Student Sample Notebook
The film "Queen Victoria's Empire: Engines of Change" and the assigned reading "The Victorian Age" gave me my first glimpse of the contradictory nature of the Victorian Era. It was a time of vast change-- in religion, technology, society, government, and science. It was also a time of vast uncertainty, as people struggled to adapt to a rapidly changing world.
This struggle was depicted in one of the first scenes in the film, a detailing of the coming of the railroad to Manchester. An elderly statesman was hit and killed by one of the engines – a poignant demonstration of how the future was overrunning the past. As it was described in the film, "the future had arrived." The new age in England was about speed, convenience, and production, and people needed to assimilate or risk losing themselves.
Among the many contradictions evidenced in the film and the writings was the move from a rural to an urban society. Advances in technology had nearly eliminated rural life. Thousands crowded into the cities, where men, women, and children found work in the factories. Even while population rates soared, rural areas were experiencing an exodus. No longer working for themselves in a natural environment, workers now found themselves subjugated to a time clock and crowded living conditions.
England had become a "workshop" but the average worker would never see the profits. Working conditions were horrible, dirty, and dangerous. Life expectancy was very low, and many lived near starvation. Even very young children were expected to work 16 to 18 hours per day, six days per week.
On the other hand, England was leading the world in production of goods, and was the envy of every other country. One of the greatest contradictions of the time existed in the ever-widening gulf between rich and poor, even while the country experienced a time of amazing wealth and advancement.
Victorians experienced contradiction in their religious views as well. As science began to offer a logical explanation for so many of the mysteries of the universe, people began to doubt the truth of the Bible, and the value of religious institutions. New discoveries were calling into question long-held beliefs and undermining the authority of churches. With such a loss of organized religious tradition, many longed for faith to help assuage the fears of their time. People were at once materialistic and spiritual.
With so many inventions and innovations, there was a great sense of pride and accomplishment. The film detailed Prince Albert's efforts to organize the Great Exposition to showcase British ingenuity—an effort that paid off in a grand way. Millions of visitors would visit the Great Exposition, and it was here that many Britons saw for the first time the inventions that had propelled England into a new age. The building that housed the Exposition was a marvel in itself—glass panes on a steel framework, with trees, fountains, and space enough to display the inventions of all nations who wished to participate.
Yet, even while there was great national pride, there was also great uneasiness about the many changes that were taking place. Not only had the lifestyles of most people changed immensely, railroads and factories had changed the face of the landscape. Buildings and businesses sprang up along the railroad to cater to railroad traffic, and the tracks themselves cut through the countryside. Pollution from factories filled the city skies and darkened rivers.
Many questioned the wisdom of breaking with longtime traditions and organized religion. Without the familiar established guides of both of these, some questioned how society could survive a descent into moral decay. Ironically, Queen Victoria herself was a walking contradiction when it came to the moral values of the day. The film states that although she was a mother many times over, she didn't like motherhood or maternity. She simply did what she viewed as her duty.
Many contradictions existed during Victorian times, and contributed to what the film described as the "great Victorian insecurity." From what I viewed in the film and read in "The Victorian Age" in the text, this sense of insecurity was reflected in all aspects of Victorian life.
Thomas Carlyle, working to express his anxieties about the changes England was going through during the Industrial Revolution, wrote several essays encouraging a return to authoritarianism and spirituality. In "Past and Present" he illustrated the plight of the working class, whose exploitation he viewed as the downfall of the entire society.
He felt the solution was to return to a medieval-type social structure, where benevolent lords ruled over the lower classes and cared for them, creating a "human community." Democracy, in his opinion, was folly. Uneducated masses were unable to govern themselves, and needed the guidance and care of a good master. To this end, he encouraged capitalist bosses to become strong, benevolent leaders who cared for their workers. He warned that this was the only path to social reform.
In "Past and Present," he sounds like a religious leader, calling all to repent before judgment day. The material production of the Industrial Revolution is, he warns, "enchanted fruit" that touches all the classes, and yet "no man of you shall be the better for it" (1035). The direction society has taken will not only mean the downfall of the working class people, it will mean damnation to its exploiters. As he writes: "On the poor workers such fiat falls first, in its rudest shape; but on the rich master-workers too it falls; neither can the rich master-idlers, nor any richest or highest man escape, but all are like to be brought low with it, and made "poor" enough, in the money sense or a far fataler one" (1035).
Carlyle also demonstrates his socialist view of labor—that "man perfects himself by working" (1039). He strongly condemns the idle and greedy, and in near-biblical terms exalts the common laborer. All goodness and knowledge comes to men and women who have found their work or "life purpose." Those who would remain idle are not fulfilling their destiny, and are examples of dishonor. The idle are worthy only of despair. Carlyle believes that "the whole soul of man is composed into a kind of real harmony, the instant he sets himself to work" (1039).
The text describes the changes surrounding the Industrial Revolution as "terribly disruptive but also immensely thrilling." The writing examples included in "The Industrial Landscape" offers perspectives from many sides of the spectrum.
I enjoyed "The Steam Loom Weaver" because I identified with the practice behind the working-class ballad. The people have taken the terminology of their new life and presented it in a way that is humorous – giving a human face to the machinery that they must work with every day of their lives. The work is hard, and the conditions dangerous. Many are near starvation. This new life is threatening and uncertain, yet when one can laugh at hardship, it becomes easier to bear.
By incorporating imagery from their industrial work, the workers are better able to assimilate and accept their role industrial age. In "The Steam Loom Weaver," they have related new, unfamiliar technology to something very familiar – sex. This serves to make such technology less threatening and in some ways more accessible and commonplace. The workings of the machinery might be more than they can comprehend, yet they have found a fitting analogy to something they can relate to.
The excerpt from "Record of a Girlhood" by Fanny Kemble was a gushing tribute to her first ride on a steam engine. She captures the thrill of speed and power, and the wonder the Victorians surely felt upon their first encounter with such technology.
Again, because the steam engine is among that which is unfamiliar and new, Kemble is moved to describe it in terms that common people would understand. She compares the steam engine to a horse, from "bright steel legs" to "flying white breath." Coal becomes "oats" and the "snorting little animal" is harnessed to a carriage.
I thought it was very interesting that Kemble, an actress, was selected to ride with the engineer of the railroad, George Stephenson. Publicity, pure and simple. She was well-known, and as a female public figure, would make the railroad seem more accessible. After all, if a woman can accept the new technology, shouldn't every man? She is clearly a spokesperson, and her account reads like a press release.
Besides describing the engine in non-threatening terms, Kemble assuages the fears people had about the ruination of the countryside. She mentions how the moss, ferns, and grasses had already retaken position on the rocky outcroppings that had been "cut asunder" to make way for the railroad. She is clearly discounting the arguments many had against the railroad tearing up the landscape.
Kemble also speaks of the wonderment she feels at moving at 35 mph, smoothly, with the sensation of flying. Her description was full of references to speed, and yet her account is calm and reassuring – exactly what Mr. Stephenson would want to imply to the masses. I liked her account, but couldn't get past the fact that it sounded very dramatic and rehearsed – a fitting position for an actress.
Another voice of optimism for the new age is that of Thomas Babington Macaulay. In his "A Review of Southey's Colloquies," he attempts to silence the naysayers of the time by demonstrating just how much England has progressed. He compares the words of the present-day doubters to those who doubted in every generation.
He argues that just as those in medieval times could not imagine the wealth that would come to England a few generations later, Victorians cannot imagine just how wealthy future generations will be. Current predictions always seem absurd, and yet most are realized. He writes, "though in every age everybody knows that up to his own time progressive improvement has been taking place, nobody seems to reckon on any improvement during the next generation" (1053).
Of all the readings for this week, the accounts of the child laborers in "Parliamentary Papers" struck me the most. They detail the working conditions of three young girls, Hannah Goode and Ann and Elizabeth Eggley at a textile mill and mine, respectively.
Work would begin early in the morning and finish some 12-14 hours later, with an hour for lunch. Conditions were harsh, with some children beaten when they were late or if they fell asleep on the job. The work was very hard and they were exhausted at night. School was out of the question, and Sunday was a day to rest before returning to another six-day workweek.
I'm an adult; I work 12-14 hour days during the month of December, and am exhausted during that time of year. I also have children, and can't imagine my 6-year-old having the strength or attention span to stand and work all day long. These accounts were amazing and horrifying to me. It is in some way comforting to know that these accounts, assembled into the "blue books," helped bring the terrible conditions to light and thus enabled reform to take place.
In "Dombey and Son," Charles Dickens likens the coming of the railway to that of an earthquake. "There were a hundred thousand shapes and substances of incompleteness, wildly mingled out of their places, upside down, burrowing in the earth, aspiring in the air, mouldering in the water, and unintelligible as any dream" (1056). This earthquake could easily represent the entire Industrial Revolution, and the effect it had on the people of England.
His vivid description, applied to the Victorian people, includes the uncertainty and fear of the time. People found themselves in very different lifestyles than they had been one generation before. There were those who would aspire, and would become successful. There were those who would be the workers – burrowing in mines and weaving in the mills. Many would find themselves without a voice in their government or their society—the unintelligible.
Dickens also hints at the adaptability of the neighborhoods around the railroad—even while many hesitated to embrace the new technology, some ventured forth. Names of businesses were changed to incorporate the railroad and attract its traffic, even though he is skeptical of success.
In "Hard Times," Dickens paints a picture of the fearful landscape of Industrialized England where "interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever," the river "ran purple with ill-smelling dye," and "the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness." Everything in Coketown is "severely workful," including its people. Everyone was like everyone else – they had lost their individuality. Individuality had fallen to utilitarianism.
Dickens detested the quantification of everything, and used "Hard Times" to illustrate how the working class was no longer a group of individuals but a grouping of hands, or pieces of work. He also illustrated the separation of the classes. Churches were being built, but the working classes couldn't afford the time to attend. The upper classes then felt it necessary to pass legislation that would force the workers to become religious. They "knew" that the lower classes were a "bad lot" that were "eternally dissatisfied and unmanageable" (1058).
From "Sybil" by Benjamin Disraeli, a commentary on class relations: "They are not in a state of cooperation, but of isolation, as to the making of fortunes; and for all the rest they are careless of neighbors. Christianity teaches us to love our neighbour as ourself; modern society acknowledges no neighbor" (1845).
"Everything in this district that arouses our disgust and just indignation is of relatively recent origin and belongs to the industrial age" (1067). Freidrich Engels came to England to study the cotton industry, but was so horrified by the condition of the working classes, that he went on to write of their plight in "The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844."
Engels was very much opposed to capitalism, which he saw as the cause of so much evil. "Everyone exploits his neighbor with the result that the stronger tramples the weaker under foot" (1062). Poverty and starvation were kept out of sight of the middle classes—hidden socially and mentally as well as physically. Engels found fifty thousand Londoners who were homeless and many more that lived in absolute squalor. In his opinion, if the middle class were to acknowledge the suffering of the under class, they would be condemning themselves.
He was also horrified at the loss of individualism that came with the crowding of much a great population in a small amount of space. He writes, "The more that Londoners are packed into a tiny space, the more repulsive and disgraceful becomes the brutal indifference with which they ignore their neighbors and selfishly concentrate upon their private affairs" (1062). His writing was of a very socialist perspective.
Henry Mayhew's account of child street-workers in "London Labour and the London Poor" struck me because of the very adult way these children were living their lives on the streets.
The first, a young girl who sold watercress, speaks of how she bargains in the marketplace and is savvy enough not to be taken in by a bad deal. She doesn't know much about being a child, although she still has a home and family.
Not so for the young crossing sweeper. He was sent to the streets by his sister after she married, and makes his living sweeping and begging, and doing "anythink" that he can to survive. He'll open cabs, shovel, sweep, and beg, all the while trying to keep out of prison. He describes the system he and his friends have of begging on the street corners, calling out to claim the people as they approach. It's a very sad account, but he is cheerful as he's never known another kind of life.
The subject of Tennyson's poem "The Lady of Shalott," a woman housed forever in a tower, can represent many facets of life in the Industrial Age.
Upon first reading, I thought she embodied the traditional roles of women. She is housed in "four gray walls, and four gray towers," where she labors day after day "imbowered" in a silent place. Traditionally, women were expected to mind home and hearth, and had no legal voice. She weaves her web of history, mindful of the warnings of prophets and traditionalists who say that to embrace any other type of life would mean death. "She knows not what the curse may be/ And so she weaveth steadily," maintaining her role as she has throughout the ages.
She has no clear view of Camelot, or the new Industrial Age. She knows only what she is shown secondhand through other sources – in this case represented by the mirror she watches as she weaves. She delights in what she sees, knowing all the while that she cannot take part in it because it is simply a reflection. Soon, however, restlessness creeps in: "I am half sick of shadows," she says.
Sir Lancelot, an embodiment of the brightness and light of the new age, strikes her like a "bow-shot." When she sees his reflection in the mirror, she is moved to break tradition. Lancelot is all glitter, daring, and boldness, with his silver bugle and shining armor. In an instant, he brings the Lady of Shalott a flash of enlightenment. He is "some bearded meteor, trailing light." She moves from her loom to see the view from the window with her own eyes. The web of her weaving is broken, as is history. The mirror is cracked—she no longer needs information from a secondary source. The lady is doomed; the woman she has been cannot exist with the new knowledge she has received.
As she leaves her tower, the Lady of Shalott passes the effects of the industrial age in the natural surroundings, a wind that is "straining," woods that are "waning," and a river that is "complaining." Enlightenment was seductive, but fatal. She cannot return, but must realize how she has been kept.
She looses the chain from her boat and moves toward the city, as many women of the time were forced to do. Her last song is a farewell to life and the traditional roles of women. She dies as she reaches the city.
Here, the aristocracy in the castle is afraid of the corpse in the boat. Only Sir Lancelot is unworried. He comments, "She has a lovely face; God in his mercy lend her grace." He is at once realizing her commercial potential and dissolving his own responsibility for her, just as he would the working class. As the personification of the industrial age, he is unafraid of letting go of the past in order to realize the future.
(The woman in "The Lady of Shalott" could also represent nature, organized religion, rural life, or the working class.)
From Tennyson's "Ulysses," I take the last six lines: "Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'/ We are not now that strength which in old days/ Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;/ One equal temper of heroic hearts/ Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will/ To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield." I loved these lines. This piece could illustrate Tennyson's sympathies to the working class.