The term “Condition of England novel” denotes fiction that developed in the 1840s as a result of a disturbance of the social conscience among the middle classes about the way of life of those working in industrial cities and in factories. The industrial revolution, especially in the Midlands and the North, resulted in poor housing, overcrowding, and inadequate or non-existent sanitation. Factory conditions, in what Blake had described as ‘dark Satanic mills’, were barbarous. Such environments generated pollution, filth, and vermin. Poverty, ill-health, disease, and misery were widespread. A great many people (particularly factory owners and bosses) grew rich at the expense of the working classes, both adults and children, and gave scant attention to a lot of their workers who were paid miserly wages.
Anxiety and concern about this state of affairs were primarily stimulated by Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), who inveighed against the mechanical age and its effects at length in two important books: Chartism (1839) and Past and Present (1843). Using apocalyptic language, he described the conditions, warned of the consequences (above all, revolution), and prescribed various remedies – especially factory legislation.
Prominent novelists turned their attention to the matter and their interest produced a spate of novels, many of which offered miscellaneous solutions. Some of the main works were:
- Frances Trollope’s Michael Armstrong, the Factory Boy (1839)
- Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna’s Helen Fleetwood (1841) and The Wrongs of Woman (1843–1844)
- Benjamin Disraeli’s Coningsby(1844) and Sybil (1845);
- Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848) and North and South (1855);
- Charles Dickens’s Dombey and Son (1848) and Hard Times (1854);
- Charles Kinglsey’s Yeast (1848) and Alton Locke (1850);
- Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley (1849);
- Dinah Mulock’s John Halifax, Gentleman (1857);
- George Eliot’s Felix Holt (1866).
Also read; Discuss Chartism or The Chartist movement
Also read; Thomas Carlyle’s Hero and Hero-worship