From the Gallery: The Victorian ‘Industrial’ Novel

Can a middle-class art form such as the novel really convey the realities of working-class life in the industrial age?


I have recently returned from a trip to Europe which ended in Manchester. Manchester is today a lively, modern city of clear skies, broad canals and proud Victorian architecture. However, the modern city was built on the backs of the dark, satanic mills of the Industrial Revolution.

Although most of us would think of Victorian literature as being about and for the leisured and middle classes, there is also a stream known as the ‘Industrial Novel’ which went beyond this narrow field and ventured into the Midlands where much of the wealth of the leisured classes was created. These novels can give us an insight into what the industrial north looked like, how it worked and how it was regarded in its own time.

Spoiler alerts: these studies examine these novels in depth.


‘Hard Times’ by Charles Dickens


Etching of Charles Dickens in middle age
Charles Dickens

The quintessential Victorian novelist, Charles Dickens set most of his work in London and the home counties where he grew up. In Hard Times, however, Dickens ventures away from London into another urban environment — a mill town in Lancashire.

Dicken’s Coketown is based on Preston, now part of greater Manchester, where he went in 1853 to report on a long-standing strike and gather material for a novel about the industrial system he abhorred. However, if you are looking for a detailed description of the physical environment and the social structure of a mill-town, you will not find it in Hard Times. Hard Times is more about the concept of an industrial city, rather than the fact of it.

Dickens does describe Coketown as a city of red brick blackened by smoke, of polluted canals and filthy air, of tall chimneys and vast mills trembling with machinery, of identical streets inhabited by identical, browbeaten people. But in Hard Times, Dickens’ essential focus is on the effect industrialisation has on the human soul.

The workers in the mills are reduced to mindless automatons, known as Hands, while the rest of their bodies, especially their minds and hearts are ignored. The bosses themselves have come to identify so closely with the industrial process that they have reduced their whole world to facts and nothing but the facts. Through a strict educational system, the industrialist attempts to eliminate all fancy and wonder from young minds.

In Hard Times Dickens, as is his wont, creates some grotesque and memorable characters. Thomas Grandgrind made his fortune in the wholesale hardware trade and now devotes his life to education and parliament. In the school he has endowed, hundreds of anonymous children of mill hands are mindlessly drilled in facts by a schoolmaster who himself knows nothing but facts. Grandgrind has applied his educational theories to his own children, but will eventually learn, very painfully, that his methods have led to his children’s ruin and unhappiness.

Josiah Bounderby, a millionaire mill-owner, is a self-made man, who, like the Yorkshiremen parodied by Monty Python, while continuously indulging in ‘humble boasting’ of his infinitely hard upbringing, is totally hostile to any attempt by his Hands to better their lot. Both these figures satirise the class which has benefited from industrialisation. They are monstrous in their total lack of sympathy with their fellow man and the self-imposed, inhuman, limitations of their world view.

On the other hand, the working class is represented by Stephen and Rachael, two characters impossibly saintly in their endurance and integrity. In fact, in one scene, as Rachael watches over Stephen’s drunken wife, he sees a golden glow around her head. Both these characters want nothing more than to be able to work till they drop and be left alone to love each other, although their love must never be consummated or even acknowledged as Stephen cannot free himself from that drunken wife.

Painting of Coming Home From The Mill by L.S. Lowry
Coming Home From The Mill by L.S. Lowry

In setting this novel in an industrial town and peopling it with mill owners and mill hands, one would expect from Dickens some kind of trenchant analysis of industrialisation. Yet any such analysis is curiously lacking. In satirising the industrialists and sanctifying the workers, Dickens’ makes it obvious where his sympathies lie. He shows us the dehumanising effects of industrialisation on both workers and capitalists, yet seems to accept it as inevitable and offers no solutions. In fact, he demonstrates cynicism and hostility towards the very institutions that might.

On the flimsiest of pretexts, Dickens has Stephen refuse to take action with his union and he is ostracised. The union is portrayed as cruel, corrupt and ineffectual. Even though a sleazy agitator is brought in to stir up the workers, the action he is calling for never eventuates. Stephen himself gives a long speech about the problematic relationship between workers and bosses yet can only come up with all the ways it cannot be solved. Stephen’s only hope is that parliament will find a solution.

Yet the two parliamentarians Dickens gives us are just as corrupt and ineffectual. The parliament Grandgrind attends is described as a dustheap and Grandgrind as a dustman whose work consists of throwing around the dry dust of statistics and narrow self-interest. His protégé, James Harthouse, is an indolent and amoral young aristocratic who takes up with the industrialists’ party merely as a means of making his personal fortune.

Eventually all the characters are brought together in a plot which is cleverly structured, but is basically a family tragedy to which the industrial background, while having shaped some of the characters, is barely more than incidental.

In Hard Times, Dickens gives us a dark and unbalanced treatment of a situation which, while dire, in reality offered some hope. While in the novel he portrays the union as having no saving graces, in his reporting on the strike in Preston he gave detailed descriptions of union meetings in which the workers offered each other solidarity and support while rejecting all polemics. And he would know from his many years as a parliamentary reporter that the fact finding that he satirises did give rise to some far-reaching reforms.

It is as though Dickens, even in the face of his own understanding of the evils of capitalism, is still afraid to divert from his liberal humanism. Is this a fear of changing his own mind, or of attracting the wrath of the conservative media of his time?

‘North and South’ by Elizabeth Gaskell


Etching of Elizabeth Gaskell
Elizabeth Gaskell

North and South was serialised in Dickens’ magazine Household Words soon after Hard Times came to a conclusion. Mrs Gaskell was afraid that the two stories were too similar in setting and theme, but the two novels could not be more different. While Hard Times is primarily a biting satire, North and South gives a measured and balanced picture of life in an industrial city.

The wife of a Unitarian minister in Manchester, Elizabeth Gaskell lived for most of her life in the city she describes. Her position as minister’s wife and successful author brought her into contact with all levels of society in Manchester and this is clearly reflected in North and South. However, as Mrs Gaskell’s first choice of title, ‘Margaret Hale’, implies, this novel is primarily the coming-of-age story of a young woman. The plot turns on two parallel relationships — the tentative romance between Margaret and Mr Thornton, and the conflict between Milton’s mill owners and their workers.

Margaret is the daughter of a Church of England vicar who, because of religious scruples, leaves his idyllic country parish in the south of England and takes his family to Milton Northern (a thinly disguised Manchester) to take up a new life as a tutor in the classics. There Margaret meets industrialists through her father’s student, John Thornton, a successful mill owner with a formidable mother, and mill workers through her chance encounter with Nicholas Higgins and his daughter Bessy. Through these characters Margaret sees both sides of the Industrial Relations debate in Milton.

Unlike Dickens’ mill owners, Mr Thornton is a well-rounded character whom the reader might come to respect if not quite like. He is a thoughtful man who, while open to discussion is, to begin with at least, thoroughly persuaded that unfettered commerce is the best way to go. If anyone is to play the role of Grandgrind it is his mother, Mrs Thornton, who has no sympathy for the workers, in fact has no sympathy for anyone except her beloved son. She comes closest to Grandgrind in her opinions on education. She thinks her son is wasting his time reading Greek classics with Mr Hale since the only suitable education for a mill owner is a thoroughly practical one.

Nicholas Higgins represents the workers and is a union man through and through. Again in contrast to Dickens, while Mrs Gaskell has made him sympathetic, he is neither a saint nor corrupt. He can be very hard on those who refuse to join the union or defy union instructions, but only because, as he explains to Margaret, strict solidarity is essential if the workers are to hold their own against the mill owners. If anyone is sanctified it is Bessy, who is dying of a respiratory disease caused by the fluff which fills the air of the carding-room. Despite her father’s agnosticism, Bessy consoles herself with visions of a Methodist Paradise.

Painting of The Dinner Hour, Wigan, by Eyre Crowe
The Dinner Hour, Wigan, by Eyre Crowe

It is in the discussion of Bessy’s illness that Mrs Gaskell sketches in miniature the larger problems encountered in the early years of the Industrial Revolution. Higgins explains to Margaret that the amount of fluff in the air could be reduced by the installation of a large fan. While the mill owners are understandably loath to part with the five or six hundred pounds required, many of the workers object to the fans because they believe that swallowing the fluff assuages their hunger. So between the mill owners’ avarice and the mill workers’ ignorance nothing is done and workers like Bessy continue to die.

As opposed to Coketown, the tensions between Masters and Hands in Milton do come to a head in a strike, albeit a strike that fails due to the violent lack of discipline in a few workers. As one of the strike leaders, Higgins loses his job and, encouraged by Margaret, approaches Mr Thornton. Although he turns him away at first, Thornton is impressed by Higgins’ patience and offers him a position. Higgins naturally becomes a leader amongst the workers while developing a rudimentary friendship with Thornton. It is from this interpersonal relationship that an understanding grows between them as owner and worker and together they are able to make improvements in the workers’ conditions.

But even while this understanding develops the strike’s long-term repercussions are devastating for Thornton and, if it were not for a loan from an unexpected source, the mill would have to be shut down.

These two outcomes make pretty clear Mrs Gaskell’s views on Industrial Relations. While she sees more hope than Dickens does, she, too, in the end comes down on the side of economic liberalism. She too sees unionism as ultimately destructive and unproductive. And while she sees that solutions are possible, it is only on the enterprise and personal level.

However, this rapprochement occurs only in this one mill. There is no suggestion that any of Thornton’s fellow mill owners have made any concessions whatsoever. Economic liberalism might be applicable on the small scale, but, without consciously acknowledging it, Mrs Gaskell has shown that it is not up to dealing with the wider issues.

‘Anna of the Five Towns’ by Arnold Bennett


B&W Photograph of Arnold Bennett in middle age
Arnold Bennett

Anna of the Five Towns was published in 1902, forty years after the previous two books. By that time industrialisation was firmly entrenched in British society and economy and had become an accepted (if still a touch avant-garde) subject for literature. Rather than Lancashire, the ‘Five Towns’ are a fictionalised Stoke-on-Trent (where I spent an unplanned but pleasant afternoon) in Staffordshire, centre of the English ceramics industry known as ‘the potteries’.

Bennett grew up in Staffordshire, but left it for London as a young man. Although no doubt he continued to visit, he never again lived there. However, we can see from this book that his childhood home left a deep impression on him. Bennett describes the Five Towns in loving detail. By day it might be a dirty townscape of pottery works and coal mines, but by night it is lit by distant fires which gives it a fairyland glamour.

We see the Five Towns through the point of view of Anna Tellwright, who also comes of age during the course of this novel. Anna is the daughter of a hardhearted miser who exacts total submission from his daughters. Even when Anna turns twenty-one and legally comes into possession of her own fortune, she is so used to submission that she cannot control her own money, but must still ask permission of her father to spend even a few shillings. Although born and bred in the Five Towns, Anna has been isolated by her father and only slowly begins to participate in her community.

Unlike the other two novels, Anna of the Five Towns is not about the relationship between master and hands. Although the working class and its children are present, they form merely a backdrop to the action. The closest we come to the working class is when Anna is taken on a tour of the pottery works she has invested in with her fiancé, Henry Mynors. However, here we have a scene that should, but never does, occur in the previous two books, a detailed description of a working factory.

Anna’s own development and her relationships are very much the focus of this book, but in the background, Bennett explores the workings of the middle class and especially how its subtle economic gradations are acted out within the unifying force of evangelical Christianity. All the characters co-operate as stalwarts of the church, but their relationships on the economic front are very different.

Struggling to make a living under difficult circumstances, Titus Price is much respected as the stern Superintendant of the Sunday School, but as an industrialist he is looked down on for his lack of business skills. In contrast, Henry Mynors, the scion of an old potteries family, is looked up to for his economic acumen and is respected both on the church and industrial fronts. The Suttons are easy going people, comfortable in their wealth. Mrs Sutton herself is a deeply religious and compassionate woman. Yet none of them lift a finger to help Price and his son Willie as Tellwright gleefully pushes them to the wall. They see the laws of economics as being as inexorable as the laws of God.

Painting of An Impression of the Potteries in the 1930s by Victor Skellern
An Impression of the Potteries in the 1930s by Victor Skellern

Anna alone has pity on them and tries to help. Although at first, schooled by her father, she is shocked by their indebtedness, once she gets to know them and their situation, she feels sorry for them. The factory for which Tellwright presses them to pay their overdue rent is so badly designed and run down that it has made a major contribution to their failure. Tellwright acknowledges this but does not care and is too miserly to make any repairs. Despite her own innocence Anna feels deeply guilty that technically the factory belongs to her, and it is in her name that her father is harassing them. Unfortunately, her efforts come to nothing and their fate is inevitable.

In a way, Anna of the Five Towns is also about the effects of capitalism on the human soul. Here we see the same inhumanity of we saw in Bounderby and Grandgrind, though it is not acknowledged, but disguised behind a veneer of evangelical piety. In the end, although he is the most unlikeable character, Tellwright is at least not a hypocrite.


These three novels do give us a glimpse into life during the Industrial Revolution, but still the view is from the gallery from which the middle classes look down on the workers. These authors, for all their attempt to engage with the working class, cannot see from their point-of-view. They impose on the workers their own social values and economic and political models, proving that, despite the subject matter, the novel is still essentially a middle-class art-form.


©Pauline Montagna 2008


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