This chapter focuses on Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848), North and South (1854–5), and Sylvia’s Lovers (1863). These works confirm Kingsley’s suspicion that a material view of starvation—and poverty more generally—offers a reasonable and reasoning interpretation of the Condition-of-England question. Starvation, or ‘clemming’, as it was known among the industrial working classes, refuses to be integrated, in Gaskell’s fictional world, into a catch-all economic or demographic theory. Instead, it is a phenomenon that paradoxically demands confrontation while evading perception through the anatomies of the workers and their surroundings. In line with the interlinking findings of biological scientists and Unitarian thinkers, Gaskell broaches the intricate questions of reform by recasting them as flesh-and-blood issues experienced through the eyes of her heroines; her novels thus ask for the sort of careful consideration advocated by science, whereby the strengths and weaknesses of subjective interpretation are tested and interpreted through the material.
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