How did the Industrial Revolution influence English Literature?
The Industrial Revolution ushered in an era of unprecedented prosperity in England. But on the side of debit. it converted the “merry England” into a sooty and squalid England and it also gave rise to a number of social problems which are the inevitable bane of industrialization. With the conversion of the agrarian economy into an industrial economy, we came across a new class of privileged millionaires and big industrialists. On the other hand, a huge horde of ill-clothed and ill-fed laborers whose rights were yet to be protected over years by a long succession of legislative measures raised their voice. There was a virtual exodus of people from the country to the numerous towns which had started resounding with the grind and buzz of heavy machinery.
The policy of “laissez faire” as expounded first by Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nation was seized upon by the Victorian political economists like Mill, Malthus, and Ricardo, and applied to the working of the new industrial system. This application was tantamount to the denial of all rights to the labour except perhaps the right to starve. Mayhew in his work London Poor paints a harrowing picture of the miserable life of the working classes of Stubbom Victorian London. The intransigent political economists for a number of years succeeded in preventing the government from saving the poor from the merciless exploitation of the capitalist Thus, the Industrial Revolution proved much less than an unalloyed blessing
The so-called political economy and the pontifical utterances of its champion did not go unattacked. Carlyle and Ruskin did their best to strike at the foundations of this “science” which Ruskin called “rescience”. Whereas Carlyle spoke as an inspired prophet, Ruskin combined the inspiration of a prophet with the hardcore of a dialectical skill that he displayed effectively in Unto This Last which he called the greatest work of his life. Most of Ruskin’s later works are imbued with the spirit of social reform. Dickens also displayed in his novels a soft corner for the miserable poor, their wretched dwelling places, and their poor and squalid lives. His novel Oliver Twist, for instance. contains some very realistic pictures of London slums, and Hard Times is an unveiled and calculated attack on the contemporary political economy of the school of Grad grind who figures among the chief protagonists of the novel. Dickens is nothing if not a social satirist. As Compton Rickett put it. “for the motley
multitude that pours through the streets. for the hole-and-corner places of the city, for London, as an incomprehensible terrifying, fascinating delightful personality-every brick and stone alive with tragic humour-Dickens remains unrivaled Dickens was not only a realist. however, but a satirist, and a very brilliant satirist at that. We cannot entirely agree with Cross who opines: “The attacks of Dickens on science and political economy are hysterical curiosities”. If we remove the elements of fantasy, we will get at a very small but very genuine core of hard common sense.
The Industrial novel, of which Dickens’ Hard Times is the best-known example, originated as early as 1832 with A Manchester Strike by Harriet Martineau — one of the most successful female polemicists of all time, a fiercely independent reformer and social observer. She wrote few novels but maintained an output of fiery and significant journalism for another forty years. Benjamin Disraeli’s Coningsby (1844) and Sybil (1845) also explore industrial worlds and contexts. The sub-genre can be seen to acquire force and commitment in the works of Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell, with Mary Barton (1848). Her social concern, her realistic use of character, setting, and speech, and her pleas for humanity and reconciliation have been restored in recent years to a prominent place. Her contribution to the Victorian novel is now recognized as one of considerable social commitment and artistic achievement. North and South (1866), with its contrast between the rural South and industrial North, is a valuable companion piece to the bleaker Hard Times George Eliot’s Felix Holt, the Radical (1866) is perhaps the most complex of all the industrial” novels, bringing together the inheritance plot, social change, and political ideas in an optimistic but deeply serious tragic-comic creation.
W.E. Tirebuck’s Miss Grace of All Souls‘ (1895) has been described as “the most important industrial novel” to be published in England since Hard Times, and it was the most successful portrayal of independent working-class life since Mary Barton. This “industrial” trend in the novel made the “two nations” theme especially vivid, with the workers’ cause strongly maintained, with no possibility of compromise. Miss Grace is the continuation of a line in fiction which Disraeli began in Sybil, and of which Mary Barton and Kingsley’s Alton Locke are perhaps the most significant examples. The writers at the end of the century attempted to bring this industrial or working-class novel to a new readership, but their work is now little read. Constance Howell shows the conversion of an upper-class woman to socialism, in a novel of “class repentance” called The Excellent Way (1888) Margaret Harkness took realism to new levels of directness with A City Girl.
Though Victorian poetry carries on the tradition of Romantic poetry, it differs greatly from the latter due to the impact of the industrial revolution. Its realism is not, however, the stark realism of Zola and Ibsen, but a deeper realism that strives to tell the whole truth showing moral and social diseases as they are. The poetry of Tennyson is characterized by realism– his social consciousness emerging out of the post-Industrial revolution. It reflects the social-political tendencies of the age, the conflict between doubt generated by the progress of science and faith in religion, the confusion and aimlessness born of this conflict, and above all, the so-called Victorian compromise. This social consciousness is amply revealed in his longer poem like “In Memoriam”, “The Princess”. “Locksley Hall” etc. Browning’s poetry shows little social consciousness. He prefers to keep aloof from the problems of age. Mathew Arnold is extremely aware of the conflict between doubt and faith and the confusion, aimlessness it brings in its wake. With Tennyson, he cannot share the Victorian compromise. He finds his generation standing
Between two worlds, one deadThe other powerless to be born
In his poems, he draws a vivid picture of the terrible confusion and aimless stalking through Victorian society.