The Complex Tensions of the Industrial Revolution’s Factories by Daniel Ausema

A view of the factories of  Manchester.         Date: circa 1870    Source: Unattributed illustration.
A view of the factories of Manchester. Date: circa 1870 Source: Unattributed illustration.

In previous interviews, essays, and blog posts, I’ve talked about some of my influences, some of what has led to my interest in steampunk. One of the key influences I’ve mentioned was the gaslight village section of a local history museum when I was growing up. For setting the mood of a steampunk city street, there’s nothing better.

Recently, thinking back on different books I’ve read and studied, I recalled one book that I’ve unjustly overlooked, one that probably had a far bigger influence than I’d ever realized. But first to set the stage…

I was eighteen, beginning my second semester of college. I was ambitious, eager to push myself with a difficult class, unwilling to ease my way up through the intermediate, 200-level courses. So I jumped straight into an advanced, 300-level class on Victorian Literature. I don’t recall now why I wanted that specific course, but for some reason I insisted on it despite my advisor’s concern that I wasn’t prepared.

I was also sleep deprived: involved in several on-campus clubs, working in the school’s library, staying up too late as I discovered the world of online social life, and competing in track, which was far more intense than high school track had been. And to not put too fine a point on it…I wasn’t prepared for a 300-level lit class.

When you think of Victorian lit, your mind probably goes to Dickens and the Brontë sisters. We read none of them—the professor likely assumed we’d read plenty of those in earlier lit classes. Instead we read our share of poetry—Tennyson, Arnold, and Browning primarily, though also some later Victorian works including Christina Rosetti and Gerard Manley Hopkins as well as an entire novel-in-verse that sleep-deprived me did not appreciate in the least. (Probably Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, though I can’t say that with certainty.)

north and south coverI dove into Tennyson’s Arthurian poems and immersed myself in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s paintings (as any self-respecting wannabe fantasist would…). But it may well have been the prose novels that had a longer-lasting effect on me. The two big ones we read that semester were George Elliot’s Adam Bede and Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South.

Novels at the time were often seen as lesser works, and—in keeping with the ideals of the time—suitable only for women. Well, Elliot and Gaskell both were women writers to be reckoned with, unwilling to be shunted aside, and their books have continued to be read ever since.

Gaskell’s North and South especially shaped how I’ve approached the industrial revolution ever since. The story was originally serialized (with Charles Dickens as her editor!). You can easily read a summary of the story at Wikipedia, so I won’t reiterate that here. And in fact, it wasn’t so much the specifics of the story that stayed with me. Rather, it was the complex tensions of its industrial city setting—the story’s heroine, Margaret, finds herself at a cross point between the factory workers and the factory owners in a fictionalized industrial city in England.

Gaskell avoids simplistic good-vs-bad characterizations as Margaret comes to know the people at various levels of her society and as she navigates the tensions between the ideals she aspires to of caring for everyone and the specifics of the people she is coming to know, especially one young factory owner.

Gaskell was a friend of Charlotte Brontë’s (and her first biographer), and the novel is sometimes compared to Jane Eyre (which, for the record, I did read on my own time a few years later). The two novels are quite different in many ways, but those very differences help show the concerns of each writer. For a steampunk writer, artist, or maker, it’s the social backdrop of North and South that will be of special interest.

So to make your steampunk stories more well rounded, go check out one of the classic novels of the Victorian era. You won’t regret it.

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