The Industrial Revolution that came about in the early and mid-nineteenth century, affected many areas of English intellectual and cultural life; it changed the nature of many of the current disciplines, and brought forward the existence of new ones. Literature was an issue that was highly subjected to industrialism. According to Catherine Gallagher, narrative fiction, especially novels, underwent changes whenever they became a part of the discourse over industrialism.
Concurrently, the urban and industrial working classes had a huge impact in Victorian fiction; the different types of working-class men and women, along with their working and living environments were used to portray the lives of the working class. During the nineteenth century, a significant number of novelists attempted to present the working class in fiction. According to Thackeray in 1838, the working-class communities in particular towns had formed their own distinct culture and literature.
It was not just a continuation of the old popular cultures which expressed themselves in broadsheets, chapbooks, and popular drama-it was new, and had formed itself in the past decade. It was quite cut off from the middle and upper classes. ‘ 1 This culture had been formed by the Enclosure Acts and by the Industrial Revolution. It was about this time that the term “the poor” was referred to as “the working classes. ” A fundamental part in the coming of the new urban working class was played by the increase of popular literacy.
Major popular educational movements were taking place at the beginning of the eighteenth century, thus education became important. By the mid-century, teaching adults to read rose to an estimated 3,500; information became more than interesting for the working class men and women that were advancing into the next era. This concept of knowledge filled the attitudes of many working-class readers and led them to various forms of literature.
For many men and women the discovery of books was very exciting and as literacy spread, it brought new feelings, hopes and aspirations of a better life to come, both physically and mentally. There are many comments found in lower-class literature regarding this time: ‘a new era was opening to us; the prejudice mists, amongst which we had been groping for ages, were gathering, and as the blessed morning broke, the rusty bolts of ignorance fell down. ‘2 By the 1830s, the demand for working-class literature was fierce even though literature intended for the lower classes was limited.
The Poor Man’s Guardian and Cleave’s Penny Gazette were popular within the working-class whilst the workmen in coffee houses read Blackwood. Poverty meant that the price of literature largely determined the class of the reader, the poor buying the penny part and the middle classes believing that cheap literature was socially stigmatised. Most of the libraries mainly stocked fiction; novels by Bulwer Lytton, Washington Irving, Thackeray and Samuel Warren were being read 3.
Since the lower-class interest for literature was high, libraries appeared in all types of places, such as factories and police stations. They were also found in churches and chapels were they consisted of religious novels; in 1809, Thomas Kelly printed huge editions from The Bible and sold 230,000 copies, largely to servants and better-paid artisans. The Religious Tract Society issued 5,411 libraries between 1832 and 1849; these were largely used by the working-class public.
The success of such religious writings was due to the lower-class readership that was being formed, who were sometimes thought of as nai??ve by particular novelists, since many working-class men and women found them “highly appreciated in after-life as heirlooms for their children”4. Contrastingly, Christopher Thompson, a tailor, found his fellow-workers reading ‘the obscene trash raked up from the pest holes that are unfortunately to be found in every town’5. This type of “trashy romance” literature was generally found in tobacco and stationary shops.
Later, the demand rose for historical and “silver fork” romances and in 1838, penny-issue fiction was published and were available on loan. Certain titles became popular amongst men in the working-class, such as Mabel the Mildewed, The Light of Other Days, The Heart that Never Felt Renewing and The Brigand of Bigshot. Such novels could be brought as well as be borrowed in these lower-class libraries.
Newspapers could also be borrowed from the public house. In 1830, Herthington published a series of unstamped pamphlets, Penny Papers for the People which in June he changed to The Poor Man’s Guardian. Sellers of the paper were imprisoned for three and a half years and Hertherington was imprisoned for six months as he was the publisher. However, the demand for the pamphlets were high in the working-class, thus they were made available using alternative methods; copies were circulated in boxes of shoes, in cabs and even in coffins. An estimated 20,000 copies were being circulated throughout England each week. The Penny Magazine was first issued in March 1832 sold 50,000 in the first week, and by the end of the year had 200,000 copies in circulation.
Although the Society had been formed in 1827 for upper-class readers, the scientific and historical composition which also included some poetry was largely bought by the lower classes. It was known that working class labourers would go without food to buy it. Although there were no major publishers in the district, each town did have their own minor printers and publishers. Apart form the middle-class booksellers, there was a network of lower-class newsagents throughout the country, primarily to distribute illegal political periodicals such as The Poor Man’s Guardian.
By 1851, the number of such periodicals sold by provincial agents was considerable. An estimated 75,000 copies were being handled every week. Eventually, The Mechanics’ Institute and the educative periodicals lost their appeal to the main body of the lower classes, working men continued to educate themselves, and periodicals such as Cassell’s Working Man’s Friend catered for those who wished to read it. Lower classes were also open to literature of the lowest taste. The best-known semi-pornographic publication of this time was probably Renton Nicholson’s The Town (1837-1840).
It included descriptions of public houses, music halls, brothels and ladies of pleasure. It predominantly appealed to the younger men in the lower classes. William Dugdale spent half his life in prison for his dedication to distributing indecent publications. Such pornographic serials ran under innocent names such as Anonyma and The Rambler. They were distributed in small printed booklets that could not have cost more than sixpence and therefore was available for the young males within the lower classes. Many writers of industrial fiction centred their stories on the suffering of women and children.
This type of writing was particularly read by working-class women since they found that they could relate it to themselves. One of the earliest industrial novels, Frances Trollope’s Life and Adventures of Michael Armstrong, the Factory Boy (1839-1840) was thought to have been a shocking piece of propaganda which gave the impression that all factory workers were children. It seemed to reflect most of the factories in the Victorian time, and described them as ‘disease-ridden establishments apparently worked solely by exhausted children’5.
The prolonged attention in the factory reform literature of the early 1840s concentrated on portraying the suffering of children and women; this type of literature was largely read by the working-classes. This led to factory reformers recognising the helplessness of factory women, and women workers began to be used as a symbol for all suffering industrial labourers. This focus on women introduced a new debate over industrialism. Factory reformers claimed that women’s labour led to degradation of the entire working class, for factory women could not properly care for and train their children.
The reformers argued that working-class morality could only be improved if working-class women given the time to fulfil their primary roles which were their domestic roles. Thus, a contradiction appeared in the reformers’ arguments: ‘Women were thrust forward, by the rhetoric of social paternalism, as representatives workers and yet were simultaneously told by domestic ideologists that the roles of worker and women were antagonistic. ‘6 This contradiction between the two ideologies was reflected in the fiction of the 1840s and 1850s. Most writers of popular magazine fiction about women workers, referred to one ideology or the other.
Lucy Dean; the Noble Needlewoman is an example of informative domestic fiction. It was written in 1850 by Eliza Meteyard and published in one of the cheap periodicals and were intended to reach working-class women. Lucy Dean was a good example of the ways in which domestic ideology affects popular fictional form. The story allowed the women in the working-class to connect the public and private ideologies. Meteryard’s narrative identifies family problems as social problems and accepts those solutions that can be imitated by large numbers of working women.
Like much domestic fiction written for the working class, its purpose, like that of Elizabeth Gaskell’s early domestic stories, is not only to describe how the working class lives, but also to dictate how it should live. In the 1850s numerous stories were published that represented the development of working-class boys and young men. Many were published in cheap periodicals intended for working-class families. Like the domestic seamstress tales, these tales were influenced by domestic ideology. The Three Homes (1850) was published in The Working-Man’s Friend and Family Advisor.
This was a periodical devoted to spreading domesticity among working-class men. Workers read issues of story aloud to their families. They contained accounts that contrast drunken, lazy men with honest, heroic working-class fathers; thus they were seen as an influencing factor in many of the lower classes lives. Overall, it can be said that the working-class played a large part in the Victorian fiction. Such fiction enabled readers to view life from a working-class citizen’s point of view. Some novels described cross-sections of English society in which the working classes are inferior; Dickens’s early novels represented this.
He brought a new intimacy and strength into writing and although few lower-class readers read Dickens direct, he was a central novelist in the development of cheap popular literature for the lower classes. Romance in novels is usually represented through a direct relationship between the very rich and the poor; a popular example within working-class women was Renton Nicholson’s Dombey and Daughter (1850). The non-romantic novel set in a working-class environment on the other hand, represents the structure and reality of working-class life.