Novel Possibilities: Fiction and the Formation of Early Victorian Culture

By Joseph W. Childers | Go to book overview

9
Mary Barton and the Community of Suffering

Those readers familiar with Friedrich Engels The Condition of the Working Class in England as well as with Elizabeth Gaskell Mary Barton may be immediately struck by a peculiar similarity in the opening pages of these two important social texts of the middle nineteenth century. Engels begins with a "Historical Introduction" in which he recalls the intellectual and moral state of workers in the years before the advent "of the steam engine and of machines for spinning and weaving cotton" (9).1 In those years, writes Engels, workers were "righteous, God-fearing, and honest.... Most of them were strong, well-built people" (10). The children grew up "in the open air." Workers were uninterested "in politics, never formed secret societies, never concerned themselves about the problems of the day, but rejoiced in healthy outdoor sports and listened devoutly when the Bible was read to them" (10-11). They had "no intellectual life and were interested solely in their petty private affairs" (12). These people, explains Engels, "vegetated happily" in their idyllic life, yet "they remained in some respects little better than the beasts of the field. They were not human beings at all, but little more than human machines in the service of a small aristocratic class" (12). The Industrial Revolution "carried this development to its logical conclusion," turning the workers "completely into machines" and depriving them "of the last remnants of independent activity" (12). Paradoxically, however, it was also the Industrial Revolution that "forced the workers to think for themselves and to demand a fuller life in human society" (12). According to Engels, political and economic changes that are tied directly to the Industrial Revolution brought the middle and working classes into the "vortex of world affairs" (12).2

The opening of Mary Barton also alludes to a simpler, idyllic past. One April day in the early or mid 1830s, the operatives from Manchester spend "a holiday granted by the masters, or a holiday seized in right of nature

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