Democratic Networks and the Industrial Novel


Scholars have criticized the industrial novel for failing to find political solutions to the problem of working-class suffering. This paper, however, argues that we might find political solutions if we focus not on the franchise but on other forms of inclusion and participation. In my view, industrial novels attempt to establish democratic networks between employers and employees, governors and governed. Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley (1849) envisions an informal conversation, Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855) situates networks as a key feature of factory life, and George Eliot’s Felix Holt, the Radical (1866) provides a full-fledged philosophy of the democratic network, reformulating such networks as a structure of public opinion. Even as they resist the enfranchisement of workers, these novels celebrate a democratization of culture through regular, informal exchange.