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Victorian Popular Forms and Practices of Reading and Writing

Producing the Popular: John Monk Foster and the ‘Industrial Romance’

Fabriquer le populaire : John Monk Foster et la « Romance Industrielle »
Michael Sanders


Cet article montre que le roman de John Monk Foster, A Pit-Brow Lassie (1889), publié par épisodes, est un exemple de la « culture de consolation » qui se situe à la croisée du populaire et du commercial mais qui fait disparaître la dimension radicale de cette tradition populaire. L’article s’ouvre sur une brève note biographique sur Monk Foster et sur sa carrière. Il décrit ensuite les pressions formelles associées au roman-feuilleton ainsi que les formes de plaisir de lecture en lien avec ces contraintes. Ensuite, il montre que la structure narrative de A Pit-Brow Lassie met en évidence un mélange inégal et parfois maladroit d’éléments issus de genres différents dont certains empruntés au conte populaire. L’article retrace la manière dont ces éléments structurels limitent le travail interprétatif du lecteur tout en mesurant la façon dont le roman est une défense de la fiction populaire. Cet article souligne que, même si le roman se déroule au sein d’un environnement prolétaire facilement identifiable, la lutte des classes est pratiquement absente de A Pit-Brow Lassie qui préfère mettre en relief un code moral commun aux différentes classes sociales, fondé sur l’éthique du travail. L’article s’achève sur l’analyse des tensions entre la « mobilité sociale » et les « intrigues du mariage et du bonheur » en analysant comment Monk Foster dissocie ces intrigues afin de parvenir à une fin heureuse, satisfaisante sur le plan idéologique.

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  • 1 Raymond Williams, ‘The Press and Popular Culture’, What I Came To Say, 128–29.
  • 2 Gareth Stedman Jones famously argues for a distinctive ‘culture of consolation’ which characterised (...)
  • 3 Despite being serialised in many newspapers, A Pit-Brow Lassie was never published as a single volu (...)
  • 4 For a discussion of ‘practical consciousness’ and its relationship to ideology see Raymond Williams (...)
  • 5 See, for example, Georg Lukács, ‘Marx and Engels on Aesthetics’, 77–79. For a more recent assessmen (...)

1In ‘The Press and Popular Culture’, Raymond Williams identifies three distinct, yet related, meanings of the term ‘popular’ in the context of print media in the ‘long’ nineteenth century. Firstly, there is the sense of being ‘for the people’, exemplified by a tradition of radical journalism which runs from William Cobbett to Robert Blatchford. Secondly, there is the ‘skilful and vigorous combination of generalised political attitudes with the established popular reading material of crime, scandal, romance and sport’ pioneered by Sunday newspapers such as the News of the World and Lloyd’s in the 1840s. Finally, from the 1860s, the emergence of cheap evening and daily papers leads to the ‘popular’ becoming increasingly defined in terms of commercial success.1 The trajectory outlined by Williams is one of the displacements of a self-conscious, essentially class-based, radicalism by an increasingly unclassed progressivism which, by successfully incorporating selected aspects of working-class culture, provided the ideological basis for an essentially quietist ‘culture of consolation’.2 This article analyses John Monk Foster’s serialised novel A Pit-Brow Lassie (1889) as an expression of this culture.3 Through an analysis of both the novel’s thematic concerns and its narrative structure, the article demonstrates how the ‘combination of generalised political attitudes with . . . established popular reading material’, to quote Williams, establishes the necessary conditions for the conflation of the ‘popular’ with the ‘commercial’ and consequent decoupling of the ‘popular’ from its earlier, politically radical, implications. The article argues that A Pit-Brow Lassie provides an example of the production of the popular as a largely passive reflection of existing ‘practical consciousness’ aiming for that lowest common ideological denominator described as ‘common sense’ by Gramsci.4 The primary value of such literature is precisely that it is ‘representative’ rather than ‘typical’ (in a Lukácsian sense).5

2The article begins with a brief biographical sketch of Monk Foster and his writing career. It then considers the formal pressures associated with serialised newspaper fiction and explores the kinds of narrative pleasure generated within those constraints. Next, it analyses the narrative structure of A Pit-Brow Lassie and argues that it displays an uneven and, at times, uneasy combination of elements derived from a variety of genres, as well as demonstrating many features of the folk tale. The article then traces the ways in which these structural elements reduce the interpretative work required of the novel’s readers. It also considers the novel’s defence of popular fiction and argues that despite its resolutely and recognisably proletarian milieu, class conflict is almost entirely absent from A Pit-Brow Lassie which posits instead a cross-class moral code based on the work ethic. The conclusion presents an analysis of the tensions between the novel’s ‘social mobility’ and ‘marriage/happiness’ plots and argues that Monk Foster had to decouple these plots in order to arrive at an ideologically satisfactory happy ending.

  • 6 Graham Law notes that for sixteen years from 1889, Monk Foster was employed by Tillotson’s Fiction (...)

3Nowadays, John Monk Foster is hardly a household name, but for the final decade of the nineteenth century he enjoyed a degree of popularity, particularly in Northern England and Australia where his ‘romances of industry’—tales of the mines, factories, and foundries—were regularly serialised in provincial newspapers in the UK, Australia and New Zealand.6

  • 7 The short biography which follows is drawn from an account of Monk Foster’s life written by one of (...)
  • 8 For a discussion of the intellectual development of working-class autodidacts, see David Vincent, B (...)

4John Monk Foster was born in Wigan, Lancashire, in 1857, the eldest of seven brothers, and at the age of nine he began working down the mine.7 In some respects, his intellectual development resembles that of many working-class autodidacts of the early and mid-nineteenth century.8 Having been taught to read at a Dame School, he recalls being ‘passionately fond of reading’ (Rayner 9) and clubbing together with like-minded lads to buy, read and share various penny journals. Then, in his late teens, with the opening of Wigan Free Library, Monk Foster found the ‘wide fields of literature were thrown open to [him]’ (Rayner 10) and, in a departure from an earlier generation of autodidacts who frequently stressed their grounding in ‘canonical’ literature, he describes a reading programme based on pleasure rather than self-improvement, ‘I read right and left with avidity, if with small discrimination, reading more with an eye to mental pleasure than intellectual profit’ (Rayner 10).

5Equally typical of working-class writers of the period is Monk Foster’s first brush with literary fame when, aged twenty-three, he won second and third prizes in a local newspaper Christmas story and poetry competition. The following year he won first prize in the same newspaper and, he recalls, ‘emboldened by my own success, I entered one of the People’s Journal Christmas competitions . . .  winning one of the minor prizes’ (Rayner 10). Further encouraged by this, he sent a short story to the London journal Bow Bells (for which he was paid three guineas) and for a few years he contributed short stories and articles to a variety of publications including, The Weekly Budget, Chambers’s Journal, Household Words and All The Year Round. In June 1885, The Nineteenth Century published an article entitled ‘Mining Inspections a Sham’, which appeared shortly after the Clifton Hall Colliery explosion, in which 178 men and boys were killed following a firedamp explosion.9 This article cost Monk Foster his post as a mining contractor and, while he found work with other companies, he accepted Tillotson’s offer and left mining for literature in 1888. In addition to writing for Tillotson, Monk Foster both edited and was largely responsible for the contents of The Comet, a local Wigan newspaper, between 1889 and 1894.

6Monk Foster offered a clear-eyed, unillusioned account of this career change as ‘exchanging the pick for the pen’ (Rayner 12). Becoming a full-time writer did not mean an escape from toil or, ultimately, poverty. Graham Law notes that Monk Foster started at Tillotson on a weekly wage of thirty shillings (£78 per annum) in 1889, which rose to thirty guineas a month (£126 per annum) by 1902 (Law 2000, 70). In exchange, Monk Foster produced a novel-length story and one or two short stories for newspaper publication annually, with the full copyright held by Tillotson. It is difficult to assess the full value of these copyrights, but in addition to the UK market, his fiction was serialised in the USA, the British colonies, and French and German newspapers. Besides, at least one of his novels, Die Tochter des Bergmanns (The Miner’s Daughter) was published as a single volume in the Bucherei Frauenliebe (Women’s Romance Library) series published by Munz & Co., of Leipzig and Berlin.

  • 10 In his essay, ‘Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives’, Roland Barthes defines ‘nucl (...)
  • 11 By which I mean that although readers might experience a form of suspense while speculating on poss (...)
  • 12 Most of the newspapers which serialised A Pit-Brow Lassie advertised it prior to its serialisation. (...)

7Writers of the newspaper serial novel faced a series of formal pressures. In the case of A Pit-Brow Lassie, Monk Foster had 25 weekly instalments of between 4,000 to 6,000 words (giving a total of approximately 115,000 words, at a weekly average of around 4,600 words) in which to tell his tale. Each instalment had to advance the plot, provide at least one moment of heightened interest, and end on a cliff-hanger to ensure the reader would return the following week. In Monk Foster’s case these formal pressures make for a fast-paced but rhythmically monotonous narrative; this is mainly because the narrative largely consists of ‘nuclei’ and contains comparatively few ‘catalysers’ (to borrow from Barthes).10 Therefore, suspense is only possible between rather than within instalments and, as such, is adjacent to, rather than an integral part of, the immediate reading experience.11 Furthermore, some newspapers, such as the Fife Free Press and Kirkcaldy Guardian, included many of the key plot developments in their advertising for the story itself, thereby further limiting the possibility of suspense.12

  • 13 The UK newspapers which serialised the novel were: The Blackburn Standard, Buchan Observer & East A (...)
  • 14 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (1983).

8A Pit-Brow Lassie, which was one of Monk Foster’s best known and most popular novels, first appeared in The Comet in 1889, and was also serialised the same year in at least twelve British newspapers. The following year, the novel was serialised by four additional British newspapers and beyond Britain, in at least five Australian newspapers, and one in New Zealand.13 In Britain, A Pit-Brow Lassie was predominantly serialised in newspapers published in industrial towns and areas of Northern England and Scotland, suggesting an ‘imagined community’ (to use Benedict Anderson’s concept) constructed by the twin co-ordinates of class and region.14 A Pit-Brow Lassie focuses on the travails of a hero and heroine. Its hero, the young miner Luke Standish falls in love with the heroine and ‘pit-brow lassie’, Kate Leigh. Their courtship is complicated by the machinations of the novel’s middle class villain, Arthur Willesden, who is aware that Kate will inherit a fortune from a long-lost relative. To prevent the marriage of Luke and Kate, Arthur bribes another ‘pit-brow lassie’, Moll Sheargold, to name Luke as the father of her baby. Unwilling to defend himself against this false accusation, Luke leaves Lancashire to find work elsewhere and Arthur succeeds in marrying Kate before she learns of her rich uncle’s return to England. Meanwhile, Luke has been pursuing his mining career and returns to Lancashire as a mine manager. On his return, he finds Kate trapped in an unhappy marriage to Arthur. When Arthur murders Moll (who, in addition to being his mistress, has been blackmailing him), suspicion falls on Luke who is arrested for Moll’s murder. Kate undergoes a life-threatening illness and on recovering tricks her husband into confessing the murder. Arthur is killed on the dockside while trying to flee the country, leaving Luke and Kate to marry at the novel’s conclusion. In addition, to the marriage, inheritance, and murder plots, the early instalments of the novel feature both a supernatural plot which turns on the earlier disappearance of Kate’s father, as well as detailed and realistic descriptions of minework which possess a near-journalistic quality.

9In terms of genre, the novel’s structure can be parsed as follows:

Weekly instalments



Introduction of central characters, establishment of marriage and inheritance plots


Supernatural plot introduced






Marriage plot bifurcates as Arthur seeks to separate Kate from Luke as a preliminary to courting her himself (thereby fusing this second marriage plot [M2] with the inheritance plot).




Luke’s career progress






Closure – marriage of Luke and Kate

  • 15 Christopher Hilliard argues that the late Victorian sensation novel (which he describes as sensatio (...)

10As this table shows, while the marriage plot runs throughout, it is interrupted in the first and final thirds of the novel by the supernatural and murder plots respectively. In part, this generic variety is explicable by reference to late Victorian sensation fiction and melodrama (which are essentially hybrid genres). In part, it attests to the importance of ‘variety’ in working-class entertainment generally (witness the transition from music hall to ‘variety theatre’ in the late-1880s), as well as the essential incompatibility between working-class lives and forms of the novel available in the nineteenth century.15

11Despite this apparent multiplicity of genres, Monk Foster identified almost his entire oeuvre as belonging to a distinctive genre. In an interview for the People’s Journal, he described his novels as:

romances of industry, wherein are set forth the conditions under which the toilers exist, the hardness of the common lot, the success and power the chosen few may win, the hope, despair, and elemental passions which colour all our lives. (Rayner 12)

12Monk Foster’s description suggests a complex set of ambitions, intentions, attitudes and values. It is clear from the brief plot description offered above that Monk Foster’s understanding of ‘romance’ combines both its older sense of a sequence of marvellous adventures as well as the importance of the courtship/marriage plot. Additionally, there is a commitment to a realistic depiction of the living and working conditions of the working-class which although acknowledging ‘the hardness of the common lot’ also presents it as inevitable for most people (with only the ‘chosen few’ achieving power and success). Significantly, hardship is understood as a collective experience whilst escape is only possible for fortunate individuals. At the ‘theoretical’ level (i.e. Monk Foster’s description), this formulation is politically ambivalent offering its readers at least two points of identification—the recognition of hardship and the possibility, however remote, of escaping it. At the ‘practical’ level (i.e. A Pit-Brow Lassie), the narrative focuses on the escape of Kate and Luke (effectively relegating the material conditions of the toilers to the novel’s background) and presents the difficulties and suffering which they experience as primarily emotional, arising out of those ‘elemental passions’ which transcend class divisions. The effect of A Pit-Brow Lassie is to assert a distinctive class experience (working in the mines) whilst simultaneously dissolving it in a universal emotional solvent.

  • 16 These incidents occur over two weekly instalments. The eleventh instalment ends with Luke’s decisio (...)

13The presence of generic variety also provides an explanation for the numerous ‘improbable’ plot developments which occur in the novel. In A Pit-Brow Lassie, Monk Foster often has to contrive a ‘nucleus’ able to function in two generic registers simultaneously. In short, certain aspects of the plot are over-determined and this also has consequences for characterisation within the novel. Put bluntly, characters are required to perform those actions necessary to develop the plot regardless of considerations such as probability and motivation (which are the hallmarks of realist fiction). To take one example, when Luke first learns that Moll has named him as the father of her child, he sets off to confront Moll, rather than going to Kate to protest his innocence. As a result, when Kate turns up at his house to ask if the story is true, she is told by Luke’s mother that he has gone to see Moll. Shocked by this news, Kate is unable to go to work which in turn means that Luke waits in vain at the pit to speak to Kate after work. Luke then walks to Kate’s house only to be denied entry by Kate’s mother. Kate is kept away from work for a few days to tend to her mother (who, at Arthur’s suggestion, feigns an attack of rheumatism) and during this period Luke decides to leave town rather than attend court (thus sparing Kate the ordeal of having to give evidence). Luke’s flight is interpreted as an admission of guilt and the ground is now prepared for Arthur to begin his courtship of Kate (who is now convinced of Luke’s faithlessness).16

  • 17 Vladimir Propp (translated by Laurence Scott), Morphology of the Folktale. For a discussion of the (...)

14This concatenation of mishaps, misunderstandings and machinations is necessary for the plot rather than presenting itself as a series of ‘organic’ developments arising from the interplay of character and circumstance. This over-determination by plot is closer to the folktale than the realist novel and an analysis of two narrative episodes from A Pit-Brow Lassie demonstrate just how closely it maps onto the model identified by Propp in his study of the Russian Folktale.17 For example, the narrative sequence discussed in the previous paragraph fulfils functions 4 to 11 in Propp’s schema:

Proppian function

Realisation in A Pit-Brow Lassie

4) Reconnaissance by the villain

Arthur plots against Luke.

5) Villain receives information about victim

Arthur solicits information about Luke (and Kate) from both Moll and Kate’s mother.

6) Villain seeks to deceive victim

Arthur engineers a situation where Kate observes a meeting between Luke and Moll.

7) Victim submits to deception

Kate (reluctantly) believes the rumours concerning Luke and Moll to be true.

8) Villainy

Moll names Luke as the father of her baby.

9) Misfortune is made known

Luke is summoned to attend a paternity hearing.

10) Hero decides on a course of action

After trying and failing to speak with Kate, Luke decides not to attend court (in order to spare Kate the ordeal of giving evidence).

11) Hero leaves home

Luke leaves to find work elsewhere.

15Similarly, the novel’s closing events conform closely to Propp’s model:

Proppian function

Realisation in A Pit-Brow Lassie

23) Unrecognized arrival of hero

Luke returns to Lancashire to work in another pit.

24) False hero presents unfounded claims

Arthur marries Kate.

25) Difficult task/ordeal of hero

Luke is arrested for Moll’s murder (also doubled by Kate’s illness and loss of memory caused by her witnessing the murder).

26) The task is resolved & 27) the hero is recognised

Luke protests his innocence in a letter to Kate. The letter causes Kate to retrieve her memory and with it the means of proving Luke’s innocence.

28) The false hero or villain is exposed

Kate confronts Arthur with her knowledge that he is Moll’s murderer.

29) Hero given a new appearance

Luke is released from prison with his reputation now fully restored.

30) Villain is punished

Arthur dies while trying to flee the country.

31) Hero marries

Luke marries Kate.

  • 18 For a discussion of working-class reading practices in respect of newspapers, see Andrew Hobbs, A F (...)

16This close structural resemblance to a folk tale attests to the persistence of older narrative modes within late nineteenth century British popular culture. By drawing on folk tale structures, Monk Foster is also able to mobilize a cultural repertoire which would have been available to most, if not all, of his readers. Given that a newspaper was the main, and in many cases only, way in which working-class readers engaged with print culture, the use of familiar narrative structures, particularly those drawn from oral culture, is a shrewd commercial as well as aesthetic strategy.18

17Certainly, the narrator frequently seeks to secure readerly assent on the basis of shared cultural assumptions and knowledge. For example, when Kate first starts to have doubts about Luke’s faithfulness, the narrator comments, ‘That these doubts made Kate miserable need not be set down here’ (Monk Foster 21). The narrator makes a similar observation when Kate’s mother is reunited with her long-lost brother, ‘There is no necessity to dwell upon the meeting between the long parted brother and sister. It was affectionate and touching, as such reunions generally are’ (Monk Foster 25). These recurrent formulations (‘need not’, ‘no necessity to’) occur frequently within the novel and presuppose a shared understanding based on the reader’s own knowledge of the world. In the chapter dealing with Arthur and Kate’s wedding-day, the narrator’s wry observation demonstrates that this assumed readerly knowledge also extends to the conventions of story-telling:

The good and just providence who generally hangs about in novels and dramas at a convenient distance, ready to be called in when wanted, was absent on that occasion, and the cunningest young scoundrel in the three kingdoms was permitted to wed himself to one of the sweetest and truest girls in the land. (Monk Foster 31)

  • 19 For a discussion of the significance of Collins’s article see, Graham Law, ‘Wilkie Collins and the (...)

18Elsewhere in the novel, appeals to the reader’s cultural knowledge are augmented by references to specific authors and publications. For example, the opening instalment refers to three periodicals which provided fiction to a popular readership Cassell’s Family Magazine, Bow Bells, and the London Journal, while a subsequent reference to Wilkie Collins’s article, ‘The Unknown Public’ (in chapter 4) also acknowledges the debate over the rise of cheap fiction for a mass readership.19 In addition, the novel offers three examples of intertextuality; Luke’s offer to lend Kate a copy of M. E. Braddon’s To the Bitter End (chapter 2), an allusion to George Meredith in chapter 29, while, in chapter 40, Kate is shown ‘idly turning the pages of Whyte-Melville’s clever story, “Contraband”’. The reference to Braddon’s novel is particularly significant because as a novel which features a lodger seeking to seduce his landlord’s daughter, a close relative returning from Australia, and a wrongful arrest for murder, To the Bitter End anticipates a number of key plot devices in A Pit-Brow Lassie. The reference to Meredith, ‘But these thoughts, after all, were as George Meredith would say, only thin food for a wounded heart to feed on’, appears to allude to ‘Thin food for Passion!’ from Diana of the Crossways. As a novel dealing with the suffering of an intelligent and sensitive woman in an unhappy marriage, Diana of the Crossways would be pertinent to Kate’s predicament at this point in A Pit-Brow Lassie. The reader familiar with Contraband (a novel dealing with the revenge of women against male wrongs) might regard Kate’s choice as foreshadowing her decision to expose her husband’s guilt. In all three cases, the use of intertextuality signals future plot developments to the reader as well as providing an interpretative framework for Monk Foster’s novel.

  • 20 For example, the reader is left in no doubt that Arthur’s motives towards Kate are entirely dishono (...)

19Throughout A Pit-Brow Lassie, Monk Foster is concerned with reducing the interpretative work required of the reader as far as possible. The story moves on rapidly and the privileging of action leaves little room for psychological introspection on the part of either the characters or the narrator. Indeed, there is a requirement that character motivation be readily intelligible to the reader, even when it remains obscure to other characters within the novel.20 Characters may, and often do, misunderstand one another, but the reader is never left in doubt. These attempts to restrict meaning run counter to the current critical consensus which argues ‘that in order to appeal to as wide a consumer base as possible, mass-market fiction has to remain polysemous, suggesting only a vague political and social stance on potentially contentious matters’ (King 2019, 12). A Pit-Brow Lassie demonstrates that polysemy is not the only way of avoiding controversy.

20Similarly, the emotions experienced by the main characters are unambiguously expressed and frequently involve strong physical reactions. Consider, for example, the following extracts taken from one of the most emotionally charged episodes in the novel—Kate’s discovery of the rumour that Luke is the father of Moll’s baby and the misunderstandings which arise when Luke and Kate are unable to speak to one another:

Pale and almost choking [Kate] remained there a moment only, then she walked away, fearful that those inside the cabin might come out and discover her in the very throes of her shame.
Half staggering across the brow she came upon the man who superintended all the pit-brow work, and telling him that she had been taken suddenly ill, she asked for an afternoon’s holiday. Her white face and evident agitation fully supported the girl’s statement, and her request was at once granted.
. . . 
It was bitterly cold, the wind blowing from the north-east, but the young fellow’s blood was in too heated a condition for him to feel the chilliness of the icy air.
. . . 
As [Kate’s mother] finished speaking she stepped back and the door was shut in his face. A great lump rose in Luke’s throat, almost choking him, and two big tear-drops fell upon his frosted beard. He brushed the moisture from his eyes with an angry sweep of his palm, and turning away from the cottage felt that now he had reached hell’s lowest and darkest depth. (Monk Foster 22)

  • 21 The idea of an action signifying a specific emotion and social situation will later underpin Brecht (...)

21In all of these examples, emotion is expressed in terms of surface appearances rather than psychological depths. Throughout the novel, emotion manifests itself physiologically and its meaning is unmistakeable. From the pale face to the choking lump in the throat, expressions of emotion are recognisable and formulaic and, as such, possess a semiotic efficiency which would have delighted Brecht.21 Of greater importance, for this discussion, is the fact that their semiotic efficiency requires not just minimal interpretative effort on the part of the reader but also privileges a sympathetic rather than an empathetic response; the reader is invited to recognise and approve, without necessarily sharing, the character’s emotional response.

  • 22 Philip Waller, for example, comments on the tendency in the late Victorian era to regard periodical (...)
  • 23 When Emma Vine hears of a large house with a big garden, the narrator observes ‘She had read of suc (...)
  • 24 For a detailed study of the London Journal, see Andrew King, The London Journal, 1845–83: Periodica (...)

22This lack of ambiguity and ambivalence forms the basis of Monk Foster’s defence of popular fiction in A Pit-Brow Lassie. This aspect of the novel is a response to the often condescending, if not hostile, assessment of serialised newspaper fiction for its supposedly deleterious effects on working-class readers.22 George Gissing, for example, criticises serial fiction for feeding working-class women readers’ unrealistic expectations and escapist fantasies in Demos, published just three years before A Pit-Brow Lassie.23 This derogatory assessment persisted beyond the Victorian period; Tommy Jackson, arguably the most outstanding working-class intellectual of the first half of the Twentieth Century, offers a scathing assessment of the ‘serial story for semi-literates’ as belonging to ‘the lower grades of fiction’ (Jackson 22). Given such hostility, it is not surprising to find a defence of working-class reading practices in the novel. As noted earlier, in the novel’s second chapter, we learn that Kate is a regular reader of the penny weekly magazines London Journal and Bow Bells (the journal which had published one of Monk Foster’s earliest short stories), while Luke reads the monthly Cassell’s Family Magazine.24 Kate’s taste, the narrator informs us, is ‘probably inherited’ from her mother who was ‘a great reader of cheap romances’ (Monk Foster 4). The narrator’s defence (which can also be seen as a manifesto for Monk Foster’s own artistic practice) emphasises the moral clarity achieved by the simplicity of popular fiction:

  • 25 The spelling of the online version of Monk Foster’s novel is Americanized, hence ‘valor’ and ‘favor (...)

This taste for cheap literature in no way militated against any virtues Kate possessed; it rather fostered their growth and ennobled the girl’s ideas of life. Living as she did in a dull country village, she would have grown up thick-witted as a clod had not the romances she devoured shown her glimpses—often caricatures it is true—of the great world that struggled, surged, seethed, and breathed around her.
What if the heroes of her cheap stories were invariably models of manly beauty—the heroines paragons of virtue and loveliness—the one performing impossible feats of valor25 and intellect, the other enduring intolerable wrongs and suffering for Right’s sake?
What if the characters of the stories were too often the clumsiest of lay figures, overdrawn, and inevitably surcharged with every passion, human and divine? In the end the virtuous reigned triumphant and the wicked were consigned to a righteous perdition. To her uncritical eye the blemishes of the stories were not discernible; she was only able to see in them that which was good and inspiriting. (Monk Foster 4)

23Additionally, Monk Foster defends popular literature on the grounds that it broadens Kate’s mind by offering ‘glimpses’ of ‘the great world’, and it heightens her sense of virtue by making her identify with idealised characters and by strengthening her belief in an underlying moral order at work in the world. Shortly after reading this theoretical defence, the reader is given a practical demonstration of the value of Kate’s reading when we are shown that it has empowered her to fight off a sexual assault from a colliery manager. In short, Monk Foster suggests that the pleasures and compensations of popular fiction are identical with those of melodrama as theorised by critics from Peter Brooks’s The Melodramatic Imagination onwards.

24Furthermore, A Pit-Brow Lassie highlights the importance of cheap literature as an affordable luxury to which the working classes are entitled, by representing serial fiction as a reward for the regular performance of wage labour:

When [Kate] began to work on the pit-brow, with the first week’s ‘spending money’ she bought the first two numbers of a periodical she had seen in the village stationer’s window.
Thus at thirteen Kate Leigh became one of that great ‘Unknown Public’ whose existence once puzzled Wilkie Collins so much; and regularly for years did she continue to purchase her favorite ‘Penny Novel Journal’. (Monk Foster 4)

25However, the novel also contains some muted recognition of the potentially harmful effects of popular fiction. When the villainous Arthur poses as an author, popular fiction becomes an indirect source of moral danger because it enables Arthur to exercise a near fatal fascination over mother and daughter: ‘[Arthur’s] vocation threw a halo around him at once so far as parent and daughter were concerned’ (Monk Foster 11). Additionally, the narrator acknowledges the escapist element of Kate’s reading; ‘[Kate lived] two lives—one the hard practical life of the pit-brow girl, the other a dream of romance passed in the companionship of her heroes and her heroines’ (Monk Foster 4).

26This tension between economic reality and the ‘dream of romance’ informs the novel’s structure from its opening sentence which reads: ‘A scene more unromantic it would be almost impossible to imagine, and one less lovely equally difficult to discover in all the length and breadth of smoke-polluted, pit-pierced, factory and foundry dotted Lancashire’. The next sentence reveals this ‘scene’ is ‘the brow of a coal mine, situated in the very midst of a town of coal pits’ (Monk Foster 1). After this panoramic opening, the novel focuses on the relentless nature of minework:

Quickly one huge cage descended and the other was borne upward loaded with full ‘tubs’—as the small waggons used in the mines are called in Lancashire—and when the full cage arrived at the surface it was emptied in a few seconds by the banksman and his co-worker—a woman—half-a-dozen empty tubs took the place of the full ones, there was a clear ringing stroke of a bell, the signal from below, and again the great pulleys were whirling, the huge iron cages speeding in opposite directions. (Monk Foster 1)

27Similarly, when we first encounter Kate, she is working as a ‘number shouter’ and again the narrator provides an explanation of this role:

Each miner employed in getting coal has a set of tallies, each set being numbered differently, and he affixes one of these tallies to every tub of coal he fills, and when the full tubs are sent up the shaft they are weighed and the number attached to each tub is cried out by the ‘number shouter’ and set down by the weighman. (Monk Foster 1)

28However, with the conclusion of the supernatural sub-plot (approximately a third of the way through the novel) both mine and minework fade into the background to be replaced by the marriage plot.

  • 26 The single exception is the novel’s recognition of an impending economic conflict within the workfo (...)

29Despite its insistence on the realities of working-class life and its recognition of differences in social class, both economic and class conflict are largely absent from A Pit-Brow Lassie.26 Instead, the novel posits a fundamental moral distinction between those characters who are prepared to work for their living and those who prefer an indolent existence and wish to live on the labour of others. Shared moral values rooted in the work ethic are shown to be capable of uniting characters across class boundaries. Luke and Kate’s willingness to work hard is shared by Henry Willesden (Arthur’s uncle), who is shown to be a diligent, conscientious solicitor. Similarly, Richard Hampton (Kate’s uncle) returns to England having made a fortune through hard work in Australia. Conversely, as the examples of Arthur and Moll show, the desire for a work-free, hedonistic, and essentially parasitic existence can arise irrespective of class origins.

  • 27 Clearly, Arthur and Moll’s position within the novel’s moral schema encourages a reading of their r (...)

30As the foregoing discussion suggests, although the novel’s moral code is organised primarily around attitudes to work, it is frequently accompanied or overlaid by sexual ethics. Thus, Luke and Kate’s attachment to the work ethic is accompanied by sexual continence, whilst Arthur and Moll’s indolence is accompanied by promiscuity. However, in addition to reinforcing the work ethic, the sphere of heterosexual relations is also figured as a major site of conflict within the novel. In particular, those power struggles which are absent from the economic sphere find both a more direct and more varied expression in the realm of sexuality. For example, there is the case of Kate’s sexual harassment by a mine manager discussed earlier, as well as the parallel rivalries of Arthur and Luke for Kate, and Kate and Moll for Luke. In the two cases where Kate is the object of desire, a muted cross-class dynamic accompanies the explicit sexual antagonism. Finally, there is the relationship between Arthur and Moll which, with its combination of antagonism and co-dependency and its foregrounding of the equivalences between the monetary and the sexual, suggests the structural similarities between capitalism and patriarchy as systems of exploitation and oppression.27

  • 28 Even Luke is originally shown as possessing an instrumentalizing attitude towards marriage: ‘Again (...)

31Instead, there is a strong insistence on the importance of romantic love which is carefully insulated from material considerations throughout. Consequently, A Pit-Brow Lassie criticises both Arthur Willesden’s desire to marry Kate in order to appropriate her inheritance as well as Kate’s mother’s attempts to assist his pursuit of her daughter. Indeed, Mrs Leigh’s belief that Kate’s beauty will allow her to marry ‘upwards’ is not endorsed by the narrative which instead stresses the ways in which Kate’s beauty makes her vulnerable; as noted earlier, a colliery manager attempts to make her his mistress, while it is only the prospect of Kate’s inheritance which alters Arthur’s intentions from seduction to marriage. The seduction plot is then transferred to Kate’s ‘double’, Moll—whose murder by her lover, Arthur, whilst ostensibly a warning against the dangers of sexual promiscuity, is also an oblique criticism of Mrs Leigh’s instrumentalizing logic whereby beauty can be exchanged for social position. Significantly, when Arthur tells Kate, ‘I want to forbid you ever donning the garb of a pit girl again’, Kate’s response ‘There is nothing wrong about that’, not only affirms the dignity of labour, but also signals that the desire to be a ‘lady’ plays no part in her decision to marry Arthur (Monk Foster 24).28

  • 29 As Raymond Williams observes in ‘Region and Class in the Novel’, ‘To any actual working class, with (...)

32Upward social mobility presents difficulties for novel and novelist alike. Monk Foster was aware that only ‘the chosen few’ are able to exchange the stern realities of working-class life for the relative comfort and security of the middle class. Most people, including most of the novel’s readers, remained within the working-class. In this respect the novel can be seen as part of a ‘culture of consolation’ albeit one spoken with a Northern rather than a London accent. This is a fraught ideological project precisely because it arises from the economic realities of class relations which the novel is either unwilling, or unable, to address. As I pointed out, it rejects any notion of economic conflict based on class interests (although it does acknowledge the existence of a conflict based on gender). In addition, the intensely local and overwhelmingly proletarian nature of the mining community depicted in A Pit-Brow Lassie only allows for the representation of other classes in their social rather than economic capacity.29 The absence of class conflict, constitutes the novel’s ‘political unconscious’ and in line with Jameson’s theoretical model, its ‘narrative form [serves] the function of inventing imaginary or formal “solutions” to unresolvable social contradictions’ (Jameson 64). The imaginary solutions offered by A Pit-Brow Lassie rest on the separation of the social mobility and marriage/happiness plots and make the former a matter of just deserts rather than individual desire. In this way, the possibility of vicarious escape which the rise of Luke and Kate potentially affords its readers, is secondary to the commercially necessary ‘happy ending’ which is achieved through their marriage.

33In effect, although social mobility features strongly within the plot, it is narrated as incidental. The novel affirms that Luke and Kate, both possess the personal characteristics which enable upward social mobility; a willingness to work hard allied to intellectual and moral qualities signified, in part, by their reading habits. However, the novel simultaneously refuses to recognise the desire for upward social mobility as a legitimate aspiration in its own right. In short, Luke and Kate are allowed to rise because they deserve it, not because they desire it. The final sentences of the novel read:

When the icy rigor of winter had succumbed to the gentler breath of spring, and leaden-hued skies and black dead fields had changed to blue breadths of heaven and cowslip and buttercup spread meadows, there was another wedding within the old church at Upholland, and again the bride was the rare-faced Pit-Brow Lassie.
But on this occasion Kate was not an unwilling wife, for the frank-faced, honest-eyed giant by her side was her old lover, the pitman, Luke Standish. (Monk Foster 43)

34By ending with the marriage of Kate and Luke, described as ‘Pit-Brow Lassie’ and ‘pitman’ respectively, the conclusion affirms the marriage/happiness plot and relegates their social mobility to the level of accidental detail; in short, class mobility is irrelevant, only happiness matters. Indeed, as Kate’s marriage to Arthur has shown, upward social mobility does not guarantee happiness. Thus, A Pit-Brow Lassie offers its working-class readers (who in reading the novel after a day’s work also demonstrated the positive traits of its hero and heroine) the assurance, or consolation, that marriage within their own class offers a much greater likelihood of happiness than any other outcome.

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Denisoff, Dennis. ‘Popular Culture’. The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Culture. Ed. Francis O’Gorman. Cambridge: CUP, 2010. 135–55.

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Jameson, Fredric. The Antinomies of Realism. London: Verso, 2013.

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Law, Graham. ‘Wilkie Collins and the Discovery of an “Unknown Public”’. Ed. Joannne Shattock. Journalism and the Periodical Press in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Cambridge: CUP, 2017. 328–41.

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Monk foster, John. Die Tochter des Bergmanns (The Miner’s Daughter). Munz & Co: Berlin, not dated.

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1 Raymond Williams, ‘The Press and Popular Culture’, What I Came To Say, 128–29.

2 Gareth Stedman Jones famously argues for a distinctive ‘culture of consolation’ which characterised the working class in the late nineteenth century (Stedman Jones 1974).

3 Despite being serialised in many newspapers, A Pit-Brow Lassie was never published as a single volume. Project Gutenberg Australia have made the text available as an e-book at the following link: All subsequent references to A Pit-Brow Lassie in this article will refer to a specific chapter in this e-book.

4 For a discussion of ‘practical consciousness’ and its relationship to ideology see Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature, 55–71. For Gramsci’s discussion of ‘common sense’ see Antonio Gramsci, A Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings 1916–1935, 343–49.

5 See, for example, Georg Lukács, ‘Marx and Engels on Aesthetics’, 77–79. For a more recent assessment of Lukács’s concept of the ‘typical’, see Fredric Jameson, The Antinomies of Realism, 144.

6 Graham Law notes that for sixteen years from 1889, Monk Foster was employed by Tillotson’s Fiction Bureau (which by the 1890s largely provided serial fiction to newspapers ‘in the northern and western regions of the UK’) to produce a novel and a short story or two every year for serialisation in the provincial press (Law 2005, 11). Katherine Bode identifies Monk Foster as the thirteenth most serialised author in the Australian press between 1865 and 1899. Although Monk Foster with 22 publications is a long way short of Mary Braddon who tops the list with 64 publications, he is not far short of Wilkie Collins in sixth position with 28 publications. Moreover, given that the serialisation of his novels did not begin until 1889, Monk Foster must have been one of the most serialised authors of the 1890s (Bode 132, fn.48).

7 The short biography which follows is drawn from an account of Monk Foster’s life written by one of his descendants and published in the Newsletter of the Wigan Heritage Service, Don Rayner, ‘John Monk Foster. A Wigan Miner, Author and Publisher, 1857–1930’, Past Forward, 9–13.

8 For a discussion of the intellectual development of working-class autodidacts, see David Vincent, Bread, Knowledge and Freedom. A Study of Nineteenth-Century Working Class Autobiography (1982).

9 For details of this explosion see:

10 In his essay, ‘Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives’, Roland Barthes defines ‘nuclei’ as key or constituent events within a narrative and ‘catalysers’ as supplementary events (which notwithstanding also possess interpretative significance): ‘A nucleus cannot be deleted without altering the story, but neither can a catalyser without altering the discourse’. (Barthes 267)

11 By which I mean that although readers might experience a form of suspense while speculating on possible plot developments between weekly instalments, they are unlikely to experience suspense whilst reading a weekly instalment.

12 Most of the newspapers which serialised A Pit-Brow Lassie advertised it prior to its serialisation. The method of advertising ranged from a simple notice of its forthcoming appearance, to adverts containing an illustration of the novel’s heroine accompanied by a brief biography of its author, to adverts containing illustration, author biography and a full plot summary.

13 The UK newspapers which serialised the novel were: The Blackburn Standard, Buchan Observer & East Aberdeenshire Advertiser, Merthyr & Dowlais Times, West Cumberland Times, The Midlothian Journal, The Portobello Advertiser, Derbyshire Courier, Weekly Irish Times, Leigh Journal and Times, Fife Free Press & Kirkcaldy Guardian, Burnley Gazette and the Ayrshire Post (all 1889), and the Stirling Observer, Hull Times, Paisley & Renfrewshire Gazette and Musselburgh News (1890).

14 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (1983).

15 Christopher Hilliard argues that the late Victorian sensation novel (which he describes as sensation fiction stripped of ‘moral ambiguity’) was central to Tillotson’s business plan (Hilliard 666). I am suggesting that sensation fiction without moral ambiguity is, in effect, melodrama. For the transition from music hall to variety see, Dagmar Kift, The Victorian Music Hall: Culture, Class and Conflict. For a discussion of the incompatibility between the shape of working-class lives and the forms of the novel see, Raymond Williams, ‘The Ragged-Arsed Philanthropists’, in Writing in Society.

16 These incidents occur over two weekly instalments. The eleventh instalment ends with Luke’s decision to confront Moll. The twelfth instalment begins with Kate turning up at Luke’s home.

17 Vladimir Propp (translated by Laurence Scott), Morphology of the Folktale. For a discussion of the functions which characterise the folk tale, see pages 28–65.

18 For a discussion of working-class reading practices in respect of newspapers, see Andrew Hobbs, A Fleet Street in Every Town: the Provincial Press in England, 1855–1900, particularly, ‘The Readers of the Local Press’, 35–66. Lady Bell’s social survey of Middlesborough iron-workers and their families revealed that out of 200 households surveyed, 58 read only newspapers (see Waller 653).

19 For a discussion of the significance of Collins’s article see, Graham Law, ‘Wilkie Collins and the Discovery of an “Unknown Public”’ (2017).

20 For example, the reader is left in no doubt that Arthur’s motives towards Kate are entirely dishonourable, with his original plan to seduce Kate (revealed in chapter 6) only changing to marriage once he has established that she is the niece of Richard Hampton and will inherit his fortune (chapter 10). Ironically, Arthur subsequently falls in love with Kate (chapter 28). This plot device of a man marrying for ulterior motives and subsequently falling in love with his wife forms the basis for the only one of J. Monk Foster’s novels to be published in non-serial form, Passion’s Aftermath (1892).

21 The idea of an action signifying a specific emotion and social situation will later underpin Brecht’s ‘Gestus’ technique. Doubtless, Brecht would reject the formulaic/cliched nature of the gesten displayed in A Pit-Brow Lassie but given his interest in popular cultural forms, it is tempting to speculate on a shared origin. For the ‘gestus’, see Bertolt Brecht, A Short Organum for the Theatre (1949), in Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic (ed. John Willett, London: Methuen, 1964), 179–205.

22 Philip Waller, for example, comments on the tendency in the late Victorian era to regard periodical fiction as essentially continuous with the ‘penny dreadfuls’ which occasioned moral panics in the early Victorian period (Writers, Readers, and Reputations: Literary Life in Britain 1870–1918, 648). For an analysis of Victorian critical attitudes in the 1880s, see Dennis Denisoff’s discussion of James Payne and Thomas Wright in ‘Popular Culture’, in the Cambridge Companion to Victorian Culture.

23 When Emma Vine hears of a large house with a big garden, the narrator observes ‘She had read of such houses in the weekly story-papers. It must be nice to live in them; it must be nice to be a denizen of Paradise.’ (Gissing 47)

24 For a detailed study of the London Journal, see Andrew King, The London Journal, 1845–83: Periodicals, Production and Gender. Bow Bells has largely escaped critical attention, although Judith Rosen discusses the magazine in ‘A Different Scene of Desire: Women and Work in Penny Magazine Fiction’ (Sept. 1992).

25 The spelling of the online version of Monk Foster’s novel is Americanized, hence ‘valor’ and ‘favorite’.

26 The single exception is the novel’s recognition of an impending economic conflict within the workforce arising from attempts to exclude female labour from the pits. For details of the campaign to exclude female labour, see Angela V. John, By the Sweat of their Brow. Women Workers at Victorian Coal Mines.

27 Clearly, Arthur and Moll’s position within the novel’s moral schema encourages a reading of their relationship as a perversion of the social order rather than as a critique of its dominant features.

28 Even Luke is originally shown as possessing an instrumentalizing attitude towards marriage: ‘Again [Luke] had formerly decided that when he did wed, it would be no poor man’s daughter; he had resolved to woo and win some woman who would be able to forward his ambitions by means of monetary aid or social influence’ (Foster 2).

29 As Raymond Williams observes in ‘Region and Class in the Novel’, ‘To any actual working class, within its locality, other classes are very selectively and often quite misleadingly represented’ (Writing in Society, 236–37).

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Michael Sanders, « Producing the Popular: John Monk Foster and the ‘Industrial Romance’ »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 95 Printemps | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2022, consulté le 14 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Michael Sanders

Michael Sanders is Senior Lecturer in Nineteenth Century Writing at the University of Manchester. His main specialism is in the field of Chartist literature where he has published a monograph, The Poetry of Chartism: Aesthetics, Politics, History (2009) and numerous articles including, ‘“God is our guide! our cause is just!”: The National Chartist Hymn Book and Victorian Hymnody’, Victorian Studies, 54.4 (Summer 2012). More recently, he has co-edited a collection of essays, Subaltern Medievalisms: Medievalism ‘from below’ in Nineteenth-Century Britain (2021). He is currently part of an AHRC-funded project, Piston, Pen & Press, which examines the industrial working class’s engagement with literary culture in Northern England and Scotland in the long Nineteenth Century.
Michael Sanders est maître de conférences à l’Université de Manchester et spécialiste de littérature du xixe siècle. Sa recherche porte principalement sur la littérature chartiste, au sujet de laquelle il a publié une monographie, The Poetry of Chartism : Aesthetics, Politics, History (2009) et de nombreux articles dont « “God is our guide! our cause is just!” : The National Chartist Hymn Book and Victorian Hymnody », Victorian Studies, 54.4 (Summer 2012). Plus récemment, il a co-édité une série d’essais intitulée Subaltern Medievalisms: Medievalism ‘from below’ in Nineteenth-Century Britain (2021). Il est actuellement co-responsable du projet financé par le conseil de recherche britannique (Arts and Humanities Research Council) « Piston, Pen & Press », qui porte sur la contribution des ouvriers à la culture littéraire dans le nord de l’Angleterre et en Écosse au xixe siècle.

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