Voices from the Working Class
The Industrial Revolution in England is defined as the era where major changes and transformations took place in almost all areas of manufacturing, a prime source of business, as it completely eliminated the traditional way—that of pure manual labor. The advancements during this period were represented by the use of machinery, which abruptly changed all working structures, but still requires human hands (Montagna, 1981). Jobs all over the country sprouted, giving more opportunities to more people in more towns.
However, the accompanying progress also had its own evils. The works of famed poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning and novelist Elizabeth Gaskell both clearly resonate the plight of the poor working in mines and factories in England in the mid-1800s—the rise of the Industrial age. In particular, Browning’s The Cry of the Children (1843), captures the sorrow and yearning of young children forced to labor from dawn till late evening; while Mary Barton (1848) by Gaskell is focused on the excruciating way of live experienced by Manchester’s poor.
During the 1842 to 1843, at the height of the Industrial Revoluition, parliamentary hearings were held that exposed the hard truth of the state of the working class, many through testimonies of children. The commission in charge of these hearings documented the findings in a report written by R. H. Horne, known to be a close friend and ally of Browning. The poet’s access to said information allowed her to create a poem that illustrated the conditions of child workers, and sympathized strongly with their loss of youth.
The length of the piece, the graphic descriptions of the treatment of children, and the decidedly emotional tone that emulates, quite successfully, their ‘cry’. This makes the poem effective and correct in fulfilling its objective of portraying the exact state of mind, body and soul. What is primarily being defined here is the ultimate loss of the joys of childhood, as exemplified by the last line in the poem: But the child’s sob in the silence curses deeper/Than the strong man in his wrath.
Elizabeth Gaskell, wife to a Manchester clergyman, wrote the novel Mary Barton as a way to veer from the depression she went through after the death of her son. In the novel, she also tackled the concerns of the poor working class, but centered on the anguish of the uneducated workers. Because of the increasing success brought about by faster and more efficient methods, the gap between the masters (those who owned the mines and factories) and the poor (the employed workers) grew even more substantially—giving the workers more reason to begrudge their employers.
They complained of neglect, poor conditions, and their unchanging economic state as individuals. Gaskell’s original goal to merely create a more romantic piece showcasing the lives and character of the hardworking miners and factory men grew to produce a novel that contained concepts and ideas more vivid, more apt to the suffering and injustice. In this manner, Gaskell was victorious in depicting the working man’s life and tribulations, for soon after Mary Barton was published, several rebellions against the ruling class took place all over Europe.
The testimony of Elizabeth Bentley, a 23-year-old worker summoned at a parliamentary hearing, validated all the theses, symbols and contexts used by Gaskell and Browning. What was most disturbing was the manner by which Bentley would answer the questions thrown at her—it had many indications of poor education, simplistic comprehension, and a sureness of the abuse committed, even if she had to recall events from ten years before. All these elements—suffering, sorrow, injustic and loss of youth—came through in both literary works, making them suitable documents of the conditions of the working class during the Industrial Revolution.
Uncannily enough, the three main subjects in this project are all named Elizabeth—a curious yet symbolic detail that may connote the only level of equality existing at the time.
The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Norton Topics Online. W. W. Norton and Company, 2003-2008. http://www. wwnorton. com/college/english/nael/victorian Montagna, Joseph A. The Industrial Revolution. Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, 1981. http://www. yale. edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/1981/2/81. 02. 06. x. html
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