Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Thousand crowned, coroneted, shovel-hatted quackheads - or, the Condition-of-England is not good.

In the 1840s, the condition of England was pretty terrible for a lot of people. England was going through the same sort of transition that we see in China, for example, today – agricultural workers were moving in massive numbers out of the countryside to work in manufacturing and mining. Combine this with the growth in railroads, steamships, and related industries, and the beginnings of a poorly understood population explosion. Massive changes everywhere.

The change must have been bewildering to many people, and the costs incredibly high. The working class, on average, lost ground during the 1830s and 1840s. The average height of working class adults born at this time, for example, declined substantially, meaning that they had received fewer calories as children or expended more in work, or both (the answer turns out to be: both). The same thing happened in the northern United States around the same time. I don’t know what was going on in Germany or France, but the events of 1848 make me suspect things can’t have been any better.

This is all from memory, I’m afraid. It would be fun (fun for me!) to include graphs of coal and iron production, for example, or railroad miles over time, and a lot less fun, but instructive, to see the trends in height or pauperization. But I’ll restrain myself.

Thomas Carlyle, at this point a genuinely popular writer due to the success of this 1837 history of the French Revolution, called the question of working class poverty “the condition-of-England question,” which seems unwieldy to me, but the name is still used by scholars today. I think he introduced the phrase in Chartism (1839), Ch. 1, “Condition-of-England Question.” I would include a quotation, except that I find Chartism nearly incomprehensible.

I can hardly believe that Carlyle was allowed by other journalists and reformers to take the lead on this issue. He is such a strange writer. His rhetoric is exhausting, and his continual irony makes him difficult to interpret.

Here are the first two sentences of his 1843 Past and Present, which are pretty clear for Carlyle:

“The condition of England, on which many pamphlets are now in the course of publication, and many thoughts unpublished are going on in every reflective head, is justly regarded as one of the most ominous, and withal one of the strangest, ever seen in this world. England is full of wealth, of multifarious produce, supply for human want in every kind; yet England is dying of inanition.”

We’re so rich; why are so many so poor? Fair enough. What, then, to make of this, from Chapter 3:

“Fair day's-wages for fair-day's-work! exclaims a sarcastic man; alas, in what corner of this Planet, since Adam first awoke on it, was that ever realised? The day's-wages of John Milton's day's-work, named Paradise Lost and Milton's Works, were Ten Pounds paid by instalments, and a rather close escape from death on the gallows.”

Complaining that Milton was underpaid 150 years earlier seems like a strange issue to bring up at all in the context of today’s impoverished factory workers. The passage continues:

“Consider that: it is no rhetorical flourish; it is an authentic, altogether quiet fact,--emblematic, quietly documentary of a whole world of such, ever since human history began. Oliver Cromwell quitted his farming; undertook a Hercules' Labour and lifelong wrestle with that Lernean Hydracoil, wide as England, hissing heaven-high through its thousand crowned, coroneted, shovel-hatted quackheads; and he did wrestle with it, the truest and terriblest wrestle I have heard of; and he wrestled it, and mowed and cut it down a good many stages, so that its hissing is ever since pitiful in comparison, and one can walk abroad in comparative peace from it;--and his wages, as I understand, were burial under the gallows-tree near Tyburn Turnpike, with his head on the gable of Westminster Hall, and two centuries now of mixed cursing and ridicule from all manner of men.” (Ch. 3)

Did anyone actually read all of that? Well, it’s actually part of why I read Carlyle – that’s some prose , all right. The point, a point, is that people are not properly rewarded for their work, not in the 17th century, and not now. Carlyle is going to spend the rest of the book arguing for a sort of religion of work. Boy, his book is full of bad ideas. Tomorrow, I’ll try to see what some of them are.

I was inspired to read Past and Present, by the way by So Many Books’ notes on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s notes on the book.


  1. The day's-wages of John Milton's day's-work, named Paradise Lost and Milton's Works, were Ten Pounds paid by instalments, and a rather close escape from death on the gallows.

    This is going to be my new substitute for "Life isn't fair!" My friends and family will doubtless be thanking you soon.

  2. I love those long, twisty sentences as well - great stuff to read slowly. I would like to spend a month on Thomas Carlyle one of these days (and I really do mean this), the question is, of course, when...

  3. Carlyle is easy, and fun, to mock, and his books certainly don't have the pleasure of, what am I reading now, Vanity Fair, not even close. But a lot of it really is worth reading.

    Escape from hanging may not have been such bad pay, come to think of it.

  4. I'm going to try and read some Carlyle in 2009 but I'm not sure if I will have more fun reading him or your posts about him!

  5. Oh, thanks. Carlyle is fun to write about.