A Deep Lead-Coloured Cloud: Smoke and Northern English Space in the Industrial Novel


  • Bryonny Goodwin-Hawkins Aberystwyth University


Northern England, Dickens, Gaskell, smoke, industry


When Margaret Hale, heroine of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1854 novel North and South, first sights the distant smoke of a Northern English industrial town, she mistakes the ‘deep lead-coloured cloud’ for rain. Her confusion is pointed: industrial smoke was not of nature. Nor, indeed, was this the homely smoke of warm hearths. Industrial smoke was a disorienting and other atmosphere. It was also an atmosphere that featured prominently in emergent geographies of the North. For Charles Dickens, whose Hard Times was also published in 1854, the industrial North echoed fearful geographies of distant lands; smoke-stained brick was “red and black like the painted face of a savage”, and smoke itself made “monstrous serpents”. In this article, I explore the smoky atmospheres of Northern England in industrial-era novels. Visiting both Gaskell’s “Milton” and Dickens’ “Coketown” - which turn real places into archetypal industrial spaces - I show how industrial smoke’s striking materiality became at once definitive of Northern English space and redolent of socio-political change. And, I wonder how Milton and Coketown’s smoky geographies might still be with us.


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