Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton and the Industrial Novel

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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
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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 majority of these changes occurred within 40 to 50 years—less than a generation. Families and homes were uprooted as jobs disappeared; a single family—husband, wife, and kids—once occupied in a prosperous family business in the country, might have found themselves unemployed in the course of a year, and forced to migrate to the city to live a life of seemingly
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