In Oscar and Lucinda, the factory, like the glass church whose material it produces, becomes a symbol of the decade. Furthernmore, like the Atkinson's Brewery in Graham Swift's Waterland, it reflects the industrial impulse of the time. In addition to her love of glass, Lucinda buys the factory because "She had seen industrialization as the great hope for women. The very factories which the aesthetics and romantics so abhorred would, one day soon, provide her sex with the economic basis for their freedom" (70). This sense that freedom can be bought or produced in a factory is the offspring of what Victorian Architecture calls the "hundred years of industrial capitalism" (Jordan, 110).
Lucinda's version of capitalism, however, seems more humane than that found in the Atkinson Brewery. She has dreams of creating a place that empowers women and cares for its employees and their children: "Her factories were like hubs of wheels, radiating spokes of care" (70). This attitude, though it does contradict some of the stories of Industrial Revolution squalor, is not unheard of for the time. In fact, there was a man named John Marshall who ran a flax spinning mill that "provided a small school at the back, where his workers' children would be kept out of harm's way during the day" (Cunningham, 22).
The glass-works being a typical Victorian factory, having a woman as owner quickly becomes a problem. Even in a modern factory there would be contention over this issue, but the Victorian era particularly finds a woman boss objectionable. The job of working in a glass-works is a hard one. It involves much physical labor, and unlike other factories it even requires that the employees be there on Sundays: "Glass-house furnaces must necessarily be kept heated on Sundays as well as other days . . ." (Dodd, 266). To demand this kind of work from your employees requires a dynamic of superior-owner and inferior-worker. Taking orders from a woman is more than these Victorian men can endure. Arthur Phelps, speaking for the workers of the glass factory, asks Lucinda not to visit the factory. He says that her presence makes the men nervous. When, however, Lucinda becomes associated with Oscar the workers offer a formal invitation to visit the factory.
The factory, which is a symbol of the industry, the class struggle, and the gender biases, of the Victorian era, then produces another architectural symbol for the time. The glass church, like the Grand '51, is linked to that marker of Victorian civilization, the Great Exhibition. Lucinda meets Mr. Paxton, "the same Mr. Paxton who designed the Crystal Palace" which housed the Great Exhibition, while visiting London (166). Her association with him not only inspires her to build the glass church, but it makes her church undeniably Victorian. The hope for Mr. Paxton was that he had invented a kind of architecture that would make the year 1851 unforgettable. The people of that time were certain that he "had devised and successfully carried out a new kind of architecture . . . [that would] long remain unrivaled in the art of construction" (Babbage, 63).
The church that Lucinda builds emulates the Crystal Palace in several ways. She even takes his lead by initiating a project that she has a vision of but no skills to create. Lucinda knows nothing about drawing and tries to learn from an art teacher who knows no more that she. When this does not work she turns to Mr. d'Abbs who "was not an architect. Of course he wasn't. He had never claimed to be" (337). He does the drawings anyway and has his artist friends help him with the perspective. Similarly, "Paxton was not a trained architect . . . He took advice from architects and worked very closely with contractors, who made all the detailed drawings" (Cunningham, 24).
When Lucinda dreams of her glass building she does so with much the same wonder and enthusiasm that people of that time spoke of the Crystal Palace. She even sees her own building as a kind of Crystal Palace: "Her true ambition . . . was to build . . . A Crystal Palace, but not a Crystal Palace" (305). Her vision is fantastic and sounds similar to Jordan's description of the Crystal Palace: "the elegant and magical glass palace for the fairy prince, utility and romance, cash and sentiment, cruelty and piety . . . that was the quintessence of the age" (113). These words are as appropriate to describe Lucinda's glass church as they are for the Crystal Palace. Oscar fills the role of the fairy prince, and the church's existence is a tribute to Lucinda's financial independence and her romantic sentiments for Oscar. The love that inspires the building of the church treats Oscar and Lucinda with cruelty. They lose each other without ever sharing their feelings because the piety of the age prevents their self-expression. Jordan's words so perfectly apply to the glass church that there can be no doubt that this building too is the is the quintessence of the age.
Lucinda, like the Commissioners of the 1851 Exhibition, wrestles with how to accommodate both practicality and creativity. When the Commissioners were deciding on a design for the building that would house the displays, there was much debate over the fact that though there were regulations to control cost and keep practical matters in mind, "the violators [of these regulations] were applauded and rewarded" (Babbage, 63). Lucinda finds herself in a similar conflict over how to reconcile her outrageous idea with the confines of reality. All the time that she dreams of building "something Extraordinary and Fine from glass and cast-iron" she never allows herself to dream of "something so commercially senseless" as a glass church (305, 325). Like the Commissioners of the Exhibition, however, Oscar disregards the constrains of practicality, saying that practicality is "damaging to the spirit" (325).
The nineteenth century experienced a "Battle of Styles" over what was the best style for contemporary architecture: "Architects frequently came to believe that their own favourite historical style was the only right one, and condemned all building in other styles" (Cunningham, 30). Lucinda has her own "battle of style" over the design of the church. She and Mr. d'Abbs have differing opinions over what the church should look like, and Lucinda gets furious that he ignores her instructions. Mr. d'Abbs makes a Ruskinian argument to defend his point, saying that there are certain "aesthetic laws" that he wants to abide (336).
The two buildings that receive attention in this novel, the glass-works and the church are, like the brewery, so decidedly Victorian that they come to represent the era as a whole. As symbols of an era they make a point about the resilience of history through time. When Lucinda goes to London, leaving her factory in the hands of Hasset, she learns that if you move on to another time and space, leaving a building or an era behind, they will decay in your absence. She returns to find "the Prince Rupert's Glass works deserted, its crucible gone grey and lifeless, the metal set hard inside them" (231). Having learned this lesson, she vows not to make that mistake again and refuses to deliver the church to Hasset herself because she does not want to leave the factory. While Lucinda waits at home for Oscar to make the delivery, the church shatters in several places and finally sinks into the water. Again the point is clear — once you leave an era it slips away. Lucinda, Oscar, the church, and the past they represent disappear only to be remembered in distorted tellings.
Babbage, Charles. The Exposition of 1851. London: John Murray, 1851.
Carey, Peter. Oscar and Lucinda. New York: Harper Perennial, 1988.
Cunningham, Colin. Building for the Victorians. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
Crook, J. Mordaunt. The British Museum. London: The Penguin Press, 1972.
Dodd, George. Days at the Factories. London: Charles Knight & Co., 1843.
Esdaile, Arundell. The British Museum Library. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1948.
Jordan, Robert Furneaux. Victorian Architecture. Middlesex, England: Penguin 1966.
Ruskin, John. The Stones of Venice. Ed. J. G. Links. New York: Da Capo, 1960.
Swenarton, Mark. Artisans and Architects: The Ruskinian Tradition in Architectural Thought. New York: St. Martins, 1989.
Last modified 1998