Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), a contemporary of Romantic poets, translator of Goethe and historian of the French Revolution, began a public discourse about the condition of English society in the time of the Industrial Revolution. Carlyle’s Calvinistic upbringing may have exerted influence on his pessimistic assessment of the contemporary society. He was the most widely respected Victorian sage and social critic. He wrote political essays, historiography, philosophical satires and fiction in which he often blurred the boundaries between literary genres. Carlyle was an individualist, who identified the modern technical civilisation with the gradual loss of individual freedom. He criticised both the feudal and capitalist systems in his works, Sartor Resartus, Chartism, Past and Present and Latter-Day Pamphlets.

The phrase “Condition of England Question” was first used by Carlyle in Chartism (1839), which significantly contributed to the emergence of a series of debates about the spiritual and material foundations of England and it had a great effect on a number of writers of fiction in the Victorian era and after. Carlyle was concerned with the “two nations theme”, the rich and the poor. Likewise, a number of Victorian condition of England novelists, particularly Benjamin Disraeli, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Dickens, and Charles Kingsley, attempted with varying effect, to persuade the reading public to look for ways of reducing the gap between the “two nations”. Carlyle contributed to the awakening of social conscience among the reading public and understood well the social and political importance of literature. He attacked the growing materialism of Victorian society and its laissez-faire doctrine. In his attacks on the wealthy Carlyle anticipated some of the ideas of the condition-of England novels. He also inspired social reformers, such as John Ruskin and William Morris.

“Signs of the Times” and the Condition of England Question

O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky;
But can ye not discern the signs of the times? — Matthew 16:3, King James Bible

In June 1829,the Edinburgh Review published Carlyle‘s “Signs of the Times,” (text) in which he anticipates the Condition of England Question he raised a decade later in Chartism (1839) and Past and Present (1843). As G. B. Tennyson notes, “Carlyle more than any man before him perceived the changes being wrought by the Industrial Revolution” (XXVIII). He criticised vehemently the ethos of the Industrial Revolution, which, he believed, was destroying human individuality. He expressed his distrust of the spirit of the “mechanical age”, which was manifested not only in the technical progress of English society but also in an overwhelming feeling of inanition: “The King has virtually abdicated; the Church is a widow, without jointure; public principle is gone; private honesty is going; society, in short, is in fact falling to pieces; and a time of unmixed evil is come on us” (33). The essay was aimed to draw the attention of the reading public to the spiritual price of social change, caused particularly by the frenetic industrialisation. In “Signs of the Times” Carlyle warned that the Industrial Revolution was turning people into mechanical automatons devoid of individuality and spirituality. For Carlyle, machine and mechanisation had double meaning: they meant literally new technical devices, but also metaphorically mechanistic thought that suppresses human freedom. Carlyle strongly criticised the mechanisation of the human spirit and indicated the high moral costs of industrial change.

Were we required to characterise this age of ours by any single epithet, we should be tempted to call it, not an Heroical, Devotional, Philosophical, or Moral Age, but, above all others, the Mechanical Age. It is the Age of Machinery, in every outward and inward sense of that word; the age which, with its whole undivided might, forwards, teaches and practises the great art of adapting means to ends. Nothing is now done directly, or by hand; all is by rule and calculated contrivance. [34]

In this sermon-like essay, Carlyle led a crusade against scientific materialism, Utilitarianism and the laissez-faire system. He believed that the freedom of the emerging mechanical society in England was a delusion, because it made workers into greater slaves than their ancient counterparts had been and mechanisation of society threatened the human ability to think and act creatively:

Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand. They have lost faith in individual endeavour, and in natural force, of any kind. Not for internal perfection, but for external combinations and arrangements, for institutions, constitutions, for Mechanism of one sort or other, do they hope and struggle. Their whole efforts, attachments, opinions, turn on mechanism, and are of a mechanical character. [37]

In “Signs of the Times” Carlyle therefore tried to reshape the public opinion about the present Condition of England, which he found unbearable. His criticism of the “mechanical society” produced a memorable narrative in Charles Dickens‘s novel Hard Times, whose subtitle “For These Times” is indebted to Carlyle’s essay.

Chartism

Carlyle raised the condition of England question in Chartism (1839), in which he expressed his sympathy for the poor and the industrial class in England and argued the need for a more profound reform. He noticed a discrepancy between a new form of economic activity called “industrialism”, which promised general welfare, and a dramatic degradation in the living conditions of the urban poor.

The condition of the great body of people in a country is the condition of the country itself; [....] Yet read Handsard’s Debates, or the Morning Papers, if you have nothing to do! The old grand question, whether A is to be in office or B, with the innumerable subsidiary questions growing out of that, courting paragraphs and suffrages for a blessed solution of that: Canada question, Irish Appropriation question, West-India question, Queen’s Bedchamber question; Game Laws, Usury Laws; African Blacks, Hill Coolies, Smithfield cattle, and Dog-carts, — manner of questions and subjects except simply this the alpha and omega of all! Surely Honourable Members ought to speak of the Condition-of-England question too (5).

Carlyle, who had studied extensively the causes of the French Revolution, was apprehensive about England’s future. He presented Chartism as a symptom of a disease that affected England. The effect of it could be a revolution if government did not improve the living conditions of the labouring classes. A cure for this disease is, according to Carlyle, a ”real” aristocracy” which can lead the working class through the vicissitudes of modern history. Carlyle looked for a new type of “unclassed” aristocracy because he was critical about both an idle landowning aristocracy and a working aristocracy submerged in Mammonism, who instead of being “captains of industry”, are “a gang of industrial buccaneers and pirates.”

Past and Present

Past and Present (1843), which opens with a visit to a workhouse, was written as a response to the economic crisis which began in the early 1840’s. This book, like its predecessor, Chartism (1839), and The Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850), presents a further analysis of the condition of England question. Carlyle opposed the medieval past and the turbulent Victorian present of the 1830s and 1840s. For him, the latter was a time of uncontrolled industrialisation, worship of money, exploitation of the week, low wages, poverty, unemployment and riots, which would bring England to self-destruction. In Book 1: Proem, Carlyle expresses his critical opinion about the present Condition of England in an elevated, prophetic language. Despite England’s abundant resources, the poor classes are living in deprivation.

The condition of England, on which many pamphlets are now in the course of publication, and many thoughts unpublished are going in every reflective head, is justly regarded as one of the most ominous, and withal one of the strangest, ever seen in this world. [71]

Carlyle shows a depressing picture of the daily life of the workers, many of whom and are unable to find meaningful work.

Of these successful skilful workers some two millions, it is now counted, sit in Workhouses, Poor-law Prisons; or have “out-door relief” flung over the wall to them, — the workhouse Bastille being filled to bursting, and the strong Poor-law broken asunder by a stronger. [71-72]

Carlyle’s solution was the same as that proposed in Sartor Resartus (1832) — a spiritual rebirth of both the individual and society. The two sections of the book show the contrasting visions of the past and the present. His idealised vision of the past is based on the chronicle of the English monk, Jocelyn of Brakelond (fl. 1200), who described the life of the abbot Samson and his monks of St. Edmund’s monastery. Carlyle shows the organisation of life and work of the medieval monks as an authentic idyll, whereas he finds contemporary life increasingly unbearable due to the lack of true leadership.

Carlyle argues that a new “Aristocracy of Talent” should take the lead in the country, and the English people must themselves choose true heroes and not sham-heroes or quacks. In the third chapter of the fourth book of Past and Present, Carlyle makes three practical suggestions for the improvement of social conditions in England. He calls for the introduction of legal hygienic measures, improvement of education and promotion of emigration. Although the first two proposals were soon adopted, the third proposal affected mainly the Irish and Scottish people, and, in a smaller degree, the English population.

Related Material

References

Bloom, Harold, ed. Thomas Carlyle: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986.

Bossche, Chris R. Vanden. Carlyle and the Search for Authority. Ohio State University Press, 1991. [full text in the Victorian Web]

Carlyle, Thomas. Chartism. Past and Present. London: Chapman and Hall, 1858. Reprinted in Elibron Classics Series, 2005.

Tennyson, G.B. A Carlyle Reader. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.


Victorian Web Overview Thomas Carlyle Political themes and contexts Spcial History

Last modified 4 January 2010