19th Century Writing; Literature and Historical Change

The Chartist movement, as Eric Evans highlights in his article Chartism Revisited (Evans, 1999) is, in some ways, indicative of the Nineteenth century’s reliance on structure and classification. The grouping and, even, reducing of working class lives into the “famous six points of the ‘People’s Charter’ issued in the Spring of 1838” (Evans, 199:1) is metonymous with the many other instances of taxonomical categorization that can be seen to be so much a part of the Victorian sensibility (DeVere Brody, 1998:132).


It is, perhaps surprising then that, as Alison Chapman (Chapman, 1999: 120) writes, many Victorian novels have been used as the basis for New Historicist criticism in recent years (Selden, 1989; Green and LeBihan, 1996). Notions of decentred narratives and suppressed discourses are, it seems, greatly enhanced through exposition of Nineteenth Century realism. In this essay I would like to look at Dickens’ Hard Times (Dickens, 1994) and Gaskell’s Mary Barton (Gaskell, 1998) and assess the ways that their exegesis of normally suppressed narratives like that of women or the criminal constitute not only an attempt to provide a record of these but also an examination of the ways they contribute to an overall concern for working class perspectives and concerns.

Dickens’ Hard Times, as Eric P.Levy suggests, is both “dystopic” and “mimetic” (Levy, 1999:1), many of the novel’s depictions of the bleak Northern Coketown provide us with an external and internal process of mimesis; external in that Dickens undoubtedly drew from his experience of Northern mill towns through his lecture tours (Rupert, 1936: 62) and internal in that there is shown, constantly throughout the novel, the symbiotic coming together of factory with worker, the biological body and the body capital:

“All the public inscriptions in the town were painted alike, in severe characters of black and white. The jail might have been the infirmary, the infirmary might have been the jail, the town-hall might have been either, or both, or anything else.” (Dickens, 1994: 20)

Here the lumpen mass of civic architecture becomes a whole to which we could add, not only the education factory of the school, but the very schoolchildren and the workers themselves. As the jail merges with the infirmary so the worker merges with the loom or the machine and when the machine is removed or replaced so the worker is too, as testified by Stephen Blackpool’s demise after the removal of his livelihood in the chapters symbolically titled Men and Masters and Fading Away. Blackpool’s life, cheap at best, becomes cheaper as he is literally, at his death, consumed by the town; the mine becoming the grave for his still living body:

“It seemed now hours and hours since she had left the lost man lying in the grave where he had been buried alive. She cold not bear to remain away from it any longer – it was like deserting him” (Dickens, 1994: 240)

This is some of the same sense we find in Marx’s Capital, where machinery is described as both creating exploitative surplus value and providing the basis for worker alienation, from each other and from themselves (Marx, 1933: 325-480). However, the semiotic significance of the merging of the jail and the infirmary does not merely stop with Marxist theory of alienation; for Foucault, at least, the concepts of the sick and the criminal were inextricably linked:

“We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the social worker-judge; it is on them that the universal reign of the normative is based…The carceral network, in its compact or disseminated forms…has been the greatest support, in modern society, of the normalizing power.” (Foucault, 1991: 304)

It is no accident, Foucault would assert, that the jail and the infirmary reflect each other architecturally because they serve the same purpose; to reinforce the dominant discourse of the episteme, a discourse that such thinkers as Gramsci and Althusser see as reflecting Marxist notions of capital accumulation and class exploitation.

Within the narrative of Hard Times there is a bewildering array of discourses, from those of the poor to those of the sick, from the wives of the workers to the children and the elderly. Each intersection of the narrative displays what Foucault termed “micro-power” (Foucault, 1991: 222): the facilitation of bourgeois discourse through the minute everyday functioning of the enunciative modalities that define and proliferate such power. In Dickens’ novel this not only relates to the workings of the factory and the mill but to the infirmary and to the jail and even to the meeting of the Trades Union, that excludes and suppresses Stephen Blackpool as much as the mill owner.

The narrative of the life of Stephen Blackpool exists not merely as a socio-economic morality tale but as an example of how Foucauldian micro-powers contrive to suppress the voices and bodies of those without power. His good natured but ill advised trust in Tom Gradgrind, his acceptance of Louisa’s charity that leads to his incrimination, his alcoholic wife who he is too poor to divorce (Dickens, 1994: 67) and, finally, his makeshift funeral procession are all examples of the differing ways in which his voice is suppressed and kept from history.

In both construction and characterization, Hard Times mirrors that other great example of what Baker and Womack (2002) call the “social problem novel” (Baker and Womack, 2002: 190), Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton. Both novels, at their heart detail not only the downfall of a working man but chart the multiplicity of influencing factors that, themselves, provide us with a metonym for a great deal of the Nineteenth Century working class