Sunday 15 December 2013

A Victorian Alphabet: I is for Infants, Industrialisation and Imagination

‘Is it possible, I wonder, that there was any analogy between the case of the Coketown population and the case of the little Gradgrinds?’

Charles Dickens’s 1854 novel Hard Times certainly leads us to the conclusion that there is some point of connection between the Gradgrind children – treated to a soulless and unimaginative education and upbringing - and the labourers in Bounderby’s mill - workers toiling at the forefront of Britain’s industrial revolution.

For both groups – the Gradgrind (and other) children, and the factory workers - Dickens’s promotion of imagination, as opposed to the harsh reality of ‘fact’, is all-important to the book’s success. And in this focus he effectively sidesteps the economic arguments surrounding the treatment of factory workers, in favour of an argument which is much more philosophical in bent. At an early stage in the novel we find the following description of the factories:

‘The lights in the great factories…looked, when they were illuminated, like Fairy palaces – or the travellers by express-train said so’

While this at first may seem critical of the unknowing train passengers, unaware of the realities of hard labour, Dickens’s ‘solution’ is not to confront his readers with graphic scenes of suffering, like Gaskell, or the producers of The Mill. By way of the most obvious example, Dickens chooses not even to mention child labourers in the factories themselves, despite his ostensible interest in both childrearing and working conditions in the novel. Children are used instead to illustrate Dickens’s imaginative preferences - for him, the world would be a better place if everyone, including the workers, could have, nurture and maintain the kind of childlike wonder which mistakes mills for the castles of a fairytale.

The workers are compared with children not only in this idealised glorification of the imaginative life but also in actuality – something largely prompted by their relationship to their employers and inability to speak. The hands are described specifically as ‘portentous infants’, conjuring up the etymology of the word ‘infant’ from Latin ‘infans’ (‘unable to speak’). Stephen Blackpool, the novel’s working class hero, is characterised by his laborious expression - simplistic in its syntax, and (often) confused in its content – ‘Let ‘em be. Let everything be. Let all sorts alone. ’Tis a muddle, and that’s aw’. Stephen needs Dickens – the articulate novelist – to speak for him, just as Elizabeth Gaskell had described herself, in the preface to Mary Barton (1848), as ‘anxious…to give some utterance to the agony which, from time to time, convulses the dumb people’ [emphasis mine].

While the speechless and suffering , like Stephen, can become ‘portentous’ symbols for change in the novelists’ works, when the working classes speak for themselves the effect on middle class readers is less successful – even threatening. The treatment of unions in Hard Times and the emphasis on sound in the riot sequence of Gaskell’s North and South (1855) present the voice of the working classes as an unequivocally dangerous one, and the wise labourer, such as Gaskell’s Bessy, realises silence is the more sensible option:
‘folk would go with them if they saw them striving and starving wi’ dumb patience; but if there was once any noise o’ fighting and struggling…all was up’.

As workers are children, good masters do not treat them as equals – instead good employers are depicted as firm but fair parents, shepherding the moral development of their chargers. In North and South, Margaret is at first horrified by the scheme which reduces hands to juveniles (‘my informant….spoke as if the masters would like their hands to be merely tall, large children…with a blind unreasoning kind of obedience’) and Thornton defensive about the role he plays in this (‘he considers our people in the condition of children, while I deny that we, the masters, have anything to do with keeping them so’).

Gaskell shows both Margaret and Thornton to be wrong. There is nothing unsavoury, we are encouraged to believe, in the father/child relationship between employer and employee if Thornton plays his part with proper attention and care. The aim is not that the working classes find their voice but that it will be unnecessary for them to do so, via dangerous unions or, worse, rioting, thanks to the efforts of the middle classes – be they novelists or factory owners. Dickens’s promotion of the imaginative life is part of this same impulse.

What should be ‘J’ in my Victorian Alphabet? Let me know here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

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