Authors: Les Standiford
In Manchester, Tocqueville wrote, “humanity attains its most complete development and its most brutish; here civilization works its miracles, and civilized man is turned back almost into a savage.” Most of the city’s streets were unpaved, and its laborers’ districts were “untraversed by common sewers,” leaving piles of excrement and trash for pedestrians to dodge. Many homes had dirt floors, lacked for windows and doors, and were described as “ill ventilated” and “unprovided with privies.” As a result, wrote the social activist James Kay in 1832, “the streets which are narrow, unpaved and worn into deep ruts, become the common receptacles of mud, refuse, and disgusting ordure.”
A decade later, just prior to Dickens’s visit, Joseph Adshead’s
Distress in Manchester
pointed out that things had only become worse: “[D]estitution in its most rigorous form prevails to an appalling extent in Manchester,” wrote Adshead, quoting a local doctor who said that “no inconsiderable portion of our fellow-creatures is living on food and in dwellings scarcely fit for brutes.”
Friedrich Engels, who, at the time of Dickens’s visit, was gathering steam for the economic analysis upon which Karl Marx would base the 1848 publication of the
Manifesto of the Communist Party,
wrote a treatise that decried the cycles of boom and bust that only exacerbated such conditions, and turned laborers from whole human beings into “hands,” of which many were needed when demand for goods was high, and which would be discarded when business turned slow. Mechanization had turned men into one more statistical element in an equation of production, Marx and Engels would argue, putting an end to all paternal relationships between owners and workers left over from the feudal days, to leave “no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’”
Conditions were so bad in Manchester, more than one modern labor economist has surmised, that had Engels come of age in some far more pleasant surroundings such as London,
The Communist Manifesto
might not have been written the way it was. Says analyst David McLellan, had Engels spent more time in that capital, “where manufacture was still dominated by artisans, he would have got a different picture.” Of course, Dickens, who had spent some time in the so-called patriarchal employ of a London “artisan,” might have begged to differ, but there is little disagreement with the fact that the Manchester of 1843 was a hellhole.
One out of every thirty-one people living in that city died each year, compared with a rate of one in forty-five for the country as a whole. Fifty-seven percent of children born to working-class parents died before they reached the age of five.
And the effects of the great depression of 1841–42 were still lingering, with as many as 3,000 people per day lining up at soup kitchens. A number of the city’s 130 smoke-and gas-spewing mills had gone into bankruptcy with the downturn in business, and in late 1842 Engels wrote of “crowds of unemployed working men at every street corner, and many mills…still standing idle.”
The development of the power loom made earning a living particularly difficult on hand-weavers, whose wages—when they could still find work—had dropped by 60 percent between 1820 and 1840. As there were still about 100,000 of such craftsmen living and seeking work in the Manchester area, their desperation, according to one labor historian, “cast a pall over the entire period and over all the working classes.”(Interestingly, the desperation of the times led to the emigration of one such unemployed Scottish hand-weaver named Carnegie to the United States, where his son Andrew would become the chief industrialist of all time.)
he city to which Dickens had come was in many ways the apotheosis, then, of all that he abhorred. He had made a brief visit in 1838, while he was beginning work on
—“his purpose to see the interior of a cotton mill, I fancy with reference to some of his publications,” wrote fellow novelist Harrison Ainsworth in a letter of introduction for Dickens. And what Dickens found in those factories had an indelible effect: “What I have seen [in Manchester] has disgusted and astonished me beyond all measure.”
Still, he felt a great affinity for those who struggled on behalf of the downtrodden, and he had developed a number of friends among the locals in Manchester, including his first schoolmaster at Chatam, the Reverend William Giles. For that reason, he contended that despite conditions in the city, “I never came to Manchester without expecting pleasure, and I never left it without taking pleasure away,” though one might wonder if he expected to take any away on this night.
Disraeli up there at the podium, the rising star, while he sat contemplating fortunes on the wane. His sales a fifth of what they had once been. His publishers ready to dock his salary. The critics turned shortsighted and vicious.
And this audience before him, expecting what? Wisdom? Comfort? Salvation? Good Lord, it seemed he could not keep himself afloat. What had he to offer all them?
But Disraeli had finished, and now it was Dickens’s time.
fter a hearty introduction and welcome that would surely have done something to boost his spirits, Dickens began his speech with a reminder of his faith in the power of reason, praising the occasion of their gathering in a venue “where we have no more knowledge of party difficulties, or public animosities between side and side…than if we were a public meeting in the commonwealth of Utopia.” And he followed by reiterating the credo that would guide him in his art and in his public life: “I take it, that it is not of greater importance to all of us than it is to every man who has learned to know that he has an interest in the moral and social elevation, the harmless relaxation, the peace, happiness, and improvement, of the community at large.”
Of Manchester and the Athenaeum on behalf of which he spoke, Dickens said, “It well becomes…this little world of labour, that…she should have a splendid temple sacred to the education and improvement of a large class of those who, in their various useful stations, assist in the production of our wealth.”
And he went on to add a bit of the poet’s touch in service of his point, with a gesture to the grand hall about them, “I think it is grand to know, that, while her factories re-echo with the clanking of stupendous engines, and the whirl and rattle of machinery, the immortal mechanism of God’s own hand, the mind, is not forgotten in the din and uproar, but is lodged and tended in a palace of its own.”
He then turned to the circumstances that had brought him to the city. He reminded his audience that “the Athenaeum was projected at a time when commerce was in a vigorous and flourishing condition, and when those classes of society to which it particularly addresses itself were fully employed, and in the receipt of regular incomes.”
He was speaking, however, at a time when unemployment in the mills hovered between 15 and 20 percent, and wages had dropped a similar percentage over the past ten years. “A season of depression almost without a parallel ensued,” he told his audience, “and large numbers of young men…suddenly found their occupation gone and themselves reduced to very straitened and penurious circumstances.”
The downturn had led the Athenaeum—with its library of 6,000 volumes; classes for the study of languages, elocution, and music; exercise facilities; and regular programs of lectures and debate—to accumulate a debt of more than 3,000 pounds, Dickens told the audience; but the number of citizens willing to contribute a mere sixpence weekly for all the benefits had more than doubled in recent months, he said, and if more in the audience were willing to join, the amount of even that modest subscription would be reduced.
With that behind him, he launched into the meat of his address. There were a few “dead-and-gone” objections that had traditionally been raised against the formation of such institutions as the Athenaeum, he said, and their philosophy could be summed up in one short sentence: “How often have we heard from a large class of men wise in their generation, who would really seem to be born and bred for no other purpose than to pass into currency counterfeit and mischievous scraps of wisdom…that ‘a little learning is a dangerous thing.’”
Dickens paused for emphasis, then went on. “Why, a little hanging was considered a very dangerous thing, according to the same authorities, with this difference, that, because a little hanging was dangerous, we had a great deal of it; and, because a little learning was dangerous, we were to have none at all.”
We can imagine the roar of approval that those words brought from his audience. The lines carry the same pungency that had elevated the
and the observations of
’s Sam Weller, and the bite that kept
from collapsing under the weight of its convictions.
Warming to his theme, Dickens continued, “I should be glad to hear such people’s estimate of the comparative danger of ‘a little learning’ and a vast amount of ignorance; I should be glad to know which they consider the most prolific parent of misery and crime.” At this point he turned personal. “I should be glad to assist them in their calculations,” he said of those who found learning a luxury, foreshadowing one of the plot devices of a certain novel-to-come, “by carrying them into certain gaols and nightly refuges I know of, where my own heart dies within me, when I see thousands of immortal creatures condemned…by years of this most wicked axiom.”
He proclaimed his belief that with the pursuit and accumulation of knowledge, man had the capacity to change himself and his lot in life. With learning, said Dickens, a man “acquires for himself that property of soul which has in all times upheld struggling men of every degree.” The more a man learns, Dickens said, “the better, gentler, kinder man he must become. When he knows how much great minds have suffered for the truth in every age and time…he will become more tolerant of other men’s belief in all matters, and will incline more leniently to their sentiments when they chance to differ from his own.”
He closed with the assertion to his Athenaeum audience that “long after your institution, and others of the same nature, have crumbled into dust, the noble harvest of the seed sown in them will shine out brightly in the wisdom, the mercy, and the forbearance of another race.” It was a speech that would have taken no more than ten or twelve minutes to deliver in its entirety, and yet in it, Dickens conveyed the essence of his most passionate beliefs: championing education, decrying ignorance and those who sought to perpetuate it, and thereby affirming a belief in the possibility of an individual’s capability for self-determination that fuels debate among social theorists to this day.
Dickens had lifted himself up from penniless wretch to become the leading literary practitioner of his day; Andrew Carnegie would carry a version of the by-one’s-own-bootstraps gospel to America, remaking himself from bobbin boy into steel titan and richest man on earth—then building 3,000 free libraries so that others could presumably follow in his path. In this view, and with the application of his knowledge, reason, and innate decency, mankind had everything needed to make a just and happy world.
f it is true that Dickens never left Manchester without bearing pleasure away, he could not have conceived of the gift that this 1843 visit to what had been called “the chimney of the world” would provide him. Yet it was in the hours after his speech at the Athenaeum, as he walked alone through the city’s darkened streets with his mind churning, that the idea came upon him for a new work, one that would one day be called the best-known work of fiction in the language.
Dickens obviously had practical reasons for seeking inspiration: there was the matter of his debt to Chapman and Hall, and his marked decline in sales. But he also felt a deep desire to prove his critics wrong and an equal urgency to prove to himself as well as his public that he had not lost his touch.
There were more positive factors at work as well. He assured his audience at the close of his speech that night that he would long carry with him the pleasure of seeing the response that his remarks had brought—all those bright eyes and beaming faces looking up at him. And he also acknowledged that his audience was counting on him: he would not “easily forget this scene, the pleasing tasks your favour has devolved on me.”