The English novelist and essayist Charles Dickens (1812-1870) was one of the most acerbic critics of the conditions wrought by the Industrial Revolution on the lives of the working masses. Among his critiques of 19th century urban British life was the novel Hard Times (1854). The excerpt here is a representative Dickensian description of the transformation of a Victorian city into a pit of appalling desperation, inequity and monotony. The factory system forced workers into overcrowded, unsanitary tenements within close proximity to their work - the "dark, satanic mills" of Blake's verse - all in the interest of efficiency, the driving force of the Industrial Revolution.
From Book 1, Chapter 5: “The Keynote”
Coketown, to which Messrs. Bounderby and Gradgrind now walked, was a triumph of fact; it had no greater taint of fancy in it than Mrs. Gradgrind herself. Let us strike the key-note, Coketown, before pursuing our tune.
It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but as matters stood, it was a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage. It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, and vast piles of building full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness. It contained several large streets all very like one another, and many small streets still more like one another, inhabited by people equally like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours, with the same sound upon the same pavements, to do the same work, and to whom every day was the same as yesterday and to-morrow, and every year the counterpart of the last and the next.
These attributes of Coketown were in the main inseparable from the work by which it was sustained; against them were to be set off comforts of life which found their way all over the world, and elegancies of life which made, we will not ask how much of the fine lady, who could scarcely bear to hear the place mentioned. The rest of its features were voluntary, and they were these.
You saw nothing in Coketown but what was severely workful. If the members of a religious persuasion built a chapel there — as the members of eighteen religious persuasions had done — they made it a pious warehouse of red brick, with sometimes (but this is only in highly ornamental examples) a bell in a birdcage on the top of it. The solitary exception was the New Church; a stuccoed edifice with a square steeple over the door, terminating in four short pinnacles like florid wooden legs. 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, for anything that appeared to the contrary in the graces of their construction. Fact, fact, fact, everywhere in the material aspect of the town; fact, fact, fact, everywhere in the immaterial. The M’Choakumchild school was all fact, and the school of design was all fact, and the relations between master and man were all fact, and everything was fact between the lying-in hospital and the cemetery, and what you couldn’t state in figures, or show to be purchaseable in the cheapest market and saleable in the dearest, was not, and never should be, world without end, Amen.
A town so sacred to fact, and so triumphant in its assertion, of course got on well? Why no, not quite well. No? Dear me!
No. Coketown did not come out of its own furnaces, in all respects like gold that had stood the fire. First, the perplexing mystery of the place was, Who belonged to the eighteen denominations? Because, whoever did, the labouring people did not. It was very strange to walk through the streets on a Sunday morning, and note how few of them the barbarous jangling of bells that was driving the sick and nervous mad, called away from their own quarter, from their own close rooms, from the corners of their own streets, where they lounged listlessly, gazing at all the church and chapel going, as at a thing with which they had no manner of concern. Nor was it merely the stranger who noticed this, because there was a native organization in Coketown itself, whose members were to be heard of in the House of Commons every session, indignantly petitioning for acts of parliament that should make these people religious by main force. Then came the Teetotal Society, who complained that these same people would get drunk, and showed in tabular statements that they did get drunk, and proved at tea parties that no inducement, human or Divine (except a medal), would induce them to forego their custom of getting drunk. Then came the chemist and druggist, with other tabular statements, showing that when they didn’t get drunk, they took opium. Then came the experienced chaplain of the jail, with more tabular statements, outdoing all the previous tabular statements, and showing that the same people would resort to low haunts, hidden from the public eye, where they heard low singing and saw low dancing, and mayhap joined in it; and where A. B., aged twenty-four next birthday, and committed for eighteen months’ solitary, had himself said (not that he had ever shown himself particularly worthy of belief) his ruin began, as he was perfectly sure and confident that otherwise he would have been a tip-top moral specimen. Then came Mr. Gradgrind and Mr. Bounderby, the two gentlemen at this present moment walking through Coketown, and both eminently practical, who could, on occasion, furnish more tabular statements derived from their own personal experience, and illustrated by cases they had known and seen, from which it clearly appeared — in short, it was the only clear thing in the case — that these same people were a bad lot altogether, gentlemen; that do what you would for them they were never thankful for it, gentlemen; that they were restless, gentlemen; that they never knew what they wanted; that they lived upon the best, and bought fresh butter; and insisted on Mocha coffee, and rejected all but prime parts of meat, and yet were eternally dissatisfied and unmanageable. In short, it was the moral of the old nursery fable:
There was an old woman, and what do you think?
She lived upon nothing but victuals and drink;
Victuals and drink were the whole of her diet,
And yet this old woman would NEVER be quiet.
Is it possible, I wonder, that there was any analogy between the case of the Coketown population and the case of the little Gradgrinds? Surely, none of us in our sober senses and acquainted with figures, are to be told at this time of day, that one of the foremost elements in the existence of the Coketown working-people had been for scores of years, deliberately set at nought? That there was any Fancy in them demanding to be brought into healthy existence instead of struggling on in convulsions? That exactly in the ratio as they worked long and monotonously, the craving grew within them for some physical relief — some relaxation, encouraging good humour and good spirits, and giving them a vent — some recognized holiday, though it were but for an honest dance to a stirring band of music — some occasional light pie in which even M’Choakumchild had no finger — which craving must and would be satisfied aright, or must and would inevitably go wrong, until the laws of the Creation were repealed?
From Book 2, Chapter 6: “The Starlight”
“Rachael, my dear.”
She took his hand. He smiled again and said, “Don’t let ‘t go.”
“Thou’rt in great pain, my own dear Stephen?”
“I ha’ been, but not now. I ha’ been — dreadful, and dree, and long, my dear — but ‘tis ower now. Ah, Rachael, aw a muddle! Fro’ first to last, a muddle!”
The spectre of his old look seemed to pass as he said the word.
“I ha’ fell into th’ pit, my dear, as have cost wi’in the knowledge o’ old fok now livin, hundreds and hundreds o’ men’s lives — fathers, sons, brothers, dear to thousands an’ thousands, an’ keeping ‘em fro’ want and hunger. I ha’ fell into a pit that ha’ been wi’ th’ Firedamp crueller than battle. I ha’ read on ‘t in the public petition, as onny one may read, fro’ the men that works in pits, in which they ha’ pray’n and pray’n the lawmakers for Christ’s sake not to let their work be murder to ‘em, but to spare ‘em for th’ wives and children that they loves as well as gentlefolk loves theirs. When it were in work, it killed wi’out need; when ‘tis let alone, it kills wi’out need. See how we die an’ no need, one way an’ another — in a muddle — every day!”
He faintly said it, without any anger against any one. Merely as the truth.
“Thy little sister, Rachael, thou hast not forgot her. Thou’rt not like to forget her now, and me so nigh her. Thou know’st — poor, patient, suff’rin, dear — how thou didst work for her, seet’n all day long in her little chair at thy winder, and how she died, young and misshapen, awlung o’ sickly air as had’n no need to be, an’ awlung o’ working people’s miserable homes. A muddle! Aw a muddle!”
From: Dickens, Charles. Hard times. New York, J. W. Lovell Company, 1883.