The Novel as a Mirror for Social Struggle

Depiction of the Working Class during the Industrial Revolution in "North and South" by Elizabeth Gaskell

Seminar Paper, 2018

16 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents


1. The living and working conditions as a framework
1.1 The living and working conditions of the English workers
1.2 The living and working conditions in North and South

2. The social struggle defined

3. Characterisations
3.1 Nicholas Higgins
3.2 John Boucher

4. Comparison

5. Conclusion

6. Works Cited:


Elizabeth Gaskell created a heroine that allows the reader to gain an insight into the life and struggles of the working class and their employers. With her character Margret Hale, a young woman of the middle class living in the agricultural South is forced to move in the industrialised North of England. While in England she overcomes her prejudice through the contact of both manufacturers and workers.

The novel North and South was written in 1854 and published in a serialised fashion in Charles Dicken’s work Household Words between September 1854 and 1855. It strives, much like the other novels that belong to the emerging subgenre of social novels; “to explore the conflict between capital and labour in English manufacturing towns” (Murphy 2012). The conflict between the factory owners and their workers within the North and South is rooted in low wages and provokes a strike that is managed by a trade union. The strike is unsuccessful, leads to a riot and results in an improvement in negotiations between employees and employers.

While the low wages are the main reason for the strike in the novel, Gaskell also illustrates not only the poverty of the lower working class but the working conditions in the mills. She uses characters that interact with the main protagonist like Bessy Higgins, her father, Nicholas Higgins and John Boucher.

North and South isn’t just a social novel, it can be seen as a bildungsroman as well.

The transformation of the protagonist, Margret Hale, has been analysed by many literature researchers in the past such as Mary Kuhlmann in 1996. Margret overcomes her prejudice because she interacts with both sides. She also shows empathy and compassion towards the workers and understanding for the manufacturers alike. “The witnessing of such is her experience” (Hale, 1996).

This study will focus on the character development of the workers to determine which consequences the social struggle has on them and to what extent this social struggle represents the lower working class during the industrial revolution in the first half of the 19th century.

The main focus on the socio-historical framework will be on the working and living conditions of the workers in during the era of 1800 to 1850, featuring Higgins and Boucher who all work in the cotton industry. This term paper will also explore how realistic the description of the living and working conditions of the working class are.

As former researches suggest, Gaskell took inspiration from what she experienced during her own youth in Manchester (Morris, 2015). There she had seen what the lifestyle in an industrial town was like for the lower working class; including health problems from the bad working conditions. Milton-Northern, the fictional town that is the main setting of her novel, can be seen as a fictional adaptation of Manchester and it’s suburbs.

The first part of this paper will take a closer look at the worker’s situation in Manchester on the one side and the situation in Milton on the other side. Then, the social struggle during the 19th century will be defined.

The characterisations of Higgins and Boucher will be embedded in enhancing the social struggle they face in the novel and if and how it effects their character development.

The comparison between them should point out their different roles in the novel as a bildungsroman.

1. The living and working conditions as a framework

1.1 The living and working conditions of the English workers

The life of a worker in the first half of the 19th century was heavily influenced by the changes that were caused by the events of Industrial Revolution.

Due to the decline of mortality during the last half of the 19th century in combination with the prolonged length of the human life, the population of Great Britain was quickly increasing. Between 1780 and 1820, the approximate life length had increased by 5 years (c.f. Ashton. 1949.21). This population was not only immensely larger than just 40 years before, but also held a very high number of working age people which was also influenced by immigration.

The growth of industry on the one hand and the decline of agriculture on the other hand, caused many of those that were able to work to move into the manufacturing cities. This demographical change led to the growth of these cities (cf. ibid.: 21). In Manchester, for example, the population increased from under 10000 in the first half of the 18th century to 90000 by the end of the 18th century (Greenbank. 2017). By 1840 the number had doubled again (Griffin. 2014).

This steadily increasing number led to a rush in the planning and enlargement of the cities and ended in the arising of slums. In those slums the living conditions were marked by low hygienic standards. Ancoats, a typical slum area in Manchester during this era, had more than 50 percent of houses without plumbing. Slums were often crowded, with large families living very close together leading to an increase in epidemics. In Manchester, the outbreak of cholera in 1831 killed hundreds of people (cf. Greenbank. 2017).

The rent outside of these slums was very high and had increased five-fold in parts of Manchester between 1790 to 1812 (cf. Berresford. 1970). Many workers due to their low wage could not afford to live anywhere but the slums.

Some of the diseases that spread in the slums because of the low hygienic standards stemmed from the working conditions of these factories. In Manchester, also nicknamed Cottonopolis during this era (Lowe. 1854), most of the lower class population was working in the cotton industry. The conditions in the mills were characterised by a steady heat especially in the spinning rooms; because of this factor the high degree of humidity and thick air was full of cotton fluff. The fluff was inhaled by the workers because they had no access to fresh air during their 10 – 14 hours shift and lead to lung diseases such as Tuberculosis and Byssinosis.

The workers were influenced by the constant loud noises of the machines. The mill machines were a safety hazard; specifically for the children working there. In many cases, children began to work at the mills around the age of 8 (cf. Honeyman. 2007.: 262ff:). On top of these working conditions the wages were low. The manufacturers were able to reduce the wages because of the large amount of people willing to work (Greenland, 2017).

While the wages dropped or stagnated the living cost rose. The price for groceries such as Flour and Potatoes increased and the overall cost of diet doubled between 1790 and 1810 (cf. Ashton, 1949: 37).

To sum it up: It can be stated that the working and living conditions of the lower class during the first half of the 19th century were marked by poverty. This lifestyle was caused by a poor balance between wages and living expenses and the overall demographic structure of the working population.

1.2 The living and working conditions in North and South

The novel provides the audience with the stereotypical image of the industrialised town of Milton-Northern in the early stages of its readings. When Margret explains to her mother that they will move from their home in the agricultural South of England, Mrs. Hale states that ‘the smoky air of a manufacturing town, all chimneys and dirt like Milton-Northern’ (Gaskell. 2012.: 50) would not improve her health. Later, when Margret first comes close to the city she observes that “the air had a faint taste and smell of smoke” and the cloud she thought to be a nimbus, turns out to be the smoke of the factories (ibid.: 67).

While the main city of Milton-Northern is pictured as ‘[…] long, straight, hopeless […]’ (ibid.: 68), the rent is not even attainable for the Hales; who had the maximum of 30 pounds a year, which roughly comes down to 12 ½ shilling per week. The wage of one of the mill workers, Nicholas Higgins, is 16 shillings a week (ibid:161) to cover all maintenance cost, which includes diet and rent.

Unable to pay for the rent in the inner city the family moves to Crampton, the suburb of Milton-Northern, where they are able to afford a house (ibid: 69). Crampton’s structure is marked by the factories in its back streets (Gaskell. 2012.: 82). These factories cause the air to be full of smoke that is “driven into every opening in choking white wreaths” (ibid: 75). The closer a house is to the factories, the noise of the machineries are so loud that they are deafening (cf. ibid.: 133).

Another part of Crampton, where the Higgins family lives is described as a “crowded area” with “squalid” (ibid.:105), “crowded narrow streets” (ibid.:117), standing in strong contrast to the ‘long, straight […] streets’ (ibid.: 68) of the main city; which underlines that the working class isn’t able to afford the life in the inner city and has to live in slums. The house of the Higgins itself is small and unhygienic (ibid.: 118). This rather unhygienic situation is due to the absence of someone who is able to take care of the cleaning and the narrow structure of the place.

The audience gains an insight into the living conditions through the eyes of Margret Hale in a direct manner; however, the working conditions are described by Bessy Higgins, the older daughter of the Higgins family and partially by the manufacturers. Therefore, it can be assumed that the description of the working conditions here is more biased than of the living conditions in Milton.

The workers at the mill usually work 10 hours a day, six days a week (cf. ibid.: 145), starting at an early age. Though it is not exactly stated when Bessy Higgins (eighteen years old) started working at the mill; it can be suggested that she has been working there for many years. Heat, loud noises from the machinery and sticky air filled with cotton fluff are usually brought up by Bessy throughout the novel whenever she talks to Margret about her life in the mill. “Away from the endless, endless noise and the sickening heat” (ibid.: 160). The fluff from the cotton is toxic and the workers are forced to breathe it in every day, causing some of them to even collapse at work while coughing fluff. (cf. ibid.: 121).

Bessy herself gets ill due to those working conditions, but her statement regarding the poisoned air underlines that this disease took on an epidemic scale. (cf. Murphy. 2011: 1ff). Throughout the duration of the novel, she is slowly dying (Weaver. 2016). Though Bessy mentions that there are options to better the situation by installing an air whirling wheel, she stresses that those wheels are expensive and that nearly no mill in Milton has it (cf. Gaskell. 2012.: 121). Additionally to the physical threat, the constant workload and the forlornness turn some workers, like Bessy, hopeless and depressed (cf. ibid: 103-105, 120-123). She tells Margret: ‘[…] and all I’ve been born for is just to work my heart and life away […] wi’ them mill-noises in my ears for ever […]’ (ibid.: 120). This highlights the psychological effect that the work has had on her.

Altogether it can be stated that the living conditions of the working class are marked by their financial status, that forces them to live in the slums. The working conditions in the mills are poor as well, hazardous to both the mental and physical health.

2. The social struggle defined

The social struggle is most often defined as all ‘class conflict and class struggles, that occur because of the economic organisation’ (Crossman. 2017). It arose, as Marx states, due to the relationship between the working class on the one side and their capitalistic masters on the other side. This relationship was, as formerly stated, marked by the economic exploitation. While the wage of the workers stagnated or were shortened, the prosperity of the industry and the wealth of the masters rose (cf. Berresford Ellis. 2016). This economic disequilibrium lead to the formation of trade unions. Those unions had two main purposes – the raising of wages through strikes, for example the general strike during the Radical Rising in Scotland anno 1820 or the Preston strike in 1842 and the establishment of a welfare system for their members (cf. Boyer. 1988). In general, the strikes that were organised and planned by the trade unions and supported by social body politics, were meant to be an unarmed option to force the employers to raise the wages. That the unionist tried to negotiate with their masters can be proven by the case of Alexander Richmond and his fellow weavers that set up a table of wages in 1812. Richmond, an idealist, wanted to ‘to preserve the Scottish workers from a fate which appeared to me inevitable.’ (Berresford Ellis. 2016). With the help of Francis Jeffrey, the committee of the weavers’ union took their employers to court. Although the judges imposed the employers to state their opinions to this table, no further negotiations took place (cf. Crossman. 2017). This lack of communication in combination with the stagnation of wage, the poor working conditions and the shortage of support influenced the attitude of the workers.

This attitude that turned striking workers to rioters that often ended up on the gallows is described by Hammond in his 1911 work ‘Village labourer’:

“If I am sober, shall I have land for a cow? If I am frugal, shall I have an acre of potatoes? You offer no motives, you have nothing but a parish officer and a work-house!”

The social struggle that is presented in North and South with the conflict between the mill owners and their workers and the strike that emerges from it, influence the characters and their development. The following chapter of this study shall explain how the characters of two workers are transformed by the struggle they face.

3. Characterisations

3.1 Nicholas Higgins

Nicholas Higgins is a worker at the mill in Milton, and has two teenage daughters, who he cares for very dearly. The reader is firstly introduced to Higgins when Margaret meets him on the street, stating that he looks “careworn” and unhealthy (cf. Gaskell. 2012.: 83). His caring for Bessy, his sick daughter who is presented from his first introduction with him regulating his steps for her to keep up with him (cf. p.84); carrying her upstairs as she suffers from a breakdown (cf. ibid. 108), promising to not smoke again in her presence to not further indulge her sickness (cf. ibid. 161). He is working hard and eager to provide his younger daughter with money for education (cf. ibid. 121). This leads to him being a self-sacrificing person, especially regarding his family.

His care, however is not limited to his direct family. Higgins, a member and committee-man of the trade union; he highlights the importance of the latter as being “the only thing to do the workmen any good” (ibid. p. 352). The union “keeps the turn-out from starving” (ibid. p. 353), a goal that Higgins himself seems to follow as well. Even though Higgins himself does not earn much (and nothing at all during the strike), he offers to buy bread and milk for the starving family of John Boucher (cf. ibid.: pp. 185-186). He deems the needs of others higher than his own. This caring side of his personality influences his motivations for the strike as he does not only strive for a higher wage on his own behalf but also thinks about Boucher as well: “I take up John Boucher’s cause, […], wi’ a sickly wife, and eight children, […] I don’t take up his cause only […] but I take up th’ cause of justice.” (ibid.: p. 161).

Justice is what Higgins wishes to reach – “[…] for justice and fair play.” (ibid.: p.162) – he is convinced that the wages of the workers are too low, especially in contrast to the profits of their masters. The lacking reasoning of the lowered wage enrages Higgins (cf. ibid.: p. 162). It is noticeable in the way Higgins speaks about his ideals; his speech is very passionate and marked by metaphors. A good example for this is his comparison of a worker on a strike and a soldier in a war. Following his fight for justice, he is looking “forward to the chance of dying at my post sooner than yield.” (ibid.: p. 161). For him it is as honourable to die by starvation for his cause as it is for a soldier to die for the protection of his fatherland in a war (cf. ibid.: p. 161). His ideals are something he is proud of, which the metaphor stresses as well. It is important to state that Higgins follows the rules of the Union regarding the strike to be unarmed and peaceful to get the public opinion on their side (cf. Gaskell. 2012.: p. 353).

Higgins is widely known as a good and honest worker, which puts him in the position of a committee man and an organiser during the strike. As Bessy states: “(…) he’s reckoned a deep chap, and true to th’ backbone.” (ibid.241). He is a very eager and ambitious person that contributes a valuable part to his community.

His idealistic nature and social behaviour is deeply rooted in his character and stays this way through the entire novel. However, other character traits of him undergo a major transformation due to the struggles he faces. As a high member of the union, he is expelled from his work after the failure of the strike (cf. ibid.: 275). In addition to his rage about this failure, he is also influenced by two tragedies. The first of these tragedies is the death of his daughter Bessy (cf. ibid.: 263-267). Bessy’s death leaves him emotionally wrecked (cf. ibid.: 263). It is notable that his idealistic character is stronger than the desperation her death causes him this is an indicator for his strength. Instead of staying in violent fury, which he first hurts himself by tearing his hair, beats his head against the table and attacks his younger daughter as she tries to stop him from going out to get drunk (cf. ibid.: 264), he calms down and says his farewells to her (cf. ibid.: 267).

Listening to the wish uttered by his dead daughter, he gets away from his heavy drinking, which is implied on several occasions (cf. ibid.: 264, 163ff.). The second tragedy he faces is the suicide of John Boucher, another workman whom he had forced into joining the union. Boucher was thrown out of the union for his participation in the riot (cf. ibid.: 352-354). Margaret discusses the Union and states: “Don’t you see how you’ve made Boucher what he is, by driving him into the union against his will” (ibid.: 354). After this sentence, Higgins is directly faced with the death of Boucher which leaves him shocked: “Higgins (…) said in a weak piping voice: “It’s not John Boucher?”’ (ibid.: 355). He quickly realises what Margaret uttered is true; he then says that he cannot face the now widowed wife (cf. ibid.: 356). The blame he feels for Boucher’s death on the one hand and his overall humanistic character leads to him overcoming his pride to ask for a job at the mills again: “I would ha guided Boucher to a better end, but I set him off o’ th’ road, and so I mun answer for him.” (ibid.: p. 368).

The influence of Margret also leads him to overcome his stubbornness and ask another manufacturer, Mr. Thornton for work. He still stands up for his ideals regarding fair treatment for the workers. He offers Mr. Thornton not to strike but to first search for negotiations: “I’d promise that when I seed yo’ going wrong, and acting unfair, I’d speak to yo’ in private first.” (Gaskell. 2012.: 368). This shows his transformation from a ‘soldier’ (ibid.: 161) to a messenger.

3.2 John Boucher

John Boucher is firstly introduced to the reader by Higgins as a fellow worker in the mills who is a “good-for-naught, as can only manage two looms at a time” (ibid.: 161). He has a wife (that cannot work due to an illness) and eight young children. (cf. ibid.: 161). His main focus lies on his family’s wellbeing, which he loves and cares for. His wife is the “best wife that ever bore childer to a man!” (ibid.: 184). His children, specifically his youngest, the little boy, Jack, is one year old and “is his father’s darling” (ibid.: 357). With his large family it is not easy for him to keep up with the living expenses. It is not stated how much Boucher earned before the strike, but Higgins indicates that they have the same wage, around 16 shillings. Stressing that Boucher seems to struggle to feed his family of 10 with his earning (cf. ibid.: 161) therefore, he too wants higher wages (cf. ibid.: 184). During the strike however, the income of the workers is solely covered by the Union, giving every member 5 shillings a week (cf. ibid.: 184), which causes his family to starve. He has a higher value of materialistic things to fulfil the basic needs of his family.

Boucher, being described as selfless by Margaret as she tells Higgins that “it was not his own sufferings he spoke of, but those of his sick wife - his little children.” (ibid.: 278). This selflessness is not extensive, which is stressed by his behaviour after the strike. In his search for a new place to work at he also asks the mill that forbids their employers to pay any money to the union which as Higgins states, is used to help working families in need of support (cf. ibid.: 354).

The suffering of his family throughout the strike prevents him to see the greater cause as well; he is gripped by the fear that his wife will die and his children will starve to death: “(..) if hoo dies, (…) I fling th’ money back i’ th’ master’s face (…) and there’s our lile Jack lying a-bed, too weak to cry, but just every now and then sobbing up his heart for want food.” (ibid.: 185). Boucher is desperate as his description during his argument with Higgins points out: “Boucher (…) looking widely into the fire, with a kind of despair that irritated Higgins” (ibid.: 184). After telling Higgins about the situation of his family, his face is “white, and gaunt, and tear-furrowed, and hopeless.” (ibid.: 186).

The situation of his family does not get remarkably better at any point during the strike, which as he criticises takes far too long to fulfil its cause (cf. ibid.: 185). His attitude towards the strike and the union that manages it is influenced by this despair as much as it is by the fact that he has been forced to join the union. The reader learns about this through a discussion between Higgins and Margret; Higgins explains that “th’ Union finds it necessary to force a man into his own good.” (ibid.: 352). The strategy of the union to gain members like Boucher, who don’t show an interest to join out of their own will is to exclude them from their society, as far as allowing other union members not to make any contact with the outsiders (cf. ibid.: 279). In the light of this treatment the description of the union as a tyranny in Boucher’s words seems relatable.

As the news of the importation of Irish workers of the manufacturer Thornton spread, Boucher takes part in the riot against Thornton (cf. ibid.: 209-217). He is described as beyond despair and fully in rage as well as the other man that ‘were like Boucher, with starving children at home.’ (ibid.: .214). The men rioting are, in the eyes of Margret, equal to animals, yelling with ‘the demoniac desire of some terrible wild beast for the food that is withheld from his ravening’ (ibid.: 213). Even in the light of this equalisation, it is still stated that this behaviour is due to them ‘being driven mad’ (ibid.: 214). Boucher himself is ‘forlornly desperate and livid with rage’ (ibid.: 214). Boucher does not want his family to die for the cause of the union (cf. ibid.: 184) and sees the riot as the only way to intimidate the manufacturers into sending the foreign workers away that ‘were brought in to rob their little ones of bread.’ (ibid.: 214). The riot ends unsuccessfully and puts an end to the strike as well (cf. ibid.: 275).

With the rumour that Boucher had injured Margaret during the riot, he does not only lose his job and gets expelled from the union that would have offered support in these times (cf. ibid.: 241-243) but is also unable to find any work in Milton-Northern (cf. ibid.: 356). He is turned down by Hampers mill and ends up crying like a baby (cf. ibid.: 354). The fear of not being able to work and therefore not to be able to support his family turns him beyond despair as a neighbour of the family states: ‘He were coming home very hopeless o’aught on earth. He thought God could na be harder than men.’ (ibid.: 359). While tramping towards Greenfield to search for work there (cf. ibid.: 357), this hopelessness leads him to drown himself in a brook in a nearby field (cf. ibid.: 355). His corpse is disfigured, his face ‘poor distorted, agonized face’, indicating that he has suffered both mentally and physically until his end and decided to end his life rather than try to carry on with the fight against poverty.

4. Comparison

Even though Higgins and Boucher are both workers in the cotton factory of Milton, their characters differ from inside-out. Higgins is a man of ideals, standing up for the unmaterialistic values he deems important and puts his worldlier needs aside. He is very stubborn and eager in following the path of the Union of which he is a very important member. His motives to strike for higher wages are closely tied with the principles of the union – getting fair wages for their hard work and to stop the manufacturers from preying upon the poor. Boucher stands in a strong contrast to the ambitious Higgins, just wanting to support his family. He has a stronger focus on materialistic values and does not really care for the higher cause of the union. His need for higher wages has nothing to do with the goal of ending the tyranny of the mill owners (c.f. Gaskell. 2012.: 186), but to stop the starving of his family. He has not joined the union out of his own will (c.f. ibid.: 352-353) even though the union supports his family after he joined: ‘[…] as Boucher has th’ Union to see after him.’ (ibid.: 187)

Another strong difference between the two of them is their attitude towards the union itself. Higgins is taking the cause of the Union very seriously, because he sees it as the only way that the workers can stand up for themselves and get their rights. While he admits that the Union is using methods of isolation to get every single worker to join (cf. ibid.: 352-353), he states that they do it for a positive purpose - to ‘force a man into his own good.’ (ibid.: 352). This force however, pushes Boucher into evaluating it as a ‘tyranny’ (cf. ibid.: 187). He isn’t ready to stand behind the union and does not want to see his family suffer for the cause of the union.

Both of them care very much for their families, want to stop the suffering and starvation of them. Higgins tries to give his younger daughter a good education: ‘Mary’s schooling were to be kept up […] always liking to buy books, and go to lecturers o’ one kind or another.’ (ibid.: 121). He also would like to learn more and educate himself: ‘If yo’, sir, or any other knowledgable, patient man come to me, an says he’ll larn me what the words mean, and not blow me up if I’m a bit stupid, or forget how one thing hangs on another—why, in time I may get to see the truth of it[…]’ (ibid.: 267-268). This underlines his idealistic mindset as well. Boucher, however, just wants to stop the starving of his family and help his sick wife. It has to be stated that he as a larger family, does not have the funds to send his children to school. He himself does not show any interest in education. Instead he is described as overall weak and not very wise (cf. ibid.: 187). This description stresses his naturalistic mindset.


Excerpt out of 16 pages


The Novel as a Mirror for Social Struggle
Depiction of the Working Class during the Industrial Revolution in "North and South" by Elizabeth Gaskell
RWTH Aachen University
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
Victorian Literature, Characterisation, North and South, Comparison, Literary Studies, History
Quote paper
Luisa van Gansewinkel (Author), 2018, The Novel as a Mirror for Social Struggle, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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