial” by Herbert Sussman.
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