Living with the city
During this period, we witness the birth of the Victorian city and of the Victorian novel, and of a relationship between the two which was to prove of great importance and durability. Out of the city emerge crucial issues which find their most powerful expression in a new form of fiction and of fictional language which owe their birth in large part to the need to find ways of articulating new conditions. In some ways, novels and novelists fill the gaps of representation left by the disappointments of the electoral reform movement, giving voice to the otherwise unrepresented, and often calling into question the efficacy of more official political channels. Fiction is, during this period, a form of history, writing not only of the stories behind the statistics of reformers, but also of the conditions which bring about official silences and omissions. It is a form which demands to be read alongside the narratives of growing prosperity and national greatness with which the Victorians were preoccupied.
Early works of Charles Dickens : the novelist in an age of reform
It is appropriate that the decade which witnessed the beginnings of the Victorian age also saw the emergence into print of the young Charles Dickens. For many, the writings of Dickens are synonymous with all that is deemed ‘Victorian’. The endless adaptations to which his works have been subject, often even before the works themselves had been completed, have given Dickens’s popularity a form of timeless appeal. For many later readers, this seems to consist of a fascination with recreating desirable ‘certainties’ which seem most fully embodied in the not too recent past. The allure of A Christmas Carol (1843) is a case in point. It has become a reassuringly constant part of the modern Christmases which the story itself is often held to have helped to invent.
However, to create a timeless Dickens, and indeed a commensurately non-specific ‘Victorian age’ out of the nostalgic desires and anxieties of more contemporary times is fundamentally to misread the achievements and popularity, and to overlook the radical newness, of the author. In the case of A Christmas Carol, it is to ignore the specific circumstances of suffering and social decay which provide the moral impetus behind Scrooge’s reform. The years 1842–43 saw a depression in trade which led to strikes and the transportation of strikers from the North, and the second Chartist petition, which witnessed a series of social and political grievances. It was a time of unrest and of a lack of trust between employers and workers. That Scrooge’s reform as both man and employer comes about in part through his greater knowledge of the plight of others gives a clue to Dickens’s perception of the writer’s ability to participate in a period of reform: ignorance in its many guises was for Dickens the primary social enemy. In reading Dickens, we need to take account of the specificities of his considerable political and sympathetic engagement with his own times, and also, most particularly, to take account of the extent to which Dickens might himself be said to have actively created both the age and the audience with which he now seems to be naturally synonymous.
In his biography of the writer, Peter Ackroyd argues that Dickens was the first novelist to take advantage of the possibility that a national audience for fiction might be created. Such a possibility of course demanded the presence of material factors such as cheap printing and paper-manufacturing processes, and the national distribution network made possible by the spread of the railways. But it also required that a novelist should somehow, as Ackroyd puts it, ‘[find] a voice which penetrated the hearts of the high as well as of the low’, a voice which would be able to appeal to, and thus to create ‘a national audience’.1 Dickens was well placed to achieve this feat, as his own class-status was both ambiguous and typical of the new century in its fluidity. He was the son of John Dickens, a clerk, who was imprisoned for debt when Charles was 12 years old. This precipitated the break-up of his family at a time when Dickens had begun work in a blacking factory in London, many of the humiliating experiences of which are recreated in David Copperfield.
Through his journalism and fiction, Dickens went on to achieve a position of financial security sufficient for him to support his large family and to become an active philanthropist. However, far from securely inhabiting the middle-class world which his wealth brought him, he continued to enjoy the movement between and across classes which is demonstrated in his journalism, and in his earliest fictional works, Sketches by Boz (1836) and particularly The Pickwick Papers (1836–37). The writer Mary Russell Mitford wrote of Pickwick that:
All the boys and girls talk his fun – the boys in the streets; and yet those who are of the highest taste like it the most. Sir Benjamin Brodie takes it to read in his carriage, between patient and patient; and Lord Denman studies Pickwick on the bench while the jury are deliberating.2
This may depend on the fact that:
while ‘Boz’ brings before you with a graphic pen, the express image of the poorest and most ignorant orders, he never descends into vulgarity. The ordinary conversations of the loose and ribald multitude are faithfully reported, but by an adroit process of moral alchemy, all their offensive coarseness is imperceptibly extracted.3
In a tendency which would continue throughout his career, Dickens manages to exploit the impulses of both high and low culture in this work, to appeal to all kinds of audience in a demotic language and fiction which were, appropriately for their time, profoundly democratic and inherently new. For Andrew Sanders, Dickens embodies the ‘essentially rootless dynamism’ of the 1830s, and, in so doing, taps into the spirit of the age.4
For Thomas Carlyle, this was ‘the Mechanical Age’, ‘the age of Machinery’ which teaches that:
our happiness depends entirely on external circumstances; nay, that the strength and dignity of the mind within us is itself the creature and consequence of these. Were the laws, the government in good order, all were well with us; the rest would care for itself! … It is no longer the moral, religious, spiritual condition of the people that is our concern, but their physical, practical, economic condition, as regulated by public laws.5
Carlyle’s concerns about the ‘moral, religious, spiritual’ well-being of the people were well founded in an age which seemed increasingly, and necessarily, to be concerned with its economic and industrial strengths to the detriment of traditional ideas of community and family. But his is a characteristically idiosyncratic take on an age which many historians have subsequently regarded rather as an age of necessary and benevolent reform. Given the shift of a large portion of the population to the new, industrial cities, some new forms of regulation were clearly necessary to protect the people’s well-being, and, less philanthropically, to head off the possibility that social unrest arising from poor living conditions might result in the kinds of revolutionary protest still besetting France.6
The reforming measures of the 1830s and 1840s embraced many aspects of contemporary life, some concerned with the welfare of the people, such as the six Factory Acts passed between 1831 and 1847, while others concerned the establishment and administration of Britain’s burgeoning colonies (including Australia), the workings of the established church, and the formalization of the prison and court systems in Britain. An interesting factor of this age is the extent to which, as Andrew Sanders notes, extraparliamentary pressure groups were able to exert significant pressure in effecting reforms such as the abolition of slavery (The Spirit of the Age, p. 54). The slave-trade had been banned for British subjects and ships since 1807, but it was not until 1833 that slavery in British colonies was abolished, largely due to the actions of William Wilberforce and an alliance of non-parliamentary Christian interests. Though the slavery question is not directly raised in Dickens’s fiction, it is important to remember that the early Victorians lived in an age in which slavery had been an accepted practice. It is possible to argue that much of the rhetorical impetus and anger of Dickens’s depictions of the suffering of unemancipated workers in his earlier novels, such as the ‘hands’ of Hard Times, and even the pickpockets of Oliver Twist (1837–39), derive from the congruence of his apprenticeship as a writer and the final years of slavery.7
Of more direct significance to readers of Oliver Twist is the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, a measure which is satirized in the early parts of the novel in the persons of the cruel beadle and the ‘half blind and half childish’8 magistrates who make up the governing board of the workhouse. The Act was brought in in the face of the increasing cost of welfare provision in the early nineteenth century. The Act tried to save money by outlawing ‘outdoor relief, that is a system of allowances made in aid of wages in economically depressed times; and by making conditions in the workhouses to which paupers now had to apply for aid unpleasant enough to act as a deterrent to those seeking help. Within workhouses families were separated, and conditions maintained at such a level that not only the able-bodied but also the old and infirm suffered. As E.L. Woodward succinctly puts it, the poor law commissioners ‘tried to make the status of able-bodied pauper less desirable than the position of the worst-paid labourer’.9
In 1837 a parliamentary Select Committee began to investigate the Act’s workings and abuses, and, as Peter Ackroyd notes, it was also at this time that the Act’s measures began to be felt in London (Dickens, p. 218). Oliver Twist was thus written, and first appeared (in magazine form, in Bentley’s Miscellany), at a time when opposition to the new poor law was running high. The Spectator’s reviewer notes Boz’s ability ‘very skilfully’ to ‘[avail] himself of any temporary interest to give piquancy to his pages’, citing ‘the popular clamour against the New Poor-law’ as one such interest. Having quibbled with Dickens’s interpretation of the law, he goes on to suggest that such opportunism may ‘tell with many readers, but they must detract from the permanence of the writer who freely uses them’.10 It was, however, precisely this ability to chime in with the feeling of the moment, to make use of ‘the current phrase of the day’ (Collins, Critical Heritage’, p. 42), which was of the essence of Dickens’s success at this period, and which arguably set him, and his fiction, apart from their predecessors.
His topicality, crucially enabled by serial publication, was not, however, simply a means of achieving popularity, but also secured for the novelist a polemic, campaigning voice, akin to that of the journalist (which of course Dickens also was), which had not been heard in the novel before, but which was to become a key-note of the rest of the century’s fiction. Some of Dickens’s most heart-felt concerns are sounded first in Oliver Twist: his pre-eminent concern for the integrity of the healthy family (which the Poor Law looked set to destroy) and its centrality within Victorian society; the implementation of the justice system; education, and the general welfare of the child; and the cause of the ‘fallen woman’, as exemplified in Oliver Twist by the loyal but morally irretrievable Nancy. Dickens’s campaigning voice and methods would become more varied and sophisticated as his career progressed, but the simplicity of this novel’s demand that the reader empathize with the lone figure of Oliver is highly effective, though perhaps marred for later readers by what might seem to be the author’s social anxieties in giving his hero far better elocution than his social situation would allow. His genetic inheritance is already surfacing as we see him negotiate the slums of London in the company of Fagin’s gang: a comforting prospect for the middle-class reader.
Coterminous with its reforming interests, Oliver Twist is also a novel about place, specifically about the place of home and characters’ movements towards and away from that safe space. The stories of Rose Maylie, Nancy, Oliver and the lost boys of Fagin’s gang are all dependent on their lack of a home, and on their desire to find and re-create a familial system around themselves. Indeed, much of the pathos of the novel is determined by Oliver’s early loss of his mother, and the bass note which that lack, only too common for nineteenth-century children, sounds throughout the novel. This concern works in timely parallel with the novel’s interest in the poor law reforms, at the heart of which was the question of where home was, and fundamentally, to where, geographically and institutionally speaking, a family might turn for relief. Traditionally a man’s ‘home’ was deemed to be the parish of his birth, but the emergence of the new industrial cities, and the agricultural depressions of the early part of the century, meant that a demographic shift had begun which removed families from their birth-places in the search for work. The reforms to the poor law began to recognize that shift, and to institute a system of relief which was determined on a national basis rather than by the individual parish.
In Oliver Twist, we can see the beginning of the evolution of a national system out of a, literally, more parochial state of affairs. In the 1830s the parish was still a significant social component, and one which had its own structures and regimes. This is demonstrated in the early Dickens Sketches collectively entitled ‘Seven Sketches from our Parish’. This fictionalized taxonomical survey scans the principal types of the parish, but begins with a mildly ironic definition of the powers of ‘The Parish’ which would be developed further in Oliver Twist. The plight of the indigent man is invoked:
What can he do? To whom is he to apply for relief? To private charity? To benevolent individuals? Certainly not – there is his parish. The children have no protector – they are taken care of by the parish. The man first neglects, and afterwards cannot obtain work – he is relieved by the parish; and when distress and drunkenness have done their work upon him, he is maintained, a harmless babbling idiot, in the parish asylum.11
The prevalence of this social unit needs to be kept in mind when assessing this part of the century, for in many ways the ‘nation’ as we understand it now was only just beginning fully to emerge out of its component parts.
This may explain why, at this stage of his career, Dickens was so little concerned with the larger scale of national, and parliamentary, concerns, though we should note that he had also been left sceptical as to the efficacies of the political system by his early career as a parliamentary sketch writer, seeing the House of Parliament as an arena for the workings of private interests. Apart from a chapter of knock-about humour in Pickwick, and a parodic picture of an election in ‘The Election for Beadle’, one of the parish sketches, he makes scarcely any mention of one of the most far-reaching and contested reforms of the decade, the Great Reform Act of 1832.12 The terms of the Act, which most notably extended the franchise to occupiers of buildings with a ratable value of £10, almost doubled the electorate but still only included one in seven adult males in the United Kingdom. No additional parliamentary seats were created, but some were redistributed away from the worst rotten boroughs to the new industrial towns of Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Bolton, Oldham, and Bradford. However, anomalies of representation still persisted, and the South continued to be better represented than the North. In the wake of the passing of the Act, ‘The Election for Beadle’ arguably relocates the national debates about voting abuses and representation to their more appropriate site, the parish:
The captain engaged two hackney-coaches and a cab for Bung’s people – the cab for the drunken voters, and the two coaches for the old ladies, the greater portion of whom, owing to the captain’s impetuosity, were driven up to the poll and home again, before they recovered from their flurry sufficiently to know, with any degree of clearness, what they had been doing. The opposite party wholly neglected these precautions, and the consequence was, that a great many ladies who were walking leisurely up to the church – for it was a very hot day – to vote for Spruggins, were artfully decoyed into the coaches, and voted for Bung.
Interestingly too, of course, as this extract shows, these local elections already gave votes to many people, notably women, for whom the parliamentary franchise would long remain out of reach.
By far the most effective ameliorative measures in Dickens’s early works are those which operate locally, which are dependent on the concern of an individual, and which are resolved through the means of the family unit. In Nicholas Nickleby (1838–39) Dickens publicizes his concerns with the ‘Yorkshire schools’, more advanced versions of the baby farms of which he wrote in Oliver Twist, and which seemed to perform a similarly grisly function in, often permanently, removing inconvenient children from their homes. Dotheboys Hall is the scene of appalling neglect, and its regime is closely based by Dickens on the schools which he had visited with his illustrator Hablot Browne. The novelist’s exposure of the pupils’ suffering did what no political measure was currently concerned to do, in effecting the closure of the worst of the schools in the face of public outrage. Parliamentary Acts relating to children at this period were rather concerned with the regulation of their working conditions, as the Factory Acts of 1833, 1842, and 1844, and Acts banning children working as chimney sweeps in 1834 and 1842, demonstrate. Basic educational provision was, however, introduced through the 1833 Act, which among measures to cut down on working hours also insisted that children aged 13 and under be at school for not less than two hours a day.13 At this time, schools came largely under the control of religious organizations such as the English National Society and the non-sectarian British and Foreign Society, with much reading being taught also at Sunday Schools. After 1833, some factories also set up schools, of often dubious quality, to conform with the Act. The principal mover of the 1833 Factory Act was Anthony Ashley Cooper, later the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, who described his own first school as a ‘Dotheboys Hall’ (quoted in Woodward, Age of Reform, p. 145). Thus, although not himself a parliamentarian, there is evidence to suggest that Dickens helped politicians to find a language with which to recognize and to formulate their own responses to social distresses. Characteristically, this is achieved through the identificatory and empathetic act of immersion in a narrative, rather than the more aridly theoretical activities of argument and debate.
Within Nicholas Nickleby itself, Smike’s escape from Dotheboys Hall and the demise of the school are just two of the acts of rescue performed by Nicholas Nickleby. Impelled by an innate sense of justice and social responsibility, which is based on his inherent sense of himself as the son of a gentleman, Nicholas also rescues Madeline Bray from marriage to the ancient and miserly Arthur Gride, protects the honour of his sister Kate from the onslaught of her aristocratic suitors, and rescues Newman Noggs from the service of his dissolute uncle Ralph. In Nicholas, moral virtue finally effects the cementing of ties of family: the discovery of a lost cousin in Smike, and the perpetuation of new generations in the marriages between Nicholas and Madeline, and Kate and Frank Cheeryble. We should also note that these marriages signal the happy coincidence of morality and money in the novel. Far from being its own reward, in this as in many later Victorian texts the hero’s virtue is invalid or at least incomplete without the approbatory signal accorded by his achieving financial success, and securing his position within the middle class. By the end of the novel, that class status no longer rests solely on the implications of Nicholas’s birth, but on his newly found ability to earn the accoutrements of his class.
Working alongside a reading which would stress the inescapable necessity of money in securing safety and stability is another highly distinctive aspect of the text which articulates for the first time the primacy accorded by Dickens to popular culture and its capacity to inculcate and indeed to embody a model of social harmony. Within the Crummies theatre troupe, Smike and Nicholas perceive an antidote to the tyrannical family model of the Squeers, and find themselves embraced within an organic community which can even find a productive place for Smike. As Mr Crummies explains:
Only let him be tolerably well up in the Apothecary in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ with the slightest possible dab of red on the tip of his nose, and he’d be certain of three rounds the moment he put his head out of the practicable door in the front grooves O.P.14
The Crummies family functions as a perhaps crudely systematic parallel to the Squeers grouping, but also provides our first glimpse of Dickens’s belief in the moral efficacy of entertainment and communal laughter. In the creation of an audience, the theatre troupe and the novelist produce both an ameliorative cohesion (best effected through laughter) and the possibility of an empathetic response which might provide the foundation of a more morally effective and more content society. Taking full advantage of the technological developments and publication methods which meant that he could be a truly national novelist, Dickens found his moral function in the very proliferation of his art, both in exposing contemporary evils and in showing how his art could itself take on a moral capacity in bringing people together as an audience. Dickens’s own philanthropic commitments to the causes of education, through reform of the Ragged schools, and fallen women, through the creation of homes for their reclamation, are well known. However, it does seem to be as a novelist that he felt he could best make his own contribution to this age of reform.
Dickens is not, then, simply the creator of Scrooge, of a timeless fairy tale, nor the sentimental novelist behind the death of The Old Curiosity Shop’s Little Nell (1840–41). Rather he was ineluctably involved in the questions of his time, both as interrogator and as himself an agent of change. The question of appropriate agencies of reform was one of which Dickens was unavoidably aware in this period. The revolutionary power of the ‘mob’, best demonstrated by activities in France and recalled later in A Tale of Two Cities (1859), was one towards which Dickens felt scepticism, fear, and a repulsion which was not without its fascinations, as is demonstrated in the description of the Gordon riots of 1780 in Barnaby Rudge (1841).
These rioters were protesting against the increasing civil rights being awarded to Catholics in Britain, but their actions took on a more immediate urgency and alarm for their first readers in the context lately created in Britain by the Chartists. The ‘People’s Charter’ was published in May 1838 and was produced by the London Working Men’s Association, an organization which was set up to ‘draw into one bond of unity the intelligent and influential portion of the working classes in town and country, and to seek by every legal means to place all classes of society in possession of equal political and social rights’ (quoted in Woodward, Age of Reform, p. 127). At its inception, therefore, the Chartist movement was not exclusively a working-class one. The Association, which had influence and membership beyond its London base, produced a Charter which was primarily ostensibly concerned with extending the political reforms which had begun in 1832. It:
sought to provide for the just representation of the people of Great Britain in the Commons House of Parliament – embracing the principles of Universal [male] Suffrage, No Property Qualification, Annual Parliaments, Equal Representation, Payment of Members, and Vote by [secret] Ballot.15
However, emerging as it did in a period when trade was depressed, and when the introduction of machinery and the bite of the new Poor Law were making living conditions increasingly intolerable for large numbers of working-class families, the Charter was destined to carry a symbolic resonance far beyond its stated remit. Arguably, it became the focus for English revolutionary impulses in the period leading up to 1848, the year of European revolutions.
Fiction and the years of revolution
Revolutions occurred in Sicily in January 1848, in Paris in February, when King Louis Philippe was deposed, and in Germany and Italy in March. That month also saw the fall of the Austrian Chancellor Metternich, who was regarded by many as the architect of the ‘Concert of Europe’ (1815), the peace which had been secured in Europe after the Napoleonic Wars. More minor skirmishes also occurred in the cities of Venice, Berlin, Prague, Budapest, and Milan. This was a period of political and national (often nationalistic) unrest which, as Antony Harrison argues, was dominated by ‘the stand off between major powers, all eager to usurp territory or protect what they already possessed’.16 The revolutions were not, however, simply concerned with international political matters of leadership and governance. They also articulated grievances over issues of welfare and social instability. Apparently more local in their effect, these disputes were nonetheless experienced with an interesting degree of synchronicity throughout Europe as the effects of industrialization were made manifest in the form of increasing urbanization and an attendant decline in living conditions. The latter was exacerbated by the crop failures of the ‘hungry forties’, and further compounded by the potato blight which hit the whole of Europe in 1846–47. Prices of food soared, as did imports of staples, provoking many localized food riots. The food crisis also contributed to unrest by impelling a further shift in the population from agricultural to urban areas, creating a disaffected and hungry class for whom the transition from a feudal to an industrial economy was extremely painful.17
There was, however, no concomitant revolution in Britain in 1848, though the government feared a similar uprising. The Chartist movement had been a significant focus of local uprisings during the 1840s, and presented petitions in support of its Charter to parliament in 1839, 1842, and 1848. On each occasion the petition was rejected, but never more firmly than in 1848. Quite simply it seems that the conditions for revolution in Britain were not in place. Indeed, as a trading nation and an imperial power Britain was at this moment on the verge of a period of great prosperity. Apart from the appalling famine precipitated by the potato failure in Ireland in 1847, Britain did not experience food shortages at this time, in part because the Corn Laws, which had protected British agricultural interests and kept grain prices artificially high by restricting the import of foreign grain, had been repealed in 1846, thus making food significantly more affordable. This repeal was in part due to the work of the Anti-Corn Law League, a largely middle-class grouping which demonstrated how effective well-marshalled pressure might be in influencing government.18 Lines of communication between rulers and the nation were then demonstrably open in Britain. This was evidenced also by the reforms designed to improve the lot of the proletariat (mentioned in the previous section) which were already in place.
England’s more developed industrialized status meant that it had already come through the first throes of its transition to an urban economy, and, while not having solved all the attendant problems, there seems to have been at least an acceptance that the new and determining context of the nation was an industrial one. Accelerated industrialization also had the effect of moving the classes further apart from each other, and of cementing class distinctions. The British middle classes were benefiting from the enfranchisement secured by the 1832 Reform Act, which decisively separated their interests from those of the workers. Any revolt in 1848 would therefore have seen workers ranged not only against the government but also against a significant number of their fellow citizens. In proof of this, in addition to the 8,000 troops and 4,000 police called up to control the Chartist meeting on Kennington Common in April 1848, which preceded the presentation of a final petition to parliament, an estimated 85,000 special constables had been recruited, mostly from the middle classes, anxious to secure their homes and prosperity against the Chartists (Hoppen, The Mid-Victorian Generation, p. 130).
Rather than enveloping the country in revolution, then, the events of 1848 in Britain might rather be seen as confirming a new form of self-identification among workers whose traditional identities had been taken away with their agricultural occupations. The Chartists were instrumental in developing that working-class consciousness. In his chapter on ‘Labour Movements’ in The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845), Friedrich Engels writes of ‘working men’:
a title of which they are proud, and which is the usual form of address in Chartist meetings, [that they] form a separate class, with separate interests and principles, with a separate way of looking at things in contrast with that of all property owners.19
Such an awareness of distinct class identities is developed in The Communist Manifesto, jointly authored by Engels and Karl Marx, which was first published in Germany in February 1848. The Manifesto expounds a theory of history which is based on constant struggle between classes. Analysing the ‘modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society’, Marx and Engels find that it:
has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones … it has simplified the class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.20
Indeed the principle of antagonism is seen to define all social relations, setting even individuals against each other, in a context where money and business are deemed necessarily antagonistic to the claims of humanity. This state of conflict becomes in the fiction of the period a two-pronged dilemma demanding urgent attention and resolution: that is, how to find a means of reconciling the country’s continuing economic development and success with recognition of the humanity of the operatives upon whom that success depended; and how to find a way to make the opposing classes of the bourgeoisie and proletariat speak and listen to each other.
These issues are played out clearly in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848). The novel is set in Manchester in the late 1830s, a period when class configurations are being consolidated. The factory owner Carson had known poverty in his youth, and his wife was a former factory girl who was now awkwardly placed, ‘without education enough to value the resources of wealth and leisure’21 which her husband’s wealth commanded. Her children are much more at ease in their newly moneyed world, despite its disfiguration by the schism between workers and employers. Described by Engels at this period as ‘the second city of England, the first manufacturing city of the world’, Manchester epitomized in its ‘defiance of all considerations of cleanliness, ventilation, and health’ (The Condition of the Working Class, p. 92) the price paid by workers for the city’s commercial well-being. Within the novel’s analysis of working-class suffering and social schism, Gaskell shows how Chartism plays a crucial part in achieving a voice for the proletariat by giving it a focus for the development of a political consciousness:
(p. 127, ch. 8)
An idea was now springing up among the operatives, that originated with the Chartists, but which came at last to be cherished as a darling child by many and many a one … a petition was framed, and signed by many thousands in the bright spring days of 1839, imploring Parliament to hear witnesses who could testify to the unparalleled destitution of the manufacturing districts. Nottingham, Sheffield, Glasgow, Manchester, and many other towns, were busy appointing delegates to convey this petition, who might speak, not merely of what they had seen, and had heard but from what they had borne and suffered. Life-worn, gaunt, hunger-stamped men, were those delegates.
The rejection of that petition is brutally, viscerally, felt by Gaskell’s hero, John Barton, but, as the novelist suggests, Chartism had given to working men their first political education, and most importantly a voice for the agonies of those whom Gaskell describes in her Preface as ‘this dumb people’. Importantly, Gaskell also insists on using dialect for her Manchester speakers, another form of giving them a voice. In this crucial respect, Chartism also seems to have been significant in opening up public discourse to attractively vital new voices: as we will see, the fiction of the late 1840s is shot through with voices new both to fiction and to Victorian society.
Gaskell’s ‘Preface’ identifies precisely the schism which Marx and Engels expose, and indeed argues that that perceptual gap is the key problem to be addressed, rather than the actual conditions faced by the workers, describing this feeling of alienation between the different classes of society as ‘the most deplorable and enduring evil that arose out of the period of commercial depression’ (ch. 8, p. 126). It is the feeling of having their wants ignored which she sees as likely to ‘[taint] what might be resignation to God’s will, and turn it to revenge in too many of the poor uneducated factory-workers’ (‘Preface’, p. 37). In response, Gaskell advocates that workers should be disabused of their ‘miserable misapprehension’ of neglect by ‘private effort in the way of merciful deeds, or helpless love in the way of widow’s mites’ (p. 38). This conservative, meliorist attitude is, however, belied by the Preface’s closing thought, written in October 1848, which reminds the reader of ‘events which have so recently occurred among a similar class on the Continent’ in such a way as to enjoin upon the reader a sense of the urgency of the British situation. Indeed, as the novel continues, with its grotesque catalogue of images of dying men lying half-naked on ‘straw, so damp and mouldy no dog would have chosen it in preference to flags’ (p. 100, ch. 6), of children (including John Barton’s son) starving to death, and of desperate mothers, the cumulative weight of suffering depicted exceeds the limited scope of the Preface.
Gaskell’s proposed solution lies outside the bounds of political economy, of parliamentary legislation, and indeed of Chartist revolution, rather being found within her faith as a Unitarian, and within the shared space occupied by the different generic strands of her novel. Unitarianism, a dissenting faith, was essentially interrogative in its relation to its historical moment, revolutionary even in its refusal to accept the status quo, and believing instead rather in ‘a gradual progress to perfection, both in individuals and societies’,22 and thus enjoining upon the individual a personal responsibility to see justice done. It is, in the end, private acts of forgiveness which achieve long-lasting redemption in the novel. The novel’s reconciliation between John and the elder Mr Carson is effected when the two men come together, not as operative and employer, but as fathers grieving for their dead sons, and for whom that experience of suffering exceeds their economic situation. Barton’s repentance and Carson’s forgiveness instate ‘the spirit of Christ as the regulating law between both parties’ (p. 460, ch. 44), thus denying class difference the determining significance and unambivalent meaning given it by such contemporary revolutionary thinkers as Marx and Engels, but doing nothing to diminish its significance as a new fictional as well as social force.
Raymond Williams suggests that the fiction of the 1840s, and especially that of 1848, is innovative primarily in that it ‘admits class relations, including class conflict, as the conscious material of fiction’,23 and certainly, class differentiation plays a crucial part in each of the major novels to have come out of 1847–48. However, conflict is only one of the modes through which ‘class’ might be expressed. Georg Lukacs suggests that 1848 necessitated rather a new configuration of the classes, and the displacement of the ‘ideologies of the bourgeoisie’, which could no longer be regarded as ‘the leading ideologies of a whole epoch, but simply class ideologies in a much narrower sense’.24 The distinction is subtle but pivotal in understanding this period, in which not conflict but rather the bare possibility of disputing hierarchical certainties was crucial. Even the figure of God, as we have seen in Gaskell’s dissenting text, and as some critics saw in Jane Eyre, might be drawn into this disputational moment.
Also at stake were the apparent certainties of inheritance and succession. The death of sons figures largely in the fiction of 1847–48.25 The device signals in each fictional case a rupture with the past, and most significantly a disruption of the usual expectations of inheritance, in terms of both financial wealth and class position. The deaths are in effect revolutions in the novels in that they upset traditional expectations of primogeniture, and deny an organic, or more properly an evolutionary, progression. Often, as in Mary Barton, the death of the son will provide the fissure through which an act of class transgression can take place or may be confirmed. We might remember, also, that in Jane Eyre, Mr Rochester is the second son, whose position has necessitated his marrying Bertha Mason for her money; when his brother dies, Rochester’s unexpected accession to his inheritance unleashes her colonial anger on his house.
The death of Paul Dombey is the central event of Dombey and Son (1846–48), and through it Dickens not only explores the dimensions of personal grief, but also gives his own version of the upheavals of bourgeois certainties in the years of revolution. It bristles with a variety of fictional forms which give voice to the panoply of lives and experiences of contemporary London. Set among the commercial houses and wharves of the capital rather than the industrial cities of the North, Dombey and Son is less concerned with the conflict of different classes than with the situations in which they are necessarily drawn together. For instance, Dombey fears the effects on his son and heir of his being nursed by the working-class Polly Toodle, and in a compensatory measure arranges for Polly’s son to be educated, bringing that boy (named ‘Biler’ in Cockney homage to the wonders of the steam engine) into a position of confusion over his class identity which hastens his descent into crime.
Within the Dombey family, as well as within the city itself, Dickens exposes the potentially alienating effects of the new industries (and attendant commercial interests) identified by Marx and Engels. The principal representative of the capitalist world in this novel is the railway, first seen in the act of destroying as effectively as would an earthquake the home of Paul’s nurse. The description is based on Dickens’s witnessing of the building of Euston station between 1834 and 1838:
Houses were knocked down; streets broken through and stopped; deep pits and trenches dug in the ground; enormous heaps of earth and clay thrown up; buildings that were undermined and shaking, propped by great beams of wood. Here, a chaos of carts, overthrown and jumbled together, lay topsy-turvy at the bottom of a steep unnatural hill.26
But out of ‘the very core of all this dire disorder’, ‘the yet unfinished and unopened Railroad … trailed smoothly away, upon its mighty course of civilisation and improvement’. Dickens is not being entirely ironic here. As Raymond Williams notes in his introduction to the novel, a new order is born out of the earthquake’s chaos. The railway, like London itself, has become the heart of the nation: ‘To and from the heart of this great change, all day and night throbbing currents rushed and returned incessantly like its life’s blood’ (p. 290, ch. 15). The railway is redeemed by this anthropomorphizing effect, and by its being imbued by Dickens with distinct moral qualities: it comes to seem entirely appropriate that the railway should be the means of killing Carker, the novel’s villain, in a terrifying rush of wheels and steam.
At their worst, Dombey and the railways are forces of fatally depersonalizing commercial expediency, and are allied in the text with Major Bagstock’s brutal colonialist attitudes, and with the impoverished underclass which was ever more present in a city which grew by 300,000 during the 1840s. These forces are jointly redeemed, however, by the story of Florence Dombey and Walter Gay, by their devotion to each other, which supersedes the class barriers and geographical obstacles which should have intervened, and by their affection for Mr Dombey and for the eccentrics who make up Walter’s home. Out of the bruising city, Dickens brings humanity, and by replacing the commercial abstraction of ‘Dombey and Son’ with the lived family experience of Dombey and daughter, he demonstrates, perhaps rather optimistically, how the forces of the age may be domesticated and thus made productive, rather than annihilating.
The domestication of the dimension and discourse of class also informs one of the principal figures of the fiction of these years: the governess. The leading character in Vanity Fair, Jane Eyre, and Agnes Grey (all published in 1847), she not only demonstrates how intimately considerations of class necessarily penetrated into the home, but also reveals how definitions of gender depended upon appropriate class configurations. One of the most distressing documents of the agitation to improve factory conditions revealed how working-class women who went out to work effectively had their maternal rights denied in the most visceral way:
M.H., aged twenty years, leaves a young child in the care of another, a little older, for hours together; leaves home soon after five, and returns at eight; during the day the milk runs from her breasts, until her clothes have been as wet as a sop.27
By contrast the middle-class woman, who probably did not work, adopted the governess to fill her role. Working as a governess was one of the few resources available to the impecunious lone middle-class woman who was reluctant to sacrifice her class status to her need for bread; indeed, her class status was her most eminent qualification for the role. The genteel governess protected young children from the attentions of a hired teacher, by masquerading as a substitute mother, in whose life the pecuniary question was deemed to take a peripheral role, lest the awkward contradictions she embodied, as a working middle-class woman and one who was also a childless mother-figure, became too pressing. Partly for this reason, many governesses ended their working lives facing destitution, and thus needed the help of the Governesses’ Benevolent Institution, founded in 1841.
The annual report of the Institution for 1847 was reviewed by Elizabeth Rigby, later Lady Eastlake, alongside Vanity Fair and Jane Eyre in 1848, in an article which is primarily concerned with the stability of the author’s own class. Though genuinely moved by the plight of retired governesses with no means of support, Rigby seems even more concerned by the growing numbers of governesses working in middle-class homes. Berating the mothers who thus abnegate their maternal duties, and consequently bring into question traditional definitions of womanhood, she also fears the consequences of recruiting governesses from a wider class than those distressed gentlewomen who had traditionally become governesses. As governessing became a career option for which ‘Farmers and tradespeople’ might educate their daughters:
as a mode of advancing them a step in life,… a number of underbred young women have crept into the profession who have brought down the value of salaries and interfered with the rights of those whose birth and misfortune leave them no other refuge.28
Thus might other ranks infiltrate the homes of their superiors.
This is, of course, precisely what happens in Vanity Fair, where Becky Sharp uses her position to marry the younger son of the family in which she works, and from thence begins her dubious manoeuvrings within aristocratic and parliamentary society. Interestingly, however, it is Jane Eyre who attracts most of Rigby’s wrath, and whom she finds an ‘unregenerate and undisciplined spirit’ who stands or falls by her own efforts: ‘no one would think that she owed anything either to God above or to man below’ (p. 173). Jane’s own words bear witness to her pride and anger:
(p. 141, ch. 12)
Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.
When read in the context of the rebellions of 1848, the discontented, dependent but genteel governess elides with the mass of rebellious workers, shocking contemporary reviewers such as Rigby who found in Jane’s voice an echo of the troubles of 1848:
We do not hesitate to say that the tone of the mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad, and fostered chartism and rebellion at home, is the same which has also written Jane Eyre.
To Rigby, the novel is ‘pre-eminently an anti-Christian composition’ in its ‘murmuring against the comforts of the rich and against the privations of the poor’, and it thus set itself against God’s will, in asserting the ‘rights of man’ (Rigby, ‘Vanity Fair, Jane Eyre’, p. 174).
As the extract above shows, Jane Eyre impact is all the greater for being written in the first person. The effrontery of this voice clearly aggravates Jane’s offence in Rigby’s eyes, and indeed the form of the novel is part of the condition of its success and of its relationship with its times. The very fact of Jane’s voice (and its as yet unconfirmed female authorship), like the newly public voices of the Chartists, was in itself an achievement in an age in which women were more usually concerned with private, domestic spaces than the public articulation of their discontents and desires. Indeed, this is a period in which the female novelist begins to come to the fore, despite the suspicion with which her role was often treated. In The Daughters of England, Their Position in Society, Character and Responsibilities (1842), Sarah Stickney Ellis had claimed of the female ambition to write that it was an ambition ‘more productive of folly, and of disappointment, perhaps, than all the rest’.29 Charlotte Bronte had received her own personal advice on becoming a writer from Robert Southey, to whom she wrote in 1836 of her proposed career as a poet. He replied:
Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life: & it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure she will have for it even as an accomplishment & a recreation. To those duties you have not yet been called, & when you are you will be less eager for celebrity.30
Southey went on to advise her to write poetry for its own sake, and not for fame. Bronte’s spirited reply defends her interest in writing, and her nicely judged sense of sarcasm sends up that sense of opposition between the female writer and the more proper woman which informs Southey’s letter:
(Charlotte Bronte to Robert Southey, 16 March 1837, The Letters of Charlotte Bronte. , p. 169)
I find enough to occupy my thoughts all day long, and my head and hands too without having a moment’s time for one dream of the imagination. In the evenings, I confess, I do think, but I never trouble any one else with my thoughts. I carefully avoid any appearance of pre-occupation, and eccentricity, which might lead those I live amongst to suspect the nature of my pursuits.
By 1848, however, a context had been created which could accommodate an ‘eccentricity’ of voice. No novel demonstrates this better than Wuthering Heights. Though imbued with a contemporary notion of class differentiation which meticulously informs the distinctions between Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange, Wuthering Heights articulates as its most compelling concern the passionate and definingly personal voices of Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, which seem to emerge not from society but from the nature with which they are associated.31 Prompted by the articulation of difference which the recognition of distinct classes necessarily entails, voices are sounded in the novels of 1847–48, from the dialect speakers of Mary Barton to the pagan anger or Irish hunger of Heathcliff, which were previously unheard in mainstream fiction.
Most significant is the way in which these voices operate within the texts. Raymond Williams argues of Wuthering Heights that its competing narrative voices do not require a final resolution, or act of singular identification on the part of the reader, but rather rest complete in their lambently antagonistic status. As he puts it, they make for a ‘very complex seeing’ (‘Forms of Fiction’, p. 284), what perhaps would be described by Mikhail Bakhtin as ‘dialogism’.32 A not dissimilar perception is voiced by Rigby in her review of Vanity Fair, in which she finds that ‘the personages are too like our every-day selves and neighbours to draw any distinct moral from’ (‘Vanity Fair, Jane Eyre’, p. 156): that is, they speak with competing and ultimately irresolvable voices. Things in Vanity Fair are indeterminate as real life is, a perception Rigby finds distressing in a novel in which the ‘sense of dead truthfulness weighs down our hearts’ (p. 156). Perhaps, out of this period, then, comes not a political revolution, but the possibility of a newly responsive, and politically responsible, form of fiction.
Counting the cost of political economy
In 1851, at the suggestion of Prince Albert, London mounted in the ‘Crystal Palace’ in Hyde Park The Great Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations’, a showcase for arts and artefacts from around the world, and especially for the industrial achievements of the host country. In its dazzling spectacle of consumer goods, it provided confirmation of Britain’s place at the forefront of world manufacturing. In the same year, the decennial Census showed that an unprecedented 43 per cent of the population was working in the manufacturing, mining, and building industries; that the population of the rural counties was dropping; and that people were continuing to move into cities. As Martin Daunton writes: ‘For the first time in the history of the world, more than half of an entire national population was living in towns.’33 Far from being a cause of economic and civic concern, however, this trend now seemed to herald still greater heights of industrial achievement. Quite simply, the Census and Exhibition of 1851 confirmed Britain as a dominant world power, and the Exhibition demonstrated the grounds and causes of this dominance. It enrolled the colonial nations within a display of patronage, and invoked them both as sources of raw materials and as markets for finished goods; it invited the working classes to special ‘Shilling Days’, where they were admitted at one fifth of the usual price, and were reported to be docile, well-behaved, and admiring of the displays, as well as being conveniently kept out of the way of the middle and upper classes;34 and it advertised the power of the worship of commodities, of consumer display, and spectacle which foregrounded the actual economic terms of Britain’s success in the nineteenth century. Though not itself a market, rather a gorgeous window-display, the Exhibition worked to excite the consuming instinct within its visitors, and thus to implicate and instruct them in their places in the delicate balance of supply and demand which governed nineteenth-century economics, the management of which was at the root of Britain’s pre-eminence in the middle of the nineteenth century.
The Exhibition also notably divorced artefacts from the means and spaces of their production. In 1852, Queen Victoria would visit the Black Country, and record in her journal:
(quoted in Matthew, ‘Introduction: the United Kingdom and the Victorian Century, 1815–1901’, The Nineteenth Century. , p. 4)
It is like another world. In the midst of so much wealth, there seems to be nothing but ruin. As far as the eye can reach, one sees nothing but chimneys, flaming furnesses, many deserted but not pulled down, with wretched cottages around them. … Add to this a thick & black atmosphere … and you have but a faint impression of the life … which a 3rd of a million of my poor subjects are forced to lead.
No such discomfiting impressions were allowed in Hyde Park. But for John Ruskin, as for Marx before him, that very disjunction between labourer and finished goods, the masking of the conditions endured by those responsible for the glories of the Exhibition, was symptomatic of an age in which the demands of industry were making men into soulless tools. In ‘The Nature of Gothic’, the central chapter in Ruskin’s architectural appreciation The Stones of Venice (1851 and 1853), he writes of how the precision engineering of the machine age demanded a division of labour which was also a division of the man:
Divided into segments of men – broken into small fragments and crumbs of life; so that all the little piece of intelligence that is left in a man is not enough to make a pin, or a nail, but exhausts itself in making the point of a pin or the head of a nail.35
The demand for perfection needs to be sacrificed in order that ‘that imperfection [which] is in some sort essential to all that we know of life’ (p. 92) be allowed to flourish.
The ethos of ‘The Nature of Gothic’ is entirely opposed to the celebration that was the Great Exhibition, and may have been partly inspired by that event. On 1 May, Effie Ruskin went off alone to the opening of the Exhibition, while in his diary John wrote, proclaiming his antipathy to the Exhibition in every word:
Morning. All London is astir, and some part of all the world. I am sitting in my quiet room, hearing the birds sing, and about to enter on the true beginning of the second part of my Venetian work. May God help me to finish it to His glory, and man’s good.36
But Ruskin’s real target was the notion of political economy, ‘the art or practical science of managing the resources of a nation so as to increase its material prosperity’ (OED) which underlay the principles, even the possibility, of a Great Exhibition. Developed first by Adam Smith in his The Wealth of Nations (1776), the theory is based on a belief in the ultimate motivation of self-interest, and the importance of increasing productivity, wherever and however possible. It divorced morality from the work-place, and regarded as necessarily doomed any attempt by government to interfere with the natural laws of economics, even when those laws included the inevitability of some part of the population being condemned to poverty.37 Such views were, of course, anathema to Ruskin, and sit uncomfortably alongside the glossy spectacle of the Great Exhibition.
Also countering the confidence, even the hubris, of the Great Exhibition, were the challenges to religious faith and practice experienced at this time. These were various, ranging from a general unease with the Evangelical doctrines of hell and everlasting punishment, through to the schisms of the on-going Oxford Movement, which sought to find an authority in the Anglican church which many believed had been lost, and which had resulted in the rise of dissenting congregations. Many members of the Oxford Movement eventually turned to Catholicism. The German Higher Criticism, such as David Friedrich Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu,38 read the Bible as a historical text, subject to the same temporal determining factors as any other. And the challenge of science, whose geological developments cited evidence of gradual transformations of species in opposition to the divinely purposive Genesis narrative, was gathering speed. The ensuing fragility of some people’s faith perhaps explains the heightened anti-Catholicism in evidence in England in 1850–51, following the restoration of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in 1850; but also led to the first Secular Society in London in 1851. The regular census of that year was accompanied by a religious census which showed that approximately five million people out of a total population in England and Wales of around eighteen million had not gone to a church on the Sunday being investigated by the census. In theological and practical terms, religious belief and practice were under threat.39
From the perspective of a largely secular society it is hard, perhaps even impossible, truly to appreciate the traumatic effect of these attacks on the possibilities of faith. The material universe, and men’s lives within it, were no longer held to operate as proof of God’s divine presence, and so faith had to be reconstituted, as ‘a matter of inner conviction and the will to believe’.40 Such is Tennyson’s final persuasion in In Memoriam (1850), but it is a conclusion won only with difficulty, after the poet has faced the possibility of the complete dissolution of identity following his loss of faith:
Behold, we know not anything; I can but trust that good shall fall At last – far off – at last, to all, And every winter change to spring. So runs my dream; but what am I? An infant crying in the night; An infant crying for the light, And with no language but a cry.
In ‘Dover Beach’, which was probably written in the year of the Great Exhibition, Matthew Arnold also invokes a state of darkness, as he hears the ‘melancholy, long withdrawing roar’ of the ‘sea of faith’ and turns for succour instead to the promise of human relationship:
Ah, love, let us be true To one another! for the world, which seems To lie before us like a land of dreams, So various, so beautiful, so new, Hath really neither love, nor joy, nor light, Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain; And we are here as on a darkling plain Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night.
In fiction, the figure of the clergyman provided the focus for such intensely personally felt challenges to individual spirituality, and indeed to the possibility of individuality as it had previously been conceived (that is, as deriving from the presumption that man was made in the likeness of God, and was specifically distinct from the animal world). Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mr Hale in North and South (1854–55) is an Anglican clergyman who, though in no doubt as to religion, has to leave his church, and jeopardize his social standing, because of his inability to reaffirm the Thirty-Nine Articles which provide the basis of faith for the practising clergyman. Dickens’s novels of this time contain Evangelicals who are cruel, hypocritical, and distinctly un-Christian. Following in the line of Jane Eyre’s Mr Brocklehurst (rather than her St John Rivers), Dickens’s Murdstone in David Copperfield, though not a clergyman, is rendered cruel by the prospect of his own salvation, and damning to the young David who, not yet saved, is necessarily in a state of perdition. Though, as Robin Gilmour points out, Evangelicals were responsible for many of the century’s great moral campaigns, including those against slavery and child labour, which emanated from their belief in the possibility of conversion through preaching and persuasion, by the 1850s those efforts were being regarded as sanctimonious and interfering, for instance in their insistence on a strict observance of the Sabbath: in 1855 their anti-Sunday trading stance provoked riots.41
What seems worse, for Dickens, is the way in which the professed faith and works of ministers such as Mr Chadband (in Bleak House) not only mask grasping materialism (as in his collecting money from poor children), but actually blind him and his followers to pressing need at home, concentrating as they are on self-aggrandizing projects for the relief of the inhabitants of Borrioboola–Gha. Mrs Jellyby’s gargantuan letter-writing efforts on behalf of that benighted African country leave her own family in squalid chaos, but also mean that she is wilfully ignorant of the needs of Jo, the crossing-sweeper:
he is not one of Mrs Jellyby’s lambs, being wholly unconnected with Borrioboola-Gha; he is not softened by distance and unfamiliarity; he is not a genuine foreign-grown savage; he is the ordinary home-made article. Dirty, ugly, disagreeable to all the senses, in body a common creature of the common streets, only in soul a heathen. Homely filth begrimes him … native ignorance, the growth of English soil and climate, sinks his immortal nature lower than the beasts that perish.42
Illiterate and wasted, Jo epitomizes the neglect experienced by those who fell outside the sphere of productivity of industrial Britain. Similar stories fill the pages of Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1849–50), the title of which sets out the terms on which contemporary society was divided. (See extract 1, p. 135.) Jo has his ‘revenge’, however, in spreading the disease which infests his life through ‘every order of society, up to the proudest of the proud, and to the highest of the high’ (p. 710, ch. 46). Contagion, one of Dickens’s greatest fears, operates as a reproach against a society whose institutions, including that of organized religion, necessarily impinge upon, but do nothing to nurture, the individuals who make up that society. The legal world similarly presses upon Richard Carstone in the interminable case of Jarndyce versus Jarndyce, ceasing only when the plaintiffs run out of money to feed the legal machine:
(p. 396, ch. 24)
To see everything going on so smoothly, and to think of the roughness of the suitors’ lives and deaths: to see all that full dress and ceremony, and to think of the waste, and want, and beggared misery it represented … was at first incredible.
The vulnerability of the individual to the institution is best demonstrated by Dickens’s Hard Times. The novel was inspired by an actual strike in Preston, but moves beyond its industrial remit to consider also how education, as another form of state institution or apparatus, and the philosophy of utilitarianism, which underlies the science of political economy, kill off individuality in the creation of a uniformity of mind and response in the work-force of aptly named ‘hands’.43 Dickens shows education being enlisted in the services of utilitarianism (ironically, given that philosophy’s belief in laissez-faire), to create a populace which knows only enough to know its place:
To render education productive of all the utility that may be derived from it, the poor should, in addition to the elementary instruction now communicated to them, be made acquainted with the duties enjoined by religion and morality; and with the circumstances which occasion that gradation of ranks and inequality of fortunes which are of the essence of society.44
The system’s greatest success is Bitzer who excels in his education at Mr M’Choakumchild’s fact-based academy, and goes on to police Coketown from his surveillance point in the bank. Its greatest casualty is Stephen Blackpool, who dares to put his integrity before both the self-interest which is utilitarianism’s foundation and the collective, bullying imperative of his union.45 As a result, Blackpool is ostracized by all.
In ‘On Strike’, Dickens writes ‘political economy is a mere skeleton unless it has a little human covering and filling out, a little human bloom upon it, and a little human warmth in it’ (p. 465). For want of that little humanity, Stephen Blackpool dies a martyr, and the workers and manufacturers in Preston remain distrustful of each other. Some humanity, however, is to be found in the wonders of Sleary’s circus which, like the theatre of Nicholas Nickleby, provides a respite from the ‘melancholy madness’ (Hard Times, p. 22, ch. 5) of money-getting. Located upon ‘the neutral ground upon the outskirts of the town’ (p. 14, ch. 3), the circus is in every way surplus to the rigid economy of Coketown, and as such is typical of the overwhelming concern of novelists, indeed of literature, at this period, with what exceeds the remit and calculations of political economy. Nonetheless, in that attention to excess, to the economically unproductive, the all-pervasive influence and shaping powers of ‘economy’ are to be felt.
In David Copperfield, the disposal of unproductive characters is instructive. The notoriously uneconomically minded Mr Micawber and his large family are packed off at the end of the novel to Australia. The early 1850s was the peak period for emigration there, providing:
the greatest possible advantage to the empire in general, as affording a field of enterprise to more ardent spirits of the mother country, who, in the present peaceful times, cannot find a suitable career at home; and also as creating and increasing thriving communities in that part of the world with which our manufacturers carry on a large and lucrative trade.46
Between 1852 and 1855, Ford Madox Brown worked on his painting ‘The Last of England’, which was inspired by the departure for Australia of his friend and fellow artist Thomas Woolner and his wife. Finding public and critics indifferent to his art, Woolner sought advancement overseas (but before the painting was completed was back in England again, disappointed in his travels),47 and thus became part of the movement to encourage the middle classes to move to underpopulated parts of the Empire. A Family Loan Colonisation Society was founded to encourage women and children, ‘God’s police’, as the founder of the Society, Caroline Chisholm described them (Hyam, Britain’s Imperial Century, p. 43), to travel out. However, it is evident that Dickens uses the resource of emigration to rid England of troublesome spirits. As Mrs Micawber puts it, ‘Mr Micawber is going to a distant country, expressly in order that he may be fully understood and appreciated for the first time’ (p. 743, ch. 57).
Australia enables the prosperous ending for the Micawbers which the reader might wish for, but which the economic conditions of contemporary England would not permit. Australia also provides a resting-place for another kind of surplus, for Little Em’ly and for Martha, the fallen women whose sexuality is surplus to the increasingly ideologically crucial entity of the family. The line between prostitute and seduced girl, between voluntary emigration and transportation (still practised to parts of Australia until 1868), is blurred in a shared destination, which is also envisaged for the prostitute Esther in Mary Barton, and for Hetty Sorrel in George Eliot’s Adam Bede (1859). The official reason for Hetty’s transportation is infanticide, but clearly the domestic and social chaos caused by her desire for the squire’s grandson renders her removal from England desirable. In literature and painting, female sexuality was emerging as a force troubling to the prosperity of the new Britain.
In the early 1850s paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a revolutionary group of artists who appropriately enough chose to constitute themselves as a group in 1848, female sexuality is represented as dangerous primarily to the women themselves. Rossetti had yet to paint his gorgeously vibrant ‘stunners’, and the Lady of Shallot (painted by Holman Hunt 1850, Elizabeth Siddal 1853, Millais 1854), Mariana (Millais 1851), and Ophelia (Millais and Hughes, both 1852) are rather wasted and doomed by the bondage which is their desire. These women are admonitory, rather than celebratory, and operate in a context in which the blight of sexuality was made highly visible in the figure of the fallen woman. It was during these years that Effie Ruskin, wife of John, met, modelled for, and fell in love with Millais, whom she married, after the annulment of her marriage to Ruskin on the grounds of non-consummation, in 1855. The fallen woman was also a cause for political concern: in 1850 the government had set up a Royal Commission on divorce, which resulted in the 1857 Divorce Act, a measure which inscribed the possibility of female adultery into the legislature. It was deemed sufficiently dangerous that women could be divorced on grounds of adultery alone, whereas men had to aggravate that offence by combining it with incest, bigamy, rape, sodomy, bestiality, cruelty, or desertion (‘without reasonable excuse, for Two years or upwards’).48
By contrast with the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, novelists are rather concerned to try to save their fallen women. Though they might die, it is suggested that death can itself be a redemption. Bleak House’s Lady Dedlock exemplifies this, as her death heightens our sympathy with her plight, with her efforts to rebuild her reputation in a subsequent marriage, and with her suffering under Tulkinghorn’s prosecution. She has also, of course, been partially redeemed by the late recognition of her motherhood, a force which also comes to ameliorate the position of Gaskell’s Ruth (1853), a seamstress seduced and abandoned by the upper-class Bellingham. In one of the most controversial novels of the decade, she goes on to bear his child and, after having been rescued by a mild nonconformist minister and his sister, goes on to live a life of moral purity and service. Though some of Gaskell’s neighbours in Manchester burnt the book, her heroine was received on the whole with sympathy and understanding, perhaps because throughout Ruth remains curiously unsensual, untouched by her fall, and also because she dies at the end of the novel from typhus contracted through nursing the man who was her seducer.
In the novel’s terms, her death is the confirmation of Ruth’s redemption, curiously perhaps given the extent to which Gaskell downplays the sin committed, but the ending still jars with the modern reader as it did with Elizabeth Barrett Browning and with Charlotte Bronte.49 For other contemporaries, however, it was fully in line with the view that Gaskell had done a service to the cause of ‘penitentiaries, and nurses’ institutions, and sisterhoods, and deaconesses’ institutes’ (North British Review, quoted in Heisinger et al, The Woman Question, p. 117) for the reclamation of the fallen. Clearly, saving does not necessarily entail survival, nor, as Dickens demonstrates in his 1853 letter ‘An Appeal to Fallen Women’, full social inclusion. Writing of Angela Burdett Coutts’s scheme to help rescue the fallen, Dickens writes:
And because it is not the lady’s wish that these young women should be shut out from the world after they have repented and learned to do their duty there … they will be supplied with every means, when some time shall have elapsed and their conduct shall have fully proved their earnestness and reformation, to go abroad, where in a distant country they may become the faithful wives of honest men and die in peace.50
Like Micawber, they may be virtuous, but England can have no place for them. Curiously the fallen woman and the redeemed prostitute share the same fate of displacement, for both are fundamentally disruptive of morality, and also of economics. The fallen wife disrupted certainties of inheritance and succession through her adultery, whereas the saved prostitute had lost her economic function. Previously an intrinsic part of an urban landscape, where late marriages were increasingly the norm as couples waited to be able to afford to marry into a state of comfort, the saved prostitute had relinquished her place within the political economy, and thus was ideally removed from the country, lest her redemption raise more disturbing questions about social morality, as Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren was to do in the 1890s.51
In North and South, however, Mrs Gaskell shows how female sexuality may be reclaimed in a tale which is both morally and economically exemplary. In Margaret Hale’s famous public intervention in the strike in Milton Northern, she seeks by virtue of her womanly status to mediate between Mr Thornton and the anger of his striking workers. However, once she goes public with her femininity, it is transmuted under ‘a thousand angry eyes’52 into a sexuality which is both vulnerable and beyond Margaret’s own control. She realizes the extent of this vulnerability only later as she experiences Mr Thornton’s subsequent proposal as offensive to her ‘maiden pride’ (p. 247, ch. 23). The strike triggers the emergence of a sexuality which is troubling to Margaret, and which informs a series of incidents which are misleadingly read through the prism of this awakened force. Innocent throughout, except for a white lie told to protect her brother, Margaret nonetheless experienced the sexuality foisted upon her by others as a degradation. It is only finally redeemed and made safe by her marriage to Thornton, an act in which, under the terms of mid-century marriage, her legal, economic, and moral being are surrendered to him.
This marriage is also notable in being economically exemplary. Thornton’s business had been failing, and can be saved only by the gift to him of Margaret’s legacy from her godfather, Mr Bell. Previously converted by Margaret into the kind of manufacturer approved by Ruskin in Unto This Last, who considers not ‘how to produce what he sells, in the purest and cheapest forms, but how to make the various employments involved in the production, or transference of it, most beneficial to the men employed’ (Wilmer, Ruskin, p. 178), Thornton now faces the poverty which Ruskin envisaged might come to one who would not compromise his principles in the interests of profit. Morality begets failure, but Thornton is saved by Margaret’s love, and by their marriage can narrow the gap between the working environment and the home, engendering a productive and nurturing organicism beneath the shelter of his paternalism. All this is made possible by the incorporation of Margaret into an appropriate economic situation.
The relationship between women and economics is one of complexity and elisions. Ideally non-workers, non-producers except within the home, women were the still centre around which nation and economic prosperity were ideally configured. In 1854, Coventry Patmore published the first parts of his The Angel in the House, a celebration of the selfless, ‘simply, subtly sweet’ wife, installed on ‘the throne/Of her affecting majesty’ in the home. But in a later, less blissful, addition to the poem, published in 1879, the wife is likened to a foreign land, in which:
The most for leave to trade apply, For once, at Empire’s seat, her heart, Then get what knowledge ear and eye Glean chancewise in the life-long mart.
Women and emotions are thus installed in a life-long economic as well as domestic set of transactions. In her marriage Margaret Hale enters into a new economic status, that of consumer and housekeeper, the practitioner of that domestic economy which Gaskell gently satirizes and celebrates in Cranford (1851). Thus, morally secure, Margaret is also made secure in taking up her own role within Gaskell’s idealized industrial economy. At best, morality should infuse the economic and industrial sphere, as it does that of the home and family. However, the dicta of political economy had sundered the two, and rendered the survival of the fittest a potent concept long before Herbert Spencer gave a name to it in his Principles of Biology in 1863. As the teachings of religion were called into question, and its denominations were themselves competing to survive, the metaphors and practices of economy assumed the space vacated by the monoliths of organized worship.
Victorian Fiction - Notes and Bibliography:
4. Sanders, Andrew, "Dickens and the Spirit of the Age." Oxford , 1999 p. 43. The Pickwick Papers has most readily been seen as an example of Dickens’s early humour, and as a work which negotiated the transition between the picaresque tradition of the eighteenth-century novel and the ‘realism’ of the nineteenth. However in reading Pickwick it is also important to remember this comment by Thackeray:
(W.M. Thackeray, in The Paris Sketch Book. (1840), quoted in Sanders, p. 38.)I am sure that a man who, a hundred years hence, should sit down to write the history of our time, would do wrong to put that great contemporary history of Pickwick aside as a frivolous work. It contains true character under false names; and … gives us a better idea of the state and ways of the people than one could gather from any more pompous or authentic histories.
7. That the appeal to slavery might still operate as an effective political tool is demonstrated as late as 1869 in John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women, where he draws on the example of the slaves of America to help him to describe the life of unenfranchised British women. In Jane Eyre, too, Charlotte Bronte invokes the image of the ‘rebel slave’ in invoking the young Jane’s situation Jane Eyre Harmondsworth 1985 44, ch. 2.
9. E.L. Woodward, The Age of Reform, 1815–1870 (Oxford, 1938), p. 434. Woodward continues, however, that, if the commissioners ‘did not always succeed, the reason lay more in the grim condition of the worst-paid labourers than in the compassion of the central or local authorities’ (pp. 434–5).
12. In fact this Act only receives its most significant fictional treatment much later, in George Eliot’s Felix Holt (1866) and Middlemarch (1871–72), novels in which Eliot is concerned with the second Reform Act of 1867, and with looking back to the beginnings of the parliamentary reform movement in 1832.
13. Other provisions of this bill were that children under 9 years old could not work in textile factories, and those under 13 could only work up to 48 hours a week. Those under 18 could work up to 69 hours per week, those hours being between 5.30 am and 8.30 pm.
15. From the ‘People’s Charter’ (1838), quoted in Edward Royle, Chartism (Harlow, 1980), p. 88.
16. Antony H. Harrison, ‘1848’, in Herbert Tucker, ed., A Companion to Victorian Literature and Culture (Oxford, 1999), pp. 19–34 (p. 20).
17. For useful accounts of the 1848 revolutions see Peter Jones, The 1848 Revolutions (Harlow, 1981); and Charles Breunig, The Age of Revolution and Reaction, 1789–1850 (New York, 1977).
18. Historians disagree over the extent of the League’s responsibility for the reform of the Corn Laws. For opposing views see K. Theodore Hoppen, The Mid-Victorian Generation, 1846–1886 (Oxford, 1998), pp. 11, 128; and Woodward, pp. 113–16.
19. Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (Harmondsworth, 1987), p. 246. The first English translation, by Helen Macfarlane, appeared in a Chartist newspaper, The Red Republican, in 1850.
25. The sons in question are Edgar Linton and Hindley Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights (1847); George Osborne in Vanity Fair (1847–48); Paul Dombey; Mr Rochester’s elder brother in ]ane Eyre; and the sons of John Barton and Mr Carson in Mary Barton.
27. 1844 House of Commons speech by Lord Ashley, later Earl of Shaftesbury, quoted in Elizabeth K. Helsinger, Robin Lauterbach Sheets, William Veeder, eds, The Woman Question: Society and Literature in Britain and America, 1837–1883, Vol. 2: Social Issues (Chicago, 1983), pp. 121–4 (p. 122).
29. Ellis, Sarah Stickney, "The Daughters of England, Their Position in Society, Character and Responsibilities." London , 1842 p. 240. These views did not stop Ellis herself writing 11 novels between 1836 and 1881.
31. Amidst much speculation about Heathcliff’s roots is a suggestion that he might be Irish. Certainly, in the context of the famine in which the novel was first read, the figure of a starving child from the Liverpool docks would necessarily have suggested that connection. Interestingly, there are few mainstream fictional references beyond this of Heathcliff to the famine in Ireland. There is perhaps, as Terry Eagleton suggests in Heathcliff and the Great Hunger London 1995, something unassimilable in the force of nature which the famine constitutes.
32. Michael Holquist writes that ‘Novelness is the name Bakhtin gives to a form of knowledge that can most powerfully put different orders of experience – each of whose languages claims authority on the basis of its ability to exclude others – into dialogue with each other’ ( Dialogism: Bakhtin and His World (London, 1990), p. 87).
33. Martin Daunton, ‘Society and Economic Life’, in Matthew, ed., The Nineteenth Century, 1815–1901 (Oxford, 2000), pp. 41–82 (p. 42). Details of the 1851 Census are also taken from this source.
34. For further details of the Shilling Days, and for the way in which the Great Exhibition initiated a commodity culture in Britain, see Chapter 1, ‘The Great Exhibition of Things’, in Thomas Richards, The Commodity Culture of Victorian England: Advertising and Spectacle, 1851–1914 (London, 1991), pp. 17–72.
37. Despite the continuing growth in population (the British population rose by more than 10 per cent in every decade from 1781 to 1911 (Hoppen, The Mid-Victorian Generation, p. 279)), and the provision of statistics which might have provided the basis of welfare reform, government intervention at this period was limited to a very few measures which would secure the health and safety of industry as well as the nation, such as the Compulsory Vaccination Act (1853) which was an attempt to stop the spread of smallpox (the disease which besets Esther Summerson in Bleak House (1852–53)) among children, then a significant part of the work-force. Further, in 1856, the basis of a national police force was laid down when government insisted on co-ordination between different local forces.
39. There is, of course, also another layer of conflict and division within religious practice at the time between the Established Anglican church and the dissenting denominations. However, this friction was of long standing. What concerns us here is the distinctive emergence in this period of the challenge to faith per se, rather than to specific forms of practice and belief.
43. As one might expect, Ruskin thoroughly approved of Hard Times, and in a note to the first essay of Unto This Last, his attack on political economy, which was first published in the Cornhill Magazine in 1860, he writes that the novel ‘should be studied with close and earnest care by persons interested in social questions’. He does, however, wish that Dickens might ‘limit his brilliant exaggeration to works written only for public amusement’, as his caricatures often obscure the truth of his view (Wilmer, Ruskin, p. 171).
45. Interestingly, in his Household Words article on the Preston strike, Dickens is much more generous to the union than he is in Hard Times, speaking in his journalism of their ‘astonishing fortitude and perseverance’, and of the dignified way in which the agitator ‘Gruffshaw’ is put down (‘On Strike’ [11 February 1854], in Pascoe, David, ed. "Charles Dickens : Selected Journalism, 1850–1870." Harmondsworth , 1997 pp. 452–66 (p. 463).
47. For details of Woolner’s emigration and Brown’s painting, see Tim Barringer, The Pre-Raphaelites (London, 1998), pp. 86–9.
48. For further details, see Philippa Levine, Victorian Feminism, 1850–1900 (London, 1987), pp. 135–6.
50. Charles Dickens, ‘An Appeal to Fallen Women’, in Kate Flint, ed., The Victorian Novelist: Social Problems and Social Change (London, 1987), pp. 134–6 (p. 135). The ‘original’ behind Ruth was also bound for the colonies (see Deborah Epstein Nord, Walking the Victorian Streets: Women, Representation and the City (Ithaca and London, 1995), pp. 164–5).
51. Mrs Warren’s Profession was written in 1893, published in 1898, but not publicly performed in Britain until 1926. In it, Bernard Shaw reveals the economic grounds forcing women into prostitution, and the moral complexities that the prostitute provokes.