The front-page article in the Illustrated London News of Saturday, February 14, 1851, sheds an interesting light on Elizabeth Gaskell's treatment of the rural poor in her novel North and South (1855). "Mr. Disraeli's Remedies for Agricultural Distress" makes clear that the British government was more concerned with the plight of the farmers than of the mill workers. Although Gaskell devotes much of the novel to stressing that members of the poor working class ought to be seen as human and treated accordingly, that conditions must be improved, and that the underprivileged workers should be granted more control over their own lives, the government did not seem at all worried about them. In fact, the article quotes Disraeli as wondering, "What is the reason that when all are prosperous, an important class should suffer?" The important class to which he refers is the agricultural class — the industrial class is grouped with the prosperous "all."
The farmers had tried to pass a bill "protecting" the crops they produced by setting minimum prices, restricting import of crops that could be domestically grown, and reducing taxation. The News distinctly opposed these measures, arguing that Agriculture . . . "wept when all around it smiled", . . . the cheapness of food, which made all other classes prosperous and happy, was ruin to everyone engaged in the cultivation of the land . . . There is no doubt that agriculture in this country is not prosperous; but it should be remembered that it never was prosperous within any traditionary or historical period.
According to the paper, giving English farmers protection would cause them to become slothful and greedy, following the example of "The protected agriculturalists of France, who allege, like their English compeers, that they cannot cultivate the soil at sufficient profit,and who, having some protection, are clamorous for more." The downtrodden in Gaskell's world are factory workers who have to strike for better wages, suffer from diseases like "black-spittle", grinder's rot and potter's asthma, and are treated like animals by their employers. Nonetheless, the government, which considered the working class a harmonious part of the Great Industrial Chain of Being, worried that the farmers were trying to squeeze more benefits from the state than were due them. "It was . . . to say the least of it, exceedingly impolitic," The article begins, "to excite hopes which (Parliament) knew they could not realise, and to encourage the respectable and estimable people, who cultivate the land, in the false notion, that they are a class apart and to be aided in their business at the expense of all the rest of the community." This view lumps the workers with the middle class and nobility, as part of the section of the population that would have to pay if the agriculturalists recieved protection.
Gaskell does hint at the unhappy condition of "the estimable people, who cultivate the land," when Higgins expresses his desire to move to the country which Margaret has always described as so idyllic. She realizes both that the rural poor exist in greater poverty than do urban slum-dwellers and that the city and industry are the future and life of England. She at last agrees with the Illustrated News that the problem is a problem of the poor in general, and not of the specific types of poverty. She would no doubt have agreed with the paper's solution to the agricultural problem which decreed
Let agriculturalists, instead of considering themselves a class apart, make common cause with their fellow citizens, in calling for a reform and re-adjustment of our whole fiscal system, and they will do good service to themselves and to their country . . setting class against class, and interest against interest — can effect no good for agriculture. It . . . impedes a work which, sooner or later, must be attempted in justice to the whole industry of the country — whether it be exercised in the corn-field or in the workshop, in the production of food, or in that of calicoes and hardware. [The Illustrated London News, 18, No. 470 (Saturday, February 15, 1851)].
- Another contemporary view
- Agricultural Labourers a quarter-century later (an article from the 1874 Cornhill Review)
Last modified 26 March 2002 [MB]