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Friedrich Engels and George Orwell and the Literature of the North of England

Updated on August 15, 2012

Friedrich Engels

Friedrich Engels, 1840. Public Domain Image. Photo Author Unknown.
Friedrich Engels, 1840. Public Domain Image. Photo Author Unknown. | Source

The novels of Northern England during and after the Industrial Revolution dealt, whether implicitly or explicitly, with the problems and lives of ordinary working people in a suddenly and brutally urbanised landscape. Engels and Orwell provide, in The Road to Wigan Pier and The Conditions of the Working Class in England, statistical and documentary-style backgrounds to the literature of the period and place.

Friederich Engels and the Statistics of the Industrial Revolution

Engels, in The Condition of the Working Class in England, wrote of various industrialised cities in England and Scotland, and found that the paucity of life quality, the degradation, filth, disease and privation, were as hellish, and worse, in reality as anything penned by Dickens or Gaskell. Interestingly, as well as writing of the conditions he found in the cities, he also wrote of the disparity between health and longevity in the countryside versus these markers of life quality in the towns. Since it is dangerous to take intuition and emotional reaction at face value, this statistical evidence of Engels lends an excellent authority to works not only of that era, but gives a framework for establishing a deeper truth behind fictional representations of mass suffering; the facts that underlie emotional rhetoric.

Engels found that the effects of city life on death rates were from myriad sources, from epidemics of typhus, virulent in all cities due to ‘the sanitary condition of the working class…the bad state of the dwellings in the matters of ventilation, drainage, and cleanliness,’ (Working Class, p.130), to home-working mothers giving large doses of opiates on a long-term basis to babies, who became ‘pale, feeble, wilted, and usually die[d] before completing their second year,’ (Working Class, p.135), and many other causes prevalent in cities.

Northern English Literature, Nature and the Industrial Revolution

This article is one of four on the themes of nature and the Industrial Revolution in the novels of the North of England. To read more, click on the titles in bold below.

Billy Liar - exploring the fragile reality of the eponymous dreamer and his unconscious reaching out for a simpler past.

North and South - Elizabeth Gaskell's Milton in Manchester is a choking, smog-filled place, but the Southern and genteel Margaret comes to love it more than her childhood home. A classic Victorian novel that isn't just about romance.

The Role of Nature and the Industrial Revolution in the Literature of the North - A general overview and brief background informationof the themes and events under discussion.

Recent Statistics on the Town and Country and North/South Divide of Britain

What is surprising is that over a hundred and fifty years after Engels wrote Working Class, the same is true now. In a BBC report on the low life expectancy in Manchester, outlining various social and demographic reasons why this should be and presenting research statistics from a study by Experian, ‘Bishop Lowe, who stepped down last year from his inner city ministry, also pointed out that poverty created variations in life expectancy within Manchester […], "We have some parts of the inner city where the life expectancy is 10 to 15 years lower than the Home Counties," he said, "It is also lower than the suburbs."’ ( In a separate article regarding the same research, the BBC reported that, ‘Life expectancy in a number of North West cities is low, according to the research’ ( What is interesting from the perspective of a study of Northern literature is that the perception of lower life quality in the North is not simply a stereotype: it exists not just in fictional portrayals nor only in the Nineteenth Century. Even in the present, although health care is available to all; although living and working conditions are largely sanitary and not overcrowded, and although the welfare state ensures for the most part that food is available to all, the disparity between death rates still exists between city and country, and between North and South.

George Orwell

George Orwell Press Photo, 1933. Photo Author Unknown. Public Domain Image.
George Orwell Press Photo, 1933. Photo Author Unknown. Public Domain Image. | Source

George Orwell and the Unnaturalness of Nature in the North of England

Close to the end of the first chapter of The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell writes that ‘at least man has not done his dirt everywhere,’ (Wigan Pier p.16). This is in response to viewing the snowy open countryside from his train window after having spent time living with the Brookers in an appalling and filthy lodging-house cum tripe shop in an unnamed Northern town. However, interestingly just two paragraphs earlier and apropos of the same view from the train window, Orwell writes that this expanse of nature ‘seemed strange, almost unnatural, as though the open country had been a kind of park; for in the industrial areas one always feels that the smoke and filth must go on for ever,’ (Wigan Pier, p.15). That the unnatural – the industrial towns – becomes familiar, and therefore ‘natural’ in some sense, has important ramifications for the characters and situations in the novels that were written by Northern authors during and after the Industrial Revolution, since the ‘escapes to nature’ are all shown to be temporary ones, or even just the stuff of fantasy and nostalgia.

Statistics and Fictions of Northern English Life, and the Truth of Both

The novels of Northern England often show places that are grimy and haunted by death and illness to an extraordinary degree. What Orwell implies in The Road to Wigan Pier is that in this seemingly hellish place, nature itself has become unnatural; and what the statistics of Engels show is that the fictional world of, for instance, Gaskell’s Milton in North and South, is not, in its depiction of horror, too far from the truth. What the novel North and South itself shows is that this horror is not actually horrible when one is living within it, and that a different world – such as the coutry one of Margaret’s idyllic childhood – can indeed seem flat and strange and wholly stagnant by comparison to the bustle of an industrial town. Recent statistics show that although the industry has for the most part moved on, an early death still haunts the North of England for as-yet undiscovered reasons. In a modern North England novel, Billy Fisher in Billy Liar still seems to mourn the passing of the ‘satanic mills’ in his Yorkshire home, and certainly he lives in some paralysing fear of poverty and death despite the passing of over a century since Friedrich Engels first stepped foot in his father’s satanic cotton mill in Manchester.


Engels, F. The Condition of the Working Class in England (London: Penguin Classics, 2009)

Orwell, G. The Road to Wigan Pier (London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2001)


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    • jpcmc profile image

      JP Carlos 4 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

      These two writers really saw what was around them and wrote about it. They changed how people view their lives.

    • Redberry Sky profile image

      Redberry Sky 4 years ago

      They did indeed, jpcmc - two of the most progressive and radical thinkers of the past couple of centuries, in social terms. Sadly these two books don't get read much any more outside courses of study, but they are a fascinating look at the birth of the modern industrial world and its ills.

    • Hollie Thomas profile image

      Hollie Thomas 4 years ago from United Kingdom

      An excellent read. It's been sometime since I read The road to Wigan Pier, this was a really enjoyable refresher. Interestingly, I came across a study (I'll try to find it) a few weeks ago- indicating that Manchester has the highest rates of Morbidity among men aged between 25-40 years due to suicide. I'd read a study some years ago which concluded the same. Quite shocking really, given that prior to 2008 there had been [some] social and economic improvements.

      Been browsing some of your hubs-great reading lists, btw.

    • jpcmc profile image

      JP Carlos 4 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

      We read them back in high school and we had lots of fun debating on political and social issues. At least it was fun for me. :)

    • Redberry Sky profile image

      Redberry Sky 4 years ago

      Hiya Hollie, that's an interesting statistic, I don't think I've seen that one. Like you say, there has been a lot of regeneration in Manchester (and other Northern cities too) over the years, it's difficult to fathom why things like suicide rates aren't going down, when standards of living do seem to be improving.

    • Redberry Sky profile image

      Redberry Sky 4 years ago

      jpcmc - these two authors *are* great argument-starters! I'd love to go back to high-school debating days, I remember it being fun too :)

    • xstatic profile image

      Jim Higgins 4 years ago from Eugene, Oregon

      Fascinating information. I have only read one of Orwell's novels (twice), 1984. This is interesting in the comparison of then and now and the social ills which persist in the north. Up!

    • Redberry Sky profile image

      Redberry Sky 4 years ago

      Hi Xstatic :) Orwell is truly a great writer (well, in my opinion - others would disagree) and a real eccentric. It's not so grim here in the north now, but yes, the problems still exist. Cheers for the vote :)

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