Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life In The Iron Mills: The Doldrums of Capitalism

"The sky sank down before dawn, muddy, flat, immovable."

“The sky sank down before dawn, muddy, flat, immovable.”

Rebecca Harding Davis was a prolific and successful author in her lifetime, and pioneered the ‘realist’ genre literature, while adding to it a depth that was, and perhaps still is, lacking in that she wrote of life of the working class.  Her most famous work is perhaps her first novella, Life In The Iron Mills, which was published in 1861 (though it, along with the rest of her work was seemingly forgotten by the time of her death in 1910 until, as Wikipedia notes, feminist critic Tillie Olson discovered it in the early 1970’s and brought her work back to life).  I would assume that Davis was influenced by Elizabeth Gaskell, who like Davis wrote of the plight of the working class (Gaskell’s best work, and certainly her most recoginizable, is perhaps North And South which is like an amalgamation of Pride And Prejudice and Life In The Iron Mills).  Gaskell’s North And South was published a few years before Life In The Iron Mills, and though it was published in England, it no doubt made the rounds in American and may have served as an influence on Davis.  The similarities are striking, though Davis makes no allowances for the romantic narrative that Gaskell does.

 

 

Elizabeth Gaskell; like Rebecca Harding Davis, Gaskell wrote realist fiction that focused on the working class.

Elizabeth Gaskell; like Rebecca Harding Davis, Gaskell wrote realist fiction that focused on the working class.

Life In The Iron Mills tells the story of a working class man, Hugh Wolfe, and his cousin, a crippled young woman Deborah, who aside from being a cast off as a member of the working class also suffers the stigma of being a hunchback.  Though very different than Bessy, the young girl of Gaskell’s North And South who suffers from a fatal illness she was exposed to whilst working in a textile factory, there are similarities between the two as well as she is an extremely empathetic character with a  tragic life.  Deborah makes what would have been a painful journey for her to deliver dinner to her cousin who supports her, but he does not eat it.  Hugh, for his part, is also doubly the outcast as he is not only a member of the working class, but within the hierarchy of the working class he finds himself at the bottom, being made a fool of by co-workers.  He whittles away his spare time creating beautiful sculptures out of korl (left over refuse from the milling process).  Hugh though destroys the sculptures once they have been completed, and his co-workers look down on him for his eccentricities.  On the evening when Deborah (who seems to have little in common with the Biblical character who shares her name), a group of aristocratic men are touring the facility and one (Dr. May) happens to notice Hugh’s sculpture.  Deborah steals a check from one of the men and gives it to Hugh later, who tries to reject it at first, but then accepts it, rationalizing that he deserves it.  The theft is found out though and Hugh is sentence to twenty years of hard labour.  Deborah receives less time and is taken care of by Quakers who also provide burial for Hugh who does not survive his term of incarceration.

 

Rebecca Harding Davis

Rebecca Harding Davis

The most telling part of the narrative though is when Hugh is asked about his sculpture by one of the aristocratic men (Dr. May).  Hugh says only: “She be hungry.”  The viewer notes that she seems well fed, but Hugh states coldly that is it not “that kind of hungry”.  It is this failure to understand the ‘other’ that allows such an exploitative relationship to exist between the two classes.  Dr. May is the one who recognizes the talent of Hugh, and he is clearly empathetic to the plight of the working class, but he is overwhelmed by their numbers and receives no assistance from the people who have accompanied him on the tour of the mill.  Kirby, the son of the mill’s owner feels no obligation to the workers.  Mitchell and an unnamed reporter, who are also among the company of tourists, have no words of encouragement for Dr. May, and so May has nothing to offer Hugh except some sincere but futile words of encouragement.  Even with an empathetic middle class as exemplified by May, the ruling class has no compulsion to change relationship between the working class and the working class.  Equally telling is the sentence handed down to Hugh when he is found guilty of stealing.  He is sentence to twenty years of hard labour.  The irony of course is that he was already, as a member of the working class, sentence to a life time of hard labour, not a mere twenty years, and it was this unjust sentence that was handed down to him simply for being born that drove him to commit his crime in the first place.

 

Vincent Vangogh's 'Iron Mill In The Hague': "The idiosyncrasy of this town is smoke. It rolls sullenly in slow folds from the great chimneys of the iron-foundries, and settles down in black, slimy pools on the muddy streets.

Vincent Vangogh’s ‘Iron Mill In The Hague’: “The idiosyncrasy of this town is smoke. It rolls sullenly in slow folds from the great chimneys of the iron-foundries, and settles down in black, slimy pools on the muddy streets.

 The narrative voice is interesting.  There is no gender assigned to the voice, nor to the listener of the tale, though the narrator does top to chastise the listener from time to time and discourage them from laughing at Deborah and her condition, projecting callousness upon the listen of the narrative, who we might presume is a member of the middle or ruling class.   There is also an interesting ecocritical reading that could be leant to the work, most especially in the opening sequence when Davis describers the terrain, but it is also present in the naming of some of the characters; Hugh for example is given Wolfe as a last name.  And as a work of realism, Davis is sure to drawn out certain tragic elements of working class life, like the fact the most members of the working class rely on self medicating via alcohol to make their lives more bearable and the impact that this practice has on the youths who are raised in this environment, most notably Janey, a young child who sometimes escapes her home when her alcoholic father is drunk and sleeps with Deborah at Hugh’s home.

It is a short work, but an ambitious and effective one, tragic but compelling, even if it is, at the same time, pessimistic.  Davis does not leave a ray of hope at the end of her narrative as Gaskell does, or as Upton Sinclair does at the end of The Jungle, instead there is just a bleak horizon, or as Orwell might describe it, “a boot stamping on a human face— forever.”

 

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Tillie Olsen; She was responsibility for re-discovering Davis and bringing her work to the notice of contemporary audiences.

Tillie Olsen; She was responsibility for re-discovering Davis and bringing her work to the notice of contemporary audiences.

 

If you like this, then try:

Elizabeth’s Gaskell’s North and South

Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle

 

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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