A Companion to the Victorian Novel

By William Baker; Kenneth Womack | Go to book overview

The Victorian Social Problem Novel

James G. Nelson

That awesome phenomenon known as the Industrial Revolution appeared first in the United Kingdom in the later eighteenth century. Technological developments such as James Watt’s steam engine and inventions like the power loom and the spinning jenny, coinciding with the rapid rise in population, created the conditions for an industrial transformation of Britain that was surprisingly well advanced by the 1830s. Such a revolution had far-reaching effects, none more so than the rapid rise of cities, especially in the English midlands. Having been small market towns before the nineteenth century, Birmingham, Manchester, and Leeds, among others, burgeoned into large industrial centers in the early decades of the century as agricultural laborers from the impoverished countryside flooded into the new industrial towns in search of work in the textile mills.

So massive and rapid was the onset of the revolution that it created unprecedented and unfamiliar social and economic problems to be solved by the kingdom’s governing bodies. As the nation was plunged into the first great industrial depression in the mid 1830s (which lasted well into the 1840s), the increasing economic and social distance between the rich and the poor, as well as other ill effects of industrialization, gave rise to the so-called “Condition of England Question.” This debate, which dominated the minds of the British people for many years, was central to a new form of the novel that rose to prom-

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