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The Role of Nature and the Industrial Revolution in the Novels of Northern England

Updated on August 13, 2012
An abandoned boat at Sankey Valley, England's oldest canal.  Photo © Redberry Sky 2012.
An abandoned boat at Sankey Valley, England's oldest canal. Photo © Redberry Sky 2012.

The concept of ‘nature’ in the novels of Northern England has strange and counterintuitive overtones. Compelling and alienating, the ‘nature’ of the countryside fights with that aspect of human ‘nature’ that came to terms with the altered and suddenly urban landscape of the Industrial Revolution. The un-‘natural’ – the towns and slums and factories – became ‘natural’.

Fiddlers Ferry Power Station seen from Sankey Valley Park

Fiddlers Ferry Power Station seen through the long grass of Sankey Valley Park, Warrington. Photo © Redberry Sky 2012.
Fiddlers Ferry Power Station seen through the long grass of Sankey Valley Park, Warrington. Photo © Redberry Sky 2012.

Literature of the Industrial Revolution: Novels of the North of England

Below are some of the novels, written during and after the Industrial Revolution, that embody the problems of ordinary people as the role of 'nature' changed in Northern England and industrialisation took over their lives. Click on the book titles to go to a more in-depth discussion of that work.

Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse (1959) – a small-town Yorkshire lad, Billy is a dreamer, and the height of his dreams is to run away from the troubles he heaps upon himself by his constant lying and tale-spinning and become a successful writer in London. He also wishes, down to the soles of his boots, that his ordinary parents were other people entirely: louche middle-class sophisticates to be precise, rather than the average and hard-working ones he feels he’s been lumbered with. But his casual mocking of all that is Yorkshire perhaps betrays that he is more enamoured with his home than he wants to admit, and it is not the dazzling city future that he longs for, but a simple and rural past.

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (1855) – Mrs Gaskell’s classic novel of Industrial Milton – a fictional Manchester town that isn’t quite so make-believe as the reader might wish. Southern, genteel Margaret is the heroine of the tale and is shocked and depressed when her father moves the family lock, stock and barrel to the North of England when he loses faith in the trappings of his religion. But Margaret comes to love Milton and its people, and discovers that ‘nature’ isn’t the idyllic trees and lanes and meadows of her childhood, but is what she becomes accustomed to and fond of.

The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell (1937) and The Condition of the Working Class in England by Friedrich Engels (1844) – Orwell’s Wigan Pier is part documentary and part opinion. It gets mixed reviews to this day for its prose and polemic. Orwell came from a privileged background and attended public school (that is, the finest and best of the private educational institutes in the UK), and his Colonial-born attitude shows. Some people see him as ‘St George’ for his expose-style documentary books like Wigan Pier and Down and Out in Paris and London, but others see him as a hack writer who was simply chasing notoriety. Wigan Pier is a book in two distinct parts, and although much of Orwell’s attitude is shockingly outdated and patronising (such as when he suggests that working class boys neither want nor need to be educated), the book remains a compelling glimpse into the lives of the dirt-poor working classes in Northern England in the early twentieth century. Friedrich Engels’ first book was The Condition of the Working Class in England, a collection of his observations on the slums, horrific factory conditions, child labour and statistics he gathered when working at his father’s mill in Manchester. As a meticulous first-hand account of the very worst aspects of the impact of Industrial Revolution, it is hard to beat, and in many places, heart-wrenching to read. Interestingly, even in 1844 (when the book was written), the disparities in life expectancy between town and country were known, and although more than a century and a half has now passed, with all the progress those years brought, the same gap in the standards of health and living still exist today, as shown by recent research into the North/South divide of the UK.

Novels as Unwitting History

The facts and figures; the battles and kings; the inventions and great philosophers and scientists of history show what happened when. But novels show the heart of what it was like to live through those interesting times. In Billy Liar, a comic novel of a Saturday night in the fictional Yorkshire town of Stradhoughton, the protagonist has a double vision of past and present, and despises his small town life whilst fixating on the London metropolis, yet longing almost unconsciously for the lost Yorkshire of the past. In North and South, Margaret discovers that the idyllic past is a dead and stagnant place, and that her new world, - the choking, smog-filled oppressive Milton in Manchester - is a vibrant place she has come to love.

In his essay ‘Death of the Author’ Roland Barthes argues that the writer – the biographical details and the supposed ‘intent’ – should be removed from an examination of any particular work, and that it is the underlying threads, drawn from any and all previous literature and the events of the times, that is important. He argues that much of a given text is an unconscious ‘drawing together’ of the thoughts, actions and events of the time it is produced. A counter-argument is that Barthes does not take into account the thousands of painstaking hours that many authors spend on creating fictional worlds and characters, but it is nonetheless a compelling and useful argument – did Gaskell really invent the town of Milton; did Dickens really dream up those characters we still use today to mock the people we meet in real life: the selfish and miserly boss we call ‘Scrooge’; or did these authors (and thousands of others) merely give shape and voice to the thoughts and feelings of a wider humanity?

There is no concrete answer. It is a mixture of both. But where the latter alternative holds – that a work is the reflection of the time it is written – it is interesting to delve into the works of a certain time and place and examine what emerges as a way of understanding history, attitudes and people from the inside of the zeitgeist.

In four short articles, I will explore both a little of the Industrial Revolution in its birthplace of Northern England, and the unwitting testimony of the novelists who wrote during and after this time of immense change.

The Regional Novel

Most novels, and certainly the 'Realist' ones, have their own peculiar time and place corresponding to real-world places, and in this sense every novel is something of a regional one. For example, Dickens’s work, for the most part, centres on Victorian London. His fictional children give voice to the frustration and injustice he felt in his own childhood, and the frustration and injustice he felt when he observed how the lives of the poor and desperate were dismissed and thrown away by a self-serving bureaucracy and a socially blind middle-class.

The regional novel is the universal particularised and brought to life by the magnifying glass of characterisation of people and place. It is the vision of the author, and it carries echoes of the Spirit of the Age encased in the experience and observation of a single person – the writer.

We are all the same and we are all unique, the regional novel says. Joyce’s Dubliners, or Ulysses narrowly focus on tiny aspects of early twentieth century Irish life in Dublin, but every incident and character could be anyone, anywhere, anywhen. Every one of us has the shifting, rich inner life of Leopold Bloom, and anyone who can read the closing paragraphs of ‘The Dead’ without deeply identifying (and perhaps falling in love a little bit) with Gretta and Gabriel Conroy, has a heart made of pure, cold stone.

Where in Joyce’s stories and novels it is the paralysis of Ireland that is the focus, and the difficulties faced in moving away from the long history of conflict with Britain; in the novels of Northern England it is the fast and brutal change brought by Industrialisation – a phenomenon previously unseen and unheard of.

In a historically short period of about a century, the world was revolutionised by inventions and other progress that allowed industry to move from the homes of single weavers into mass production in factories, marking the birth of the Industrial Revolution. Urban centres formed as huge factories sprang up and provided employment for thousands, and entrepreneurs and employment seekers flocked to these towns in the hope of finding a better standard of living.

Disproportionately, many of these early factory towns were in the North of England, and huge swathes of land were suddenly taken over not just by the factories themselves, but for the living quarters of the workers and later for nearby coal mines that provided the power to run the machines. Auxiliary businesses and services were close behind - shops for the workers’ – and the new and powerful middle class industrialists’ – food, clothes and other necessities of life.

The reasons why Industrialisation happened first in Northern England is complex, and many historians argue that there was no ‘revolution’ at all, but more of an evolutionary morphing of business and production as various inventions made mass production possible, and around these centres of mass production workers gathered as their own small businesses became non-viable in the face of cheaper and often better factory-made goods. But it is clear that whether by revolution or evolution, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the face of Northern England changed beyond recognition.

Some of the reasons why it began in this small corner of the world are not difficult to find. The North of England is rich in coalmines, and rivers that could power large factory machinery, and much of the population already had the skills that would enable them to learn quickly the new industrialised way of working. Add to this that the North of England, far from the centre of power and wealth of London, bred many entrepreneurs during England’s Colonial era – ambitious and hungry men willing to speculate whatever they had in the hope of a bright new wealthy future.

And the North of England had Liverpool; a port that was growing in almost unparalleled strength, and which was quickly becoming one of the centres of world trade in the raw materials of manufacture. Over the century of growth of the Industrial Revolution from 1750-1850, Northern England had it all, and Industrial centres sprang up in Sheffield, Manchester, Lancashire, Yorkshire, and many other Northern towns and cities.

But the golden era for some spelled misery for most, as horrific working conditions and cramped slums brought industrial accidents and diseases to a population that worked for subsistence rates and whose life expectancy was barely forty years old.

Barbed Wire Flower

At Sankey Valley 'country park'. Photo © Redberry Sky 2012.
At Sankey Valley 'country park'. Photo © Redberry Sky 2012.

After the Revolution

The Industrial Revolution left Northern England scarred and depressed. The landscape and people were forever changed. London was still the centre of power and money, and as the industry migrated to other cities in other countries far away, it left towns full of people that were empty of hope, and perhaps what’s worse, bereft of nature, as now-crumbling factories and mills stood where once, pre-revolution, there had been fields and farms.

An inhuman-shaped entrance gate to Sankey Valley 'Country Park': gateway to magnificent views of a power station and barbed wire fences. Photo © Redberry Sky 2012.
An inhuman-shaped entrance gate to Sankey Valley 'Country Park': gateway to magnificent views of a power station and barbed wire fences. Photo © Redberry Sky 2012.

Working Class Stories are not Worth Telling?

History is written by the winners: the educated and successful elite. And for the larger part of history it was only this educated and successful elite who were able to read. And the successful do not want to read about the lives of the people they killed, maimed and trampled upon to reach their high and heady spires of achievement. Thus, working class stories were relatively few and far between. But on the heels of the Industrial Revolution came mass education, as business and industry required a working population with more and more knowledge and skills – whether governesses to teach the children of the new middle classes, or shopkeepers who needed to be able to keep accounts to keep their businesses afloat, or the expanding professional classes that were needed to oil the wheels of this new capital-driven world.

And as the masses became educated, and as more and more people were born into hybrid classes that knew both what it meant to be successful and what it meant to be poor, the audience and appetite for the literature of ordinary working people grew. Working class stories became worth telling.

In the Literature of Northern England during and after the Industrial Revolution, these working class stories open up an alternative history – one that laments the past and holds a double vision of what industry and urbanisation brought; the good and the bad; the lost and found; the everyday tales of trauma and turmoil, and even the disappearance of the very nature of both people and landscape in such troubling and revolutionary times.

George Orwell suggests in the first chapter of The Road to Wigan Pier, that what is familiar, whether it is the satanic coffee shops of Stradhoughton in Billy Liar or the streets of Milton in North and South, or the small and complex society of Wuthering Heights, will become the natural, and what is unfamiliar, though it might be the rolling snowy open countryside, will be by comparison, ‘strange and unnatural’. And in the novels of the North discussed in this exploration of nature in the novels of Industrial and post-industrial Northern England, to deny the underlying reality of the familiar and day-to-day ‘natural’ in favour of an unreachable idyll, is to deny life.

Reading More about the Literature of the North and the Industrial Revolution

Gaskell, E. North and South (London: Oxford World Classics, 2008)

Waterhouse, K. Billy Liar (London: Penguin, 1988)

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)

Guest, H. ‘The Deep Romance of Manchester: Gaskell’s Mary Barton’ in Snell, K.D.M. (Ed.) The Regional Novel in Britain and Ireland 1800-1990 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008)

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    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      That was a fascinating read my friend; I will mark it and return because there was a lot here. I taught history and you are right of course; the everyday, working stiff is not mentioned....not a sexy read :)

    • Redberry Sky profile image
      Author

      Redberry Sky 4 years ago

      Billybuc, no, perhaps not sexy (the Victorians covered their piano legs with little cloth 'skirts', I believe, lest sexiness enter their homes in any guise!) but the novels make fiery, radical and passionate reading nonetheless! :)

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