‘In the 1840 and 1850,’ says Robin, ‘a number of novels were published in England which had a certain family resemblance. Raymond William has called them “Industrial Novels” because they dealt with social and economic problems arising out of the industrial revolution, and in some cases described the nature of factory work. In their own time they were often called “Condition of England novels”, because they addressed themselves directly to the state of the nation. So, they are novels in which the main characters debate topical, social and economic issues as well as fall in and out of love, marry and have children, pursue careers, make or lose their fortunes, and do all the other things that characters do in more conventional novels. The industrial novel contributed a distinctive strain to English fiction which persists into the modern period – it can be traced in the work of Lawrence M. forester, for instance. But it’s not surprising that it first arouse in what history has called “the hungry Forties”.
‘By the 5th decade of the 19th C the industrial revolution had completely dislocated the traditional structure of English society, bringing riches to a few and misery to the many. The agricultural working class, deprived of a subsistence on the land by the enclosure of the late 18th and early 19th C, thronged to the cities of the midlands and the north, were the economic of the laissez-faire forced them to work long hours in wrecked conditions for miserable wages, and through them out of employment altogether as soon as there was a downturn in the market.
‘The workers attempt to defend their interest by forming trade unions was bitterly resisted by the employers. The working class met even stiffer resistance when they tried to secure political representation through the chartist movement.’
Robin closes up from her nose and sweeps the audience with her eyes. Some are busily scribbling them every word she utters, others are watching her quizzically, chewing the ends of their ball points, and those who look bored at the outset are now staring vacantly out of the window or diligently chiseling their initials into the lecture-room furniture.
‘The People’s Charter called for universal male suffrage. Not even those far-out radicals could apparently contemplate the possibility of universal female suffrage.’
All the students, even those who had been staring out of the window, react to this. They smile and nod or, in a friendly sort of way, groan and hiss. It is what they expect from Robyn Penrose, and even rugby-playing boys in the back row would be mildly disappointed if she didn’t produce this case of observation from time to time.
‘There were two climatic moments in the history of the Chartist Movement. One was the submission of a petition, with millions of signature, to parliament in 1839. It’s rejection lead to a series of industrial strikes, demonstrations, and repressive measures by the government. This is the background to Mrs. Gaskells novel Mary Barton and Disraeli’s Sybil. The second was the submission of another monster petition in 1848, which forms the background to Charles Kingsley’s Alton Locke. 1848 was the year of revolution throughout Europe, and many people in England feared that Chartism would bring revolution, and perhaps a terror, to England. Any kind of working-class militancy tends to be presented in the fiction of the period as a thread to social order. This is also true of Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley (1949). Though set at the time of the Napoleonic wars, its treatment of the Luddite Riots is clearly an oblique comment on more topical events.’
“Mr. Grandgrind in Hard Times embodies the spirit of industrial capitalism as Dickens saw it. His philosophy is utilitarian. He despises the emotion and the imagination, and believe only in Facts, The novel shows, among other things, the disastrous effects of this philosophy in Mr. Grandgrind’s own children.Tom, who becomes a thief, and Louisa, who nearly becomes an adulteress, and on the lives of working people in the city of Coketown which is made in his image, a dreary place containing:
Several streets all very like one another, who all went in out at the same hours, with the same sound upon the same pavements, to do the same work, and to whom every day was the same as yesterday and tomorrow, and every year the counterpart of the last and the next.
“Opposed to this alienated, repetitive way of life, is the circus – a community of spontaneity, generosity and creative imagination. “ You mutht have us, Thquire,” says the lisping circus master, Mr Sleary, to Grandgrind. “People mutht be amuthed.” It is Cissie, the despised horserider’s daughter adopted by Grandgrind, who proves the redemptive force in his life. The message of the novel is clear: the alienation of work under industrial capitalism can be overcome by an infusion of loving kindness and imaginative play, represented by Cissie and the circus”
Robyn pauses, to allow the racing pens to catch up with her discourse, and to give emphasis to her next sentence: “Of course, such a reading is totally inadequate. Dickens’s own ideological position is riddled with contradiction”
The students who have been writing everything down now look up and smile wryly at Robyn Penrose, like victims of a successful hoax. They lay down their pens and flex their fingers, as she pauses and shuffles her notes preparatory to the next stage of her exposition.
“It is interesting how many of the industrial novels were written by women. In their work, the ideological contradictions of the middle-class liberal humanist attitude to the Industrial Revolution take on specifically sexual character.”
At the mention of the word sexual”, a little ripple of interest stirs the rows of silent listeners. Those who have been daydreaming or carving their initial into their desktops sit up. Those who have been taking notes continue to do so with even greater assiduousness. People cease to cough or sniff or shuffle their feet. As Robyn continuous, the only indifference with the sound of her voice is the occasional ripping noise of a filled-up page A4 being hurriedly detached from its parent pad.
“It hardly needs to be pointed out that industrial capitalism is phallocentric. The inventors, the engineers, the factory owners and bankers who fuelled it and maintained it, were all men. The most commonplace metonymic index of industry – the factory chimney –is also metaphorically a phallic symbol. The characteristic imagery of the industrial landscape or townscape in nineteenth-century literature – tall chimneys thrusting into the sky, spewing ribbons of black smoke, building shaking with the rhythmic pounding of mighty engines, the railway train rushing irresistibly to the passive countryside – all this is saturated with male sexuality of a dominating and destructive kind.
“For women novelists, therefore, industry had a complex fascination. On the conscious level it was the Other, the alien, the male world of work, in which they had no place. I am, of course, talking about middle class women, for all women novelists at this period were by definition middle-class. On the subconscious level it was what they desired to heal their own castration, their own sense of lack.”
“We see this illustrated very clearly in Mrs. Gaskell’s North and South. In this novel, the genteel young heroine from the south of England, Margaret, is compelled by her father’s reduced circumstances to take up residence in a city called Milton, closely based on Manchester, and come into social contact with a local mill-owner called Thornton. He is a very pure kind of capitalist who believes fanatically in the laws of supply and demand. He has no compassion for the workers when times are bad and wages low, and does not ask for pity when he himself faces ruin. Margaret is at first repelled by Thornton’s harsh business ethic, but when a strike of workers turn violent, she acts impulsively to save his life, thus revealing her unconscious attraction to him, as well as her instinctive class allegiance. Margaret befriends some of the workers and shows compassion for their sufferings, but when the crunch comes she is on the side of the master. The interest Margaret takes in factory life and the processes of manufacturing – which her mother finds sordid and repellent – is a displaced manifestation of her unknowledged erotic feelings for Thornton. This comes out every clearly in a conversation between Margaret and her mother, who complains that Margaret is beginning to use factory slang in her speech. She retorts:
“And if I live in a factory town, I must speak factory language when I want it. Why, mamma, I could astonish you with many words you never heard in your life. I don’t believe you know what a knobstick is.”
“Not I child, I only know it has a very vulgar sound; and I don’t want to hear you using it”
Robyn looks up from the copy of North and South from which she has been reading this passage, and surveys her audience with her cool, grey-green eyes. “I think we all know what a knobstick is, metaphorically.”
The audience chuckles gleefully, and the ballpoints speed across the pages of A4 faster than ever.