"Two men I honour, and no third. First, the toilworn Craftsman that with earth-made Implement laboriously conquers the Earth, and makes her man's. . . . A second man I honour, and still more highly: Him who is seen toiling for the spiritually indispensable; not daily bread, but the Bread of Life. . . . Unspeakably touching is it, however, when I find both dignities united; and he that must toil outwardly for the lowest of man's wants, is also toiling inwardly for the highest."
[Footnote 4: Carlyle, Sartor Resartus.]
To understand the many and bewildering changes which followed one another in rapid succession during the early years of Victoria's reign it is necessary to read the literature, more especially the works of those writers who took a deep and lasting interest in the lives and work of the people.
Democracy, the people, or the toiling class, was engaged in a fierce battle with those forces which it held to be its natural enemies. It was a battle of the Rich against the Poor, of the masters against the men, of Right against Might. England was a sick nation, at war with itself, and Chartism and the Chartists were some of the signs of the disease. The early Victorian age is the age of Thomas Carlyle, the stern, grim prophet, who, undaunted by poverty and ill-health, painted England in dark colours as a country hastening to its ruin.
His message was old and yet new—for men had forgotten it, as they always have from age to age. This was an age of competition, of 'supply and demand'; brotherly love had been forgotten and 'cash payment' had taken its place. Carlyle denounced this system as "the shabbiest gospel that had been taught among men." He urged upon Government the fact that it was their duty to educate and to uplift the masses, and upon the masters that they should look upon their workers as something more than money-making machines. The old system of Guilds, in which the apprentice was under the master's direct care, had gone and nothing had been put in its place.
The value of Carlyle's teaching lies in the fact that he insisted upon the sanctity of work. "All true work is religion," he said, and the essence of every true religion is to be found in the words, "Know thy work and do it."
The best test of the worth of every nation is to be found in their standard of life and work and their rejection of a life of idleness. "To make some nook of God's Creation a little fruitfuller, better, more worthy of God; to make some human hearts, a little wiser, manfuler, happier—more blessed, less accursed! It is work for a God. . . . Unstained by wasteful deformities, by wasted tears or heart's-blood of men, or any defacement of the Pit, noble, fruitful Labour, growing ever nobler, will come forth—the grand sole Miracle of Man, whereby Man has risen from the low places of this Earth, very literally, into divine Heavens. Ploughers, Spinners, Builders, Prophets, Poets, Kings: . . . all martyrs, and noble men, and gods are of one grand Host; immeasurable; marching ever forward since the beginnings of the World."
[Footnote 5: Carlyle, Past and Present.]
Carlyle was, above all things, sincere; he looked into the heart of things, and hated half-beliefs. Men, he said, were accustoming themselves to say what they did not believe in their heart of hearts. The standard of English work had become lower; it was 'cheap and nasty,' and this in itself was a moral evil. Good must in time prevail over Evil; the Christian religion was the strongest thing in the world, and for this reason had conquered. He believed in wise compassion—that is to say, he kept his sympathy for those who truly deserved it, for the mass of struggling workers with few or none to voice their bitter wrongs.
His teachings are a moral tonic for the age, and though for a long time they were unpopular and distasteful to the majority, yet he lived to see much accomplished for which he had so earnestly striven.
Literature was beginning to take a new form. The novel of 'polite' society was giving place to the novel which pictured life in cruder and harsher colours. The life of the toiling North, of the cotton spinners and weavers was as yet unknown to most people.
In 1848 appeared Mary Barton, a book dealing with the problems of working life in Manchester. Mrs Gaskell, its author, who is best known to most readers by her masterpiece Cranford, achieved an instant success and became acquainted with many literary celebrities, including Ruskin, Dickens, and Charlotte Brontë, whose Life she wrote.
Mary Barton was written from the point of view of labour, and North and South, which followed some years later, from that of capital. Her books are exact pictures of what she saw around her during her life in Manchester, and many incidents from her own life appear in their pages.
North and South shows us the struggle not only between master and men, as representing capital and labour, but also between ancient and modern civilizations. The South is agricultural, easy-going, idyllic; the North is stern, rude, and full of a consuming energy and passion for work. These are the two Englands of Mrs Gaskell's time.
The ways of the manufacturing districts, which seem unpleasing to those who do not really know them, are described with a faithful yet kindly pen, and we see that each life has its trials and its temptations.
In the South all is not sunshine, and the life of the labourer can be very hard—"a young person can stand it; but an old man gets racked with rheumatism, and bent and withered before his time; yet he must work on the same, or else go to the workhouse."
In the North men are often at enmity with their masters, and fight them by means of the strike. "State o' trade! That's just a piece of masters' humbug. It's rate o' wages I was talking of. Th' masters keep th' state o' trade in their own hands, and just walk it forward like a black bug-a-boo, to frighten naughty children with into being good. I'll tell yo' it's their part—their cue, as some folks call it—to beat us down, to swell their fortunes; and it's ours to stand up and fight hard—not for ourselves alone, but for them round about us—for justice and fair play. We help to make their profits, and we ought to help spend 'em. It's not that we want their brass so much this time, as we've done many a time afore. We'n getten money laid by; and we're resolved to stand and fall together; not a man on us will go in for less wage than th' Union says is our due. So I say, 'Hooray for the strike.'"
The story appeared in Household Words, a new magazine of which Charles Dickens was the editor. He expressed especial admiration for the fairness with which Mrs Gaskell had spoken of both sides. Nicholas Higgins, whose words are quoted above, is a type of the best Lancashire workman, who holds out for the good of the cause, even though it might mean ruin and poverty to himself—"That's what folk call fine and honourable in a soldier, and why not in a poor weaver-chap?"
Dickens himself wrote Hard Times, dealing with the same subject. This appeared about the same time, and the two books should be read and compared, for, although Hard Times is not equal in any way to North and South, it is interesting. As Ruskin said of Dickens' stories, "Allowing for the manner of telling them, the things he tells us are always true. . . . He is entirely right in his main drift and purpose in every book he has written; and all of them, but especially Hard Times, should be studied with close and earnest care by persons interested in social questions."
During all these years the 'Chartists' had been vainly struggling to force Parliament to proceed with reform of their grievances. In 1848 a monster Petition was to be presented to both Houses by their leaders, but London was garrisoned by troops under the Duke of Wellington on the fateful day, and the Chartist army broke up, never to be reunited. Quarrels among themselves proved, in the end, fatal to their cause.
A new party, the Christian Socialists, took their place; force gave way to union and co-operation. A new champion, Charles Kingsley, or 'Parson Lot,' stood forth as the Chartist leader.
The hard winter and general distress of the year 1848 nearly provoked another rising, and in his novel entitled Yeast Kingsley pictures the 'condition of England' question as it appeared to one who knew it from the seamy side. Especially did he blame the Church, which, he said, offered a religion for "Jacob, the smooth man," and was not suited for "poor Esau." This was indeed most true as regards the agricultural classes, where the want was felt of a real religion which should gain a hold upon a population which year by year was fast drifting loose from all ties of morality and Christianity.
The peasantry, once the mainstay of England and now trodden down and neglected, cannot rise alone and without help from those above them. "What right have we to keep them down? . . . What right have we to say that they shall know no higher recreation than the hogs, because, forsooth, if we raised them they might refuse to work—for us? Are we to fix how far their minds may be developed? Has not God fixed it for us, when He gave them the same passions, talents, tastes, as our own?"
The farm labourer, unlike his brothers in the North, had no spirit left to strike. His sole enjoyment—such as it was—consisted in recalling "'the glorious times before the war . . . when there was more food than there were mouths, and more work than were hands.'
"'I say, vather,' drawled out some one, 'they say there's a sight more money in England now than there was afore the war-time.'
"'Ees, booy,' said the old man, 'but it's got into too few hands.'"
The system of 'sweating' among the London tailors had grown to such an extent that Kingsley was determined, if possible, to put an end to it, and with this purpose in view he wrote Cheap Clothes and Nasty.
The Government itself, he declares, does nothing to prevent sweating; the workmen declare that "Government contract work is the worst of all, and the starved-out and sweated-out tailor's last resource . . . there are more clergymen among the customers than any other class; and often we have to work at home upon the Sunday at their clothes in order to get a living."
He followed this up with Alton Locke, dealing especially with the life and conditions of work of the journeymen tailors, and the Chartist riots. Both sides receive some hard knocks, for Kingsley was a born fighter, and his courage and fearlessness won him many friends, even among the most violent of the Chartists.
The character of Alton Locke was probably drawn from life, and was intended to be William Lovett, at one time a leader in the Chartist ranks. After a long fight with poverty, when he frequently went without a meal in order to save the money necessary for his education, he rose to a position of some influence. He was one of the first to propose that museums and public galleries should be opened on Sundays, for he declared that most of the intemperance and vice was owing to the want of wholesome and rational recreation. He insisted that it was necessary to create a moral, sober, and thinking working-class in order to enable them to carry through the reforms for which they were struggling. Disgust with the violent methods of many of his associates caused him at last to withdraw from their ranks.
Kingsley looked up to Carlyle as his master, to whom he owed more than to any other man. "Of the general effect," he said, "which his works had upon me, I shall say nothing: it was the same as they have had, thank God, on thousands of my class and every other."
When, finally, violent methods proved of no avail and the Chartist party dissolved, the democratic movement took a fresh lease of life. As Carlyle had already pointed out, the question of the people was a 'knife and fork' question—that is to say, so long as taxes were levied upon the necessities of life, the poorer classes, who could least of all afford to pay, would become poorer.
Sir Robert Peel was the first to remove this injustice, by substituting a tax upon income for the hundred and one taxes which had pressed so heavily upon the poor. Manufacturers were now able to buy their raw materials at a lower price, and need no longer pay such low wages to keep up their profits.
In 1845 Peel went a step farther, and in order to relieve the famine in Ireland, he removed the duty on corn. Thus, since corn could now be imported free, bread became cheaper.
The Corn Law Repealers had fought for years to bring this about. Their leader and poet, Ebenezer Elliott, declared that "what they wanted was bread in exchange for their cottons, woollens, and hardware, and no other thing can supply the want of that one thing, any more than water could supply the want of air in the Black Hole of Calcutta." Bad government
Is the deadly will that takes
What Labour ought to keep,
It is the deadly power that makes
Bread dear and Labour cheap.
It was not until there had been many riots and much bloodshed that the Irish Famine forced Peel at last to give way.
A third party of reformers were working for the same end. This was the 'Young England' party, whose leader was Disraeli, a rising young politician. By birth a Jew, he had joined the English Church and the ranks of the Tory party. His early works are chiefly sketches of social and political life and are not concerned with the 'question of the People.' He took as his motto the words Shakespeare puts into Ancient Pistol's mouth,
Why, then the world's mine oyster,
Which I with sword will open,
thus showing at an early age that he had a firm belief in his own powers. From the beginning of his career he never hesitated in championing the cause of the People, and declared that "he was not afraid or ashamed to say that he wished more sympathy had been shown on both sides towards the Chartists."
The people had begun to look upon the upper classes as their oppressors, who were living in comfort upon the profits wrung from their poorer brethren.
Thomas Cooper in his Autobiography describes the reckless and irreligious spirit which continued poverty was creating among the half-starved weavers:
"'Let us be patient a little longer, lads, surely God Almighty will help us.' 'Talk no more about thy Goddle Mighty,' was the sneering reply; 'there isn't one. If there was one, He wouldn't let us suffer as we do.'"
The Chartists were opposed to the Anti-Corn Law party, for they thought that the cry of 'cheap bread' meant simply 'low wages,' and was a trap set to catch them unawares.
The Young England party believed in themselves as the leaders of a movement which should save England through its youth. They were, however, known in Parliament in their early days as "young gentlemen who wore white waistcoats and wrote spoony poetry."
'Young England' wished for a return of the feudal relations between the nobility and their vassals; the nobles and the Church, as in olden days, were to stretch out a helping hand to the poor, to feed the hungry, and succour the distressed. National customs were to be revived, commerce and art were to be fostered by wealthy patrons. The Crown was once more to be in touch with the people. "If Royalty did but condescend to lower itself to a familiarity with the people, it is curious that they will raise, exalt, and adore it, sometimes even invest it with divine and mysterious attributes. If, on the contrary, it shuts itself up in an august seclusion, it will be mocked and caricatured . . . if the great only knew what stress the poor lay by the few forms that remain, to join them they would make many sacrifices for their maintenance and preservation."
[Footnote 6: George Smythe, Viscount Strangford, Historic Fancies.]
It was to lay the views of his party and himself before the public that Disraeli published the three novels, Coningsby, Sybil, and Tancred. Coningsby deals with the political parties of that time, and is full of thinly-disguised portraits of people then living; Sybil, from which a quotation is given elsewhere, is a study of life among the working-classes; Tancred discusses what part the Church should take in the government of the people.
Though the life of the 'Young England' party was short, it succeeded by means of agitation in and out of Parliament in calling public attention to the harshness of the New Poor Law and the need for social reform.
Carlyle was again the writer who influenced the young Disraeli, for the latter saw that to accomplish anything of real value he must form his own party and break loose from the worn-out beliefs and prejudices of both political parties. Though in later days he will be remembered as a statesman rather than as a novelist, it is necessary to study those three books in order to understand what England and the English were in Victoria's early years.
Each of these Reform parties had rendered signal service in their own fashion: Church, Government, and People were no longer disunited, distinctions of class had been broken down, and with their disappearance Chartism came to an end. The failure of the "physical force" Chartists in 1848 had served to enforce the lesson taught by Carlyle and Kingsley, that the way to gain reform was not through deeds of violence and bloodshed. Each man must learn to fit himself for his part in the great movement toward Reform. Intelligence, not force, must be their weapon.
After years of bitter strife between the Two Nations, England a last enjoyed peace within her own borders—that peace which a patriot poet, Ernest Jones, during a time of bitter trial had so earnestly prayed for:
God of battles, give us peace!
Rich with honour's proud increase;
Peace that frees the fettered brave;
Peace that scorns to make a slave;
Peace that spurns a tyrant's hand;
Peace that lifts each fallen land;
Peace of peoples, not of kings;
Peace that conquering freedom brings;
Peace that bids oppression cease;
God of battles, give us peace!
The Chartist Movement. The Chartists demanded (1) Annual Parliaments; (2) Manhood Suffrage; (3) Vote by ballot; (4) Equal electoral districts; (5) Abolition of the property qualification for members of Parliament; (6) Payment for members of Parliament. The Reform Act of 1832 had brought the middle classes into power, and the working classes were now striving to better their own condition.
The Anti-Corn Law League, formed in this year, was largely a middle-class agitation supported by merchants and manufacturers. The great northern towns had been enfranchised by the Reform Bill, and sent as leaders of the movement Richard Cobden and John Bright. Both parties in Parliament were opposed to a total abolition of the Corn Laws.
|1842.||A motion for Free Trade defeated in Parliament by a large majority.|
|1843.||Agitation in Ireland for the Repeal of the Union. Daniel O'Connell, the leader, arrested. He was found guilty of conspiracy, but his sentence was afterward revoked by the House of Lords.|
|1845.||Failure of the potato crop in Ireland.|
|1845.||Failure of the potato crop in Ireland.|
|1846.||Repeal of the Corn Laws, in order to open the ports free to food stuffs. Free Trade established and the prices of food begin to fall.|
The year of Revolution. France proclaims a Republic with Prince Louis Napoleon, nephew of Napoleon I, as its President. Risings in Austria and Italy.
Renewal of the Chartist agitation. The meeting in London to present a Petition to Parliament proves a failure.
Years of prosperity owing to Free Trade and growth of intelligence among the working classes prove the chief causes of the death of Chartism. The workers now begin to aim at reforms through their Trades Unions. The Co-operative Movement set on foot in Rochdale in 1844 leads to the formation of many other branches.
Between the years 1851 and 1865 national imports nearly treble, and exports more than double, themselves.
THOMAS CARLYLE (1795-1881). His writings more than those of any other man give us a key to the meaning of the early Victorian Age. 1839. Chartism. 1841. Heroes and Hero Worship. 1843. Past and Present. 1850. Latter-Day Pamphlets.
CHARLES DICKENS (1812-70). 1836. Pickwick Papers. 1838. Oliver Twist (the evils of the Workhouse). 1850. David Copperfield (contains sketches of Dickens' early life). 1853. Hard Times. 1857. Little Dorrit (the Marshalsea prison for debtors).
DISRAELI, LORD BEACONSFIELD (1804-81). 1844. Coningsby (political life and the 'Young England' policy). 1845. Sybil (the claims of the people). 1847. Tancred (the Church and the State).
EBENEZER ELLIOTT (1781-1849). 1828. Corn Law Rhymes (the poet of the workers and of sorrow).
ELIZABETH CLEGHORN GASKELL (1810-65). 1848. Mary Barton (Industrial Lancashire during the crisis of 1842). 1855. North and South (the struggle between Master and Man).
CHARLES KINGSLEY (1819-75). 1848. Yeast (the hard lives of the agricultural labourers). 1850. Alton Locke (life and labour of the city poor).
[Footnote 7: The Prince Consort was a great admirer of the works of Charles Kingsley, which, he said, in speaking of Two Years Ago, showed "profound knowledge of human nature, and insight into the relations between man, his actions, his destiny, and God." The Queen was also one of his admirers, and in 1859 she appointed him one of her chaplains. Later on he delivered a series of lectures on history to the Prince of Wales.]
CHARLES READE (1814-84). 1856. It is Never too Late to Mend (life in an English prison). 1863. Hard Cash (an exposure of bad administration of lunatic asylums).
JOHN RUSKIN (1819-1900). 1859. The Two Paths. 1862. Unto this Last. 1871. Fors Clavigera. (In the last-named book Ruskin describes the scheme of his St George's Guild, an attempt to restore happiness to England by allying art and science with commercial industry.)