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Social Conservatism in Charles Dickens Hard Times

16 Nov 2017Essay Samples

Social Conservatism in Charles Dickens' Hard Times and T.S. Ashton's The Industrial Revolution 

T.S. Ashton's The Industrial Revolution and Charles Dickens' Hard Times both address a number of issues relating to industrialization in Great Britain in the early nineteenth century. However, a direct comparison of the two texts is complicated by the fact that the former is a work of late twentieth century history, while the latter is a fiction of the mid-nineteenth century. Moreover, Dickens' text is not a "programmatic book" but is rather governed by aesthetic principles; a fact which widens the generic gulf between it and Ashton's socio-economic history. Given this, the key point of convergence between the two texts occurs not so much with the broad economic issues of the Industrial Revolution - technical innovation, demographics, capital investment - as with the social history of this era: its class conflicts, economic oppression and the organization of labour. In this context, it will be argued that a key similarity of both texts' depiction of the Industrial Revolution is their representation of the predominant social conservatism of an era known, paradoxically, for its profound social and economic change.

An examination of the publication history of Dickens' Hard Times reinforces the view that individualism rather than collectivism informs the author's crafting of his novel. Hard Times was first published as a serial in Dickens' magazine Household Words in 1854, where it often appeared side-by-side with articles on important social issues of the day. This curious textual blurring of the distinction between fact and fiction has 2 led critics to argue that

the social questions alluded to within Hard Times form a dialogue with articles which looked at appalling sanitary conditions, at the need for a sympathetic form of education for the working classes, at the disgrace of those manufacturers who refused to obey the law . . . .  (Flint, xiv)

However, a closer examination of how Dickens' crafted his serialized chapters suggests that he was careful to maintain a distance between social reality and social fiction. For example, while in the proof version of one chapter Dickens was "clearly antagonistic" towards millowners, and actually referred to an accompanying article on dangerous working conditions in mills in a footnote, by the time of final publication he had deleted both overt criticism and the footnote as well. This authorial choice has been interpreted by critics as "an evasion of anything which might appear to support working-class radical behaviour" (Flint, xv).

This conservatism, even in a novel that prominently features social and economic criticism, is echoed in Ashton's account of the social conflicts of the era. While there was considerable agitation on the part of some workers to organize for better 3 working conditions and pay, these disturbances were often "merely a spontaneous reaction to hunger or oppression, and the organization behind them collapsed as soon as the battle had been won or lost" (Ashton, 107). This general absence of systemic analysis and/or action in the face of social oppression is personified in Dickens' novel in the figure of Stephen Blackpool. It is through the figure of Stephen that Dickens gives readers his most direct criticism of the living and working conditions in milltowns such as Coketown. However, it is noteworthy that Stephen appears never able to think beyond the bare facts of the working classes' impoverishment to address the issues of resolving this problem. He simply assert that such conditions - like his own pathetically failed marriage - is a "muddle":

"'Deed we are in a muddle, sir. . . . Look how we live, an wheer we live, an in what numbers, an by what chances . . . . and how yo are awlus right, and how we are awlus wrong . . . . Who can look on't, sir, and fairly tell a man 'tis not a muddle?" "Of course," said Mr. Bounderby. "Now perhaps you'll let the gentleman know, how you would set this muddle (as you're so fond of calling it) to rights." "I donno, sir. I canna be expecten to't. 'Tis not me as should be looken to for that, sir. 'Tis them as is put ower me, and ower aw the rest of us." 4 (Dickens, 153)

Clearly, Stephen is not demanding specific reforms so much as asking his "betters" (Dickens' readership) to do something for his class. From this perspective, Stephen is not so much a representative of the oppressed working classes as he is an idealized fiction designed to make the working classes palatable to Dickens' conservative readership. As one critic observes:

This workman is . . . like his patient, loving friend Rachael, another highly sanitized, unthreatening member of the masses with whom the reader is invited to sympathize, above all, on the grounds of a personal dilemma. (Flint, xxv)

The reasons behind the social conservatism evident in Dickens' text lie in the ever-present fear of social unrest that underlay British society during the Industrial Revolution. Ashton, notes, for example, how many early labour organizations or "combinations" "hid their true purposes under titles which implied the activities of friendly societies" (Ashton, 106). They did this to avoid the threat of legislation against workers organizing for better pay or working conditions (Ashton, 108). In this context, it is not surprising that Dickens should oppose the passive, deferential Stephen with the radical labour organizer Slackbridge, 5 who is depicted as a "gnashing and perspiring" demagogue that turns upon his "fellow-worker" Stephen when it is in his selfinterest (Dickens, 250).

The ideal of the working class during this conservative era seems to have been of a class that, like Stephen, deferentially accepts charity, or meekly begs for the alleviation of some hardship from members of upper classes, rather than demanding or organizing to obtain labour rights. This social conservatism was reflected in the prominent role played by charitable organizations, as opposed to government or industry leaders, in alleviating the worst manifestations of economic oppression:

Generally, however, alleviation was the business, less of the individual or the State, than of the voluntary organization. Public relief was supplemented by bodies like the Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor, the Marine Society, which provided for friendless boys, and the Philanthropic Society, which cared for deserted children and vagrants. (Ashton, 110)

In conclusion, while the predominant point of similarity between Dickens' Hard Times and Ashton's Industrial Revolution lies in their representation of the social conservatism of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, a comparison of the texts is particularly informative in that Ashton foregrounds what 6 Dickens' only suggests: that the era's social conservatism may have been an "official" ideology masking deeper social unrest. Certainly, as we have seen, Dickens carefully edited his text to remove elements that were "excessively" antagonistic to the upper classes, and presented his ideal working "Hand" as a deferential, intellectually challenged individual. This editing not only betrays what were probably Dickens' more radical thoughts on the social conditions of the time, but his acknowledgement of the fact that these views would not have been accepted by his readership. Need a dissertation on Social Conservatism? No problem! Go here and get your best dissertation paper right now!

Thus, much like the early labour organizations that Ashton indicates disguised themselves as "friendly societies", Dickens may be seen to "cloak" himself in social conservatism to render his text palatable to a middle class audience. In terms of future research, our understanding of the social change accompanying the Industrial Revolution may be furthered by more in-depth analysis of this social conservatism: its origins, the agents that maintained it, and how it influenced the social and cultural history of the period.


  • Ashton, T.S. The Industrial Revolution: 1760-1830. Oxford: Oxford U P, 1997.
  • Dickens, Charles. Hard Times: for these Times. 1854; London: Penguin, 1995.
  • Flint, Kate. Introduction. Hard Times: for these Times by Charles Dickens. 1854; London: Penguin, 1995.
  • Hudson, Pat. Preface. The Industrial Revolution: 1760-1830 by T.S. Ashton. Oxford: Oxford U P, 1997: v-xiv. 

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