The Rape of the Rose
Since the Industrial Revolution began in England in the late eighteenth century, it has brought suffering and anxiety to millions of working people as if to compensate for the bounty it produces in the form of cheap, mass-produced consumer goods. Much has been written in the last decades of the twentieth century about European and American exploitation of Third World populations in the quest for raw materials and markets. The Rape of the Rose shows the other side of the picture: how domestic industrial workers were exploited by the greedy upper classes who were mesmerized by the riches to be gained from industrialization and imperialism. The Napoleonic Wars, which form part of the background of the story, are shown to be only a further effect of the Industrial Revolution.
Olie of the earliest effects of the Industrial Revolution was the destruction of traditional cottage industries, with the concomitant breaking up of families. Men were thrown out of work, women and children were absorbed into the factories, while old people were sent to the workhouse or allowed to starve to death in their freezing hovels. The enclosure movement forced human beings off the land to make way for the sheep that would produce wool to feed the voracious machinery.
Glyn Hughes’s novel describes conditions that are not really much different from those of modern times. Human invention produces the potential for accumulation of
great wealth, which whets greed and leads to exploitation of labor. Men, women, and children are forced to compete against one another for existence, and traditional family values are lost forever. As the author suggests in a foreword to this engrossing novel:
“As the modern world has shrunk, Cobbett’s enslaved Lancashire has removed itself a little further, to be out of sight. It now exists in countries reaching from South America to Africa and the Far East.”
The main theme of The Rape of the Rose is that machinery dehumanizes people. The novel illustrates the consequences. In the opening chapter, the hero Mor Greave encounters a carter driving a wagonload of children from a workhouse to a Yorkshire textile factory to be sold into virtual slavery.
The white face of a child was thrust to the gap. Mor could not at first tell what sex it was for it looked so frightened and demented, its features obliterated by dirt. Similar children, exhausted, stinking, bruised and bleeding from being tumbled about imprisoned in the cart and from fighting each other, crowded to the chink of light.
Living under such conditions, the children become like little animals. It seems a wonder that a spark of humanity survives in some of them-and they are the mothers and fathers of the next generation of factory slaves. The children end up in workhouses because their parents have been depraved by their inhuman working and living conditions or else have been killed in industrial accidents. Then the workhouses supply new bodies to fill up the factories.
Mor’s wife and both his sons work in the local textile mill. His older son, though only fifteen years old, has already been deformed by his servitude to the machines and suffers constant pain in his shrunken, twisted legs. Mor’s younger son, Edwin, displays the rebellious spirit of his father and as a result is constantly getting into trouble with the sadistic overseer. Through the eyes of Phoebe, Gideon, and Edwin Greave, readers see the interior of a more or less typical factory of the time, where women and children toil for twelve hours a day, six days a week, under the most brutal and dangerous working conditions. Exhausted, malnourished children often fall asleep on the job and are torn to pieces by the machines. All of this, Hughes implies, exists for the benefit of men such as Nicholas Horsfall, who have themselves become dehumanized in some mysterious way by the machinery that enriches them.
Mor finds himself in competition with his own family members and becoming increasingly dependent upon them for his livelihood, since the factory system of production is relentlessly making his traditional cottage...
(The entire section is 1699 words.)