Social fiction as a response to industrialisation

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005
13 Pages, Grade: 1,7




1 The reflection of social changes in fictional works
1.1 From rural society to urbanization
1.2 The representation of the class society
1.3 Class struggle as one of the main themes of the English industrial novel

2 The functions of the social novel
2.1 Social criticism in the novel
2.2 Social novel as entertainment
2.3 The moral function of the social novel


Works Cited


Industrialisation influenced social, political and cultural principles of the British society of that time in different ways. As a reaction to social and historical changes in the country some new literary forms came into being. Literary critics of the Victorian period put emphasis on the social novel as the most common narrative form of the time. The reason for predominance of this literary genre seems to be obvious: the social novel is “the vehicle best equipped to present a picture of life lived a given society.”[1] However, the phenomenon of the popularity of the social novel and its contribution to the development of the new value system cannot be explained in one sentence.

In this paper I am going to illustrate in which ways the social novel as a literary genre responded to industrial processes in terms of its themes and attitudes.

The relation between literature and society is always a two-way relation. On the one hand, the social novel was seen as “a mirror of social changes”; on the other hand, it fulfilled certain functions aimed to influence the society in different ways. The second part of my paper deals with the function of the social novel.

Since my aims are concerned with the general description of the social novel as a genre, I will not give a detailed analysis of individual novels. To illustrate my arguments by examples, I used “North and South” by E. Gaskell and “Hard Times” by C. Dickens. Both novels appear to be the clear representatives of the genre.

1 The reflection of social changes in fictional works

The social novel was also called industrial novel. The term industrial implies that the novel describes or reflects the process of industrialisation. In this part of the paper I want to show by examples of concrete works how the social changes are depicted in the novels.

1.1 From rural society to urbanization

In the course of industrialisation Great Britain had become increasingly less rural and more urban. However, the development of the country into an urban society was geographically unequal. The industrial activities were concentrated in big cities in the Northern regions, while the South of the country remained to be directly dependent on land and agriculture. The unbalanced industrial development caused an immense difference in living standards between the population of the Northern and Southern regions and, as a consequence, the migration into the Northern cities.

The comparative description of the South, which stands for the “old” pre-industrial society, and the North, which symbolizes “the new world”, is a typical feature of the industrial novel plot. Literary critics of the Victorian period consider the contrast between North and South to be an innovatory element of the social novel. John Lucas[2] argues that the classification of the major Victorian novelists into provincial and urban is a decisive point for the understanding of their authorial intentions. So the group of authors who describe the changing world from the non-metropolitan point of view (El. Gaskell, G. Eliot, T. Hardy) is in many ways separated from Dickens or Thackeray, for whom a big city is the centre of the social and cultural life. Urban novelists show the contrast between the “rural past” and “industrial future rather implicitly, concentrating more on the detailed descriptions of the living conditions in the northern towns, while provincial novelists depict the distinctions more explicitly, as we will see it by example of Gaskell’s “North&South”.

Two places where the setting of the novel takes place for the most part are Helstone, which is a small southern village and Milton, which is an industrial town in the North. Both are invented and do not have attributes of actual places, but on the map of Great Britain you can really find a small place named Helston in the very South of the country. As far as Milton is concerned, there are some indications in the text that Manchester served as a prototype for the fictional mill town. Even this small detail shows that Gaskell’s fictional world was much closer to reality.

The main heroine, a young middle class woman Margaret, moves with her parents from Helstone, which is described as “her beloved hometown” and the embodiment of the rural idyll, to Milton, and gets involved into a new relationship with the industrial society. She comes to know a lot of distinctions between Helstone and Milton. As she visited the family of a factory worker, she was very surprised at the contrast in living standards between the farmers and the factory workers.

“I hardly know how to compare one of these houses with our Helstone cottages. I see furniture which our labourers would have never thought of buying, and food commonly used which they would consider luxuries; […] one has to learn a different language and measure by a different standard up here in Milton.”[3]

The observations made by the young inexperienced girl and described from her point of view may appear very subjective and to some degree naïve, on the first sight. However, we should not forget that a typical Victorian novel was marked by a minimum of authorial distance. Even when the novel is written without direct authorial intrusions (they are not typical because they would destroy the illusion of reality), the characters often express directly the point of view of the author. In this connection the quotation cited above shows how precise the author in her social observations is. Furthermore, it can be seen as an argument in favour of industrialisation because it demonstrates the wealth brought by it.

On the contrary, Gaskell’s comparative description of the Southern village and the Northern town does not speak in favour of the last one.

Helstone is described “like a village in one of the Tennyson’s poems: there is the church and a few houses near it on the green – cottages rather – with roses growing all over them.”[4]

Milton is a place “where everything looked more “purpose-like”[…] the people in the streets, also on pleasure bent, had yet a busy mind […] the colours looked greyer…”[5]

Dickens also painted quite a gloomy picture, describing Coketown in “Hard Times”.

“[…] It was a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of the savage. It was the town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever and never got uncoiled.”[6]


[1] Daiches, David. A Critical History of English Literature. v. 4 , London: Secker&Warbung, 1968, p. 873

[2] Lucas, John. Engels, Mrs. Gaskell and Manchester. in Literature of Change. Studies in the Nineteenth-Century Provincial Novel. Sussex: The Harvester Press, New York: Bernes&Noble, 1977 p.51

[3] Gaskell, Elizabeth. North and South. Penguin Popular Classics, 1994, p.188

[4] Gaskell, 9

[5] Gaskell, 65

[6] Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. Penguin Books, 1969 p. 65

Excerpt out of 13 pages


Social fiction as a response to industrialisation
University of Hannover  ( Universität Hannover)
Britain’s Industrilisation
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ISBN (eBook)
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Social, Britain’s, Industrilisation
Quote paper
MA Anna Fedorova (Author), 2005, Social fiction as a response to industrialisation, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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