The Factory Girl (1814)

Spring 2014 – Just Teach One, no. 4
Prepared by Duncan Faherty (Queens College and the CUNY Graduate Center) and Ed White (Tulane University)

Text and Introduction (PDF) | Text (XML File using TEI encoding)

Sarah Savage, The Factory Girl, 1815 edition (Boston: Monroe, Francis & Parker)


Today’s readers may find The Factory Girl confusing in its lack of industrial details. There are a few moments when the factory’s material environment appears—Mary’s work is “reeling cotton,” a task “neither difficult nor laborious”—but if we are looking for the detail-rich setting of later nineteenth-century writing, we will not find it here. Cotton factories had been in the greater Boston area for at least a generation—George Washington visited a Beverly factory in 1789—and by 1814, in the aftermath of President Thomas Jefferson’s embargo and the War of 1812, the industrial economy was achieving some national publicity. But for Savage, the factory is something else, a new kind of social problem, one suggested in the novel’s first chapter by the deathbed warning of Mary’s father, “that she does not work for any one, or with any body, who is not good.” The factory, in other words, designates a different social and moral environment. If the traditional community was one in which all neighbors were known, the factory is a place where one makes entirely new acquaintances: the novel’s protagonist has apparently never met any of the workers who appear at the end of chapter one. If the work cycle of the traditional community was seasonal and collective, it is now hourly and individual, as Mary demonstrates when she negotiates the length of her workday and reflects on the careful use of home and leisure time. In an environment where one leaves home part of the day to work in a distinctive community, education, courtship, family, and morality all take on a different inflection. The Factory Girl is one of the first fictional works to reflect on that shift.

For Sarah Savage, the novel, published anonymously in 1814, marked the beginning of a long writing career. Her father was a shopkeeper, but there were writers in her family, including a first cousin, James Savage, an antiquarian involved in printing. We do not know how many works Savage published, although at least twelve have been identified by her biographer Margaret B. Moore. In 1820, she would publish Filial Affection; or, The Clergyman’s Granddaughter, with James Talbot, also a novel, following in 1821. In 1823 she published a self-help book, Advice to a Young Woman at Service, in 1824 the moral tales The Suspected Boy and The Badge, in 1826 another moral tale entitled The Two Birth-Days, and in 1827 a history text, Life of Philip, the Indian Chief. All of these were prepared for younger readers, as were such later works as Sunday-School Conversations (1829), Conversations on the Attributes of God (1831), Blind Miriam Restored to Sight (1833), and Trial and Self-Discipline (1835), her last work.

As many of these titles indicate, they emerged from Savage’s career in education: she ran a private school in Salem, Massachusetts, in the early 1810s, before starting, in 1813, a “Sabbath school” like that started by Mary in The Factory Girl. Sabbath-schools (later Sunday Schools) had been in existence for over half a century—there was a Methodist school in Virginia in the 1780s, and schools for religious instruction in Philadelphia and Newburyport, Massachusetts, in the early 1790s—but the great wave of such schools began in the early 1810s, with Savage a participant and contributor.  As one Massachusetts newspaper reported, the Sabbath School’s “primary object is the instruction of sons of indigent parents, who, from various causes, are unable to attend school on week days” (Essex Register June 26, 1816).  The educational mission of such schools was spelled out in another newspaper notice:

Among the varied and useful operations of Christian beneficence, at the present day, Sabbath Schools occupy an important place.  They were founded in 1781, by ROBERT RAIKES, Esq. of Gloucester, England. Already their benign influence has been felt in almost every part of Christendom. Thousands, probably millions, have by these means been taught the rudiments of learning, the precepts of morality, and the doctrines of religion. Though they are not extensively needed in this country for literary purposes, yet for moral and religious purposes, it is believed they may be, and will be extensively adopted, and with great success…Might not the rising generation in this town be essentially benefitted, if each of the religious societies in town should adopt a system of Sabbath School instruction? Are there not some classes that demand special attention? Are there not benevolent and enterprising individuals, in sufficient numbers, ready to defray the expence, and perform the labours of such an undertaking? (Essex Register, May 23, 1818, 3)

As an illustration, an “African Sunday School,” associated with the antislavery Clarkson Society, was started in 1818, with this local commentary: “The behavior of those who do come to the school continues to be marked by that decorum and application which has greatly facilitated their progress in knowledge,” adding that “much of the scripture has been committed to memory by the younger pupils, and their minds stored with the interesting truths and sacred precepts of our holy religion, through the medium of catechisms, hymns, and other modes of religious instruction” (Essex Register, July 21, 1819, 3).  Savage’s most
thorough biographer, Margaret B. Moore, speculates that Savage may have written this newspaper account, which concludes with the observation:

The Clarkson Society are aware that a people, whose prevalent characteristic is the love of amusement, cannot at once be made to submit to the restraints of well ordered society, but it is hoped that they have in some instances been the means, if not of subduing, at least of making that propensity subservient to useful instruction.

What one notices in this discussion is less an emphasis on particular religious beliefs than on the power of religious instruction to reconstruct the self and make it more effective, economical, and durable. Thus in one of the conversations between Mary and her friend Nancy, Mary is at pains to stress that “time is the same valuable commodity at all seasons”; Nancy, humbly corrected, concludes that she “will wait no longer for the factory bell to call [her] up.” What started as a conversation about how to deal with the frivolous Lucy becomes in part a lesson about time management.

Thus while the Christian content and orientation of these schools and of The Factory Girl, which enacts the Sabbath-school program in novelistic form, is clear, it is worth noting that they express a somewhat generic, nonsectarian Protestantism. Savage appears to have never been a member of a particular denomination. She seems to have been similarly aloof to institutional politics. Although New England was politically divided about the policies leading up to and into the War of 1812, The Factory Girl, published as the war ended, alludes to no such conflicts, although it expresses patriotism: “the stimulating hope of rising into eminence,” Dr. Mandeville at one point notes, “in a free country like ours, may and ought to be cherished, for next to religion it is the best security for honest industry and laudable exertion.” And while the first edition of The Factory Girl appears to have attracted only local attention, the novel was reprinted in 1815, 1824, 1831, and 1854, with Savage receiving more and more positive attention for her writing before her death in 1837. When the 1824 reprint appeared, a New York magazine offered this assessment, assuming the author to be a man:

The stories are very simple; and the characters introduced are principally drawn from the humbler ranks of society. It is evident that the merit of these productions, there being nothing novel in the design, must depend entirely on the execution; and in this, we do not hesitate to say that the author has been very successful. He has given us a lively and agreeable representation of American
manners….This is an age of imitation…We therefore consider it as no slight merit in our author, that her works are free from designed resemblance to any popular writer, that they are not servilely formed after any fashionable model, but are true and original pictures from her own mind. (The Minerva, October 16, 1824, 29).

Suggestions for further reading

The earliest critical assessment of Sarah Savage’s The Factory Girl reductively figures its plot as “the dreary relation of the self-effacement of a humble girl,” as Henri Petter taxonomizes the novel as a prime example of “grievously didactic sentimentalism”; see, Petter, The Early American Novel (Ohio State Univ Press, 1971), 79. Recalibrating the modern critical reception of the novel, Cathy Davidson confessed that “as a feminist and a sociological critic” the fact that the novel featured a heroine who “organizes her fellow workers into a study group” spurred her interest in archival work; see, Davidson, Revolution and the Word (Oxford Univ. Press, 1986), 12. The first critic to afford The Factory Girl sustained attention, Thomas B. Lovell, understands the text as “the earliest proponent in fiction” of “the salutary view of wage labor, which sees participation in productive activity as an expression of an almost innate human drive—and so sees productive activity as the basis for the constitution of the self”; see Lovell, “Separate Spheres and Extensive Circles: Sarah Savage’s The Factory Girl and the Celebration of Industry in Early Nineteenth-Century America,” Early American Literature 31:1 (1996), 1. For Karen Weyler, The Factory Girl serves as a transitional text in American literary history since it marks a turn away from a “preoccupation with issues relevant to the middle and upper classes” by imagining, for the first time, “new settings and subjects—the working poor and the industrialization—topics which feature prominently in later sentimental novels of the nineteenth century”; see Weyler, Intricate Relations (U of Iowa Press, 2004), 184-185. In considering the import of Savage’s titular reference to an industrialized workspace, Eric Schocket notes that while “the factory” serves as a catalyst for the plot’s machinations, the text is really “a labor
novel without labor—or, to be more exact, a labor novel where the laborious exercise of virtue so predominates that work as an exogenous activity, something in operation apart from a moral typology, simply does not exist”; see Schocket, Vanishing Moments: Class and American Literature (U Michigan Press, 2006), 41. Turning her attention to the religious tenets of the text, Sylvia J. Cook suggests that the utility of biblical literacy serves as central theme of The Factory Girl, noting that Mary’s heroism resides in “her empathy with biblical characters, her pleasure in her understanding of the text, and her ability to convey the meaning to her pupils”; see Cook, Working Women, Literary Ladies: The Industrial Revolution and Female Aspiration (Oxford Univ. Press, 2008), 6. Gregory S. Jackson categorizes The Factory Girl as among the first U.S. novels written for young adults by figuring its concerns with “the harsh realities of early national life” as emblematic of a genre aimed at “preparing them for life-long vigilance against pride, anger, lying, and libidinous impulses”; see, Jackson, “Religion and the nineteenth-century American Novel,” in Cassuto, The Cambridge History of the American Novel (Cambridge University Press, 2011), 176. Nicole Eustace argues that the end of the novel “sent a clear message,” one which builds upon the didacticism of the novel to underscore that “only when women were allowed economic independence could their marriage contracts epitomize the American ideal of free consent”; see Eustace, 1812: War and the Passions of Patriotism (U Pennsylvania Press, 2012), 107. Most recently, Philip F. Gura suggests that while The Factory Girl “predates the establishment of most of the [religious] tract societies and was published commercially,” the novel is important in that “its story of a young woman who, owing to her strong religious training, resists selfishness and luxury set a standard in the nascent genre”; see Gura, Truth’s Ragged Edge: The Rise of the America Novel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 47. Although it doesn’t examine The Factory Girl, an influential work about the relationship of domestic fiction to industrialization is Nancy Armstrong’s Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel (Oxford: New York, 1987). Armstrong argues that a revolution in the structure of home life made the factory system possible. For biographical information about Savage, see the detailed essay “Sarah Savage of Salem: A Forgotten Writer,” by Margaret B. Moore, in Essex Institute Historical Collections 127 (1991), 240-59.

Teaching Reflections

The following are responses written by participants who have included this text in their teachings.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *