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Grandeur and Filth

The Victorian City: Images and Realities

edited by H.J. Dyos, edited by Michael Wolff
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 2 vols., 957 pp., $85.00

The Victorian Working Class: Selections from the Morning Chronicle Service (Portland, Oregon)

edited and introduced by P.E. Razzell, by R.W. Wainwright
Frank Cass (London), distributed by International Scholarly Book, 400 pp., $20.00

The Real Foundations: Literature and Social Change

by David Craig
Oxford University Press, 318 pp., $8.95

The Victorians by the Sea

edited by Howard Grey, edited by Graham Stuart
St. Martin’s Press, 132 pp., $12.50

Engels, Manchester, and the Working Class

by Steven Marcus
Random House, 271 pp., $8.95

Millions of us still live in Victorian cities; “the structures outlast the people who put them there,” as Messrs. Dyos and Wolff observe in the epilogue to their stunning book, “and impose constraints on those who have to adapt them later to their own use.” Their contributors offer some striking images of these constrains. Take, for example, Sybil Baker’s cool, minute, and frightful account of Victorian Belfast:

Belfast’s a famous northern town,
Ships and linen its occupation,
And the workers have a riot on
The slightest provocation—

the provocation being, usually, an attempt to repress their sectarian and ethnic “walks.” Just the situation of Bloody Sunday in Londonderry not so long ago; and on Miss Baker’s map there, embattled as now, are Shankhill and the Falls Road.

Other cities, if they have shorter memories and less religion, are still in large part nineteenth-century structures. London, though already in the previous century what Morris called “the horrible muckheap in which we dwell,” took on its modern randomness and enormity. Bagehot, in a famous passage twice quoted in this book, compared it to a newspaper: “everything is there, and everything is disconnected.” All possible worlds coexist in contiguous but discontinuous columns; life and death, wealth and poverty, instantaneously and pointlessly associated. The new city partook of no familiar order, had no apprehensible structure.

Mr. Craig quotes a song called “I can’t find Brummagem”—the trouble was not that Birmingham was small or elusive, but that it was everywhere and nowhere. Engels had to work to get some idea of where Manchester was; even now “the shortest way out of Manchester” is a euphemism for strong drink. And in London he memorably registered the brutal indifference of a city crowd, people not looking at one another, mankind dissolved into monads. That sense of ricocheting off thousands of meaningless urban objects, identified by Walter Benjamin in the experience of Baudelaire, is part of the consciousness of all modern city-dwellers.

L’immonde cité: nothing is better documented than the filth of Victorian cities, unless it is their grandeur. That filth and grandeur should coexist seemed to many the inevitable consequence of Political Economy., of laws as invariant as Newton’s. The grand municipal centers celebrated and exploited a system which necessarily packed the poor into slums; the roads and railways required for the conveyance of the middle classes away from such areas occasionally ripped right through them, tearing up the homes and graveyards of the poor, and for a moment offending the newly refined senses of the rich. Meanwhile the sewage of a vast population fell untreated into the rivers. In the summer of 1858 the House of Commons had to suspend its sittings because of the stench from the Thames.

The Victorians took much interest in all these developments; they loved statistics, and complied them tirelessly; and, as The Victorian City sumptuously shows, they also recorded the scene, in all its black majesty, with pencil and camera.1 They were further aware that cities don’t all develop in the same way; Birmingham, as Jane Jacobs says, was inefficient, felicitously so, having achieved industrialization by trial and error, and retained something of its old character—many small workshops, the old sporting traditions of cockfighting and bear-baiting. Manchester was infelicitously efficient—cotton, the first industry to develop mass-production techniques, simply took it over and monstrously specialized it; which is, in Jane Jacobs’s view, why Birmingham now thrives and Manchester does not.

Manchester achieved its city status only in 1853, though by then it was the second largest city in England. It was never to be one of the really vast aggregations—in 1890 it was seventeenth in the world, when New York was second and Chicago seventh. But its growth from a town of 24,000 in 1773 to a conurbation of 250,000 in 1850 was startling even in a period of rapid population growth; and the growth was all to one purpose. Now cotton has dwindled away, but urban structures outlast the people who put them there, and to live in modern Manchester is to suffer under the constraints of which Dyos and Wolff speak. There it lies, spilled shapelessly over its almost featureless plain; and around it are its satellites, the smaller mill towns, some of them on the edges of containing hills and moors. Of one of these, Oldham, the reporter sent by the Morning Chronicle in 1850 wrote:

The visitor to Oldham will find it essentially a mean-looking straggling town, built upon both sides and crowning the ridge of one of the outlying spurs which branch from the neighbouring “backbone of England.” The whole place has a shabby underdone look. The general appearance of the operatives’ houses is filthy and smouldering [mouldering?]…. Pieces of dismal waste ground—all covered with wreaths of mud and piles of blackened brick and rubbish—separate the mills….

Ninety-five years later I was discharged from the service, heaven knows why, in Oldham. I remember a warehouse, in which I was given the regular off-the-peg blue chalkstripe suit of the time, and turned out into what English soldiers call “civvy street.” For me this was a dismal downhill slope, the Victorian back-to-back houses in a perspective obscured by fog and smoke; on that bald street no blank December day had broken, it could not pierce the dirt. It seemed an allegory; I walked down into a future.

Years later, when I went to work in Manchester, I learned to hate most not the fog and the damp (good for cotton, and thus essential to the city’s style) but rather the days of sun, of raw light on a city built for the dark. Like my betters a century earlier I retreated to the Cheshire Fringe and drove to work down those streets which, as Engels noted, enable the rich to pass through, without seeing, the houses of the poor. They had moved steadily southward. At first I thought of living in Victoria Park, now virtually downtown, swamped by 1890; a private suburb of large houses with its own gate and porter, like Rolling Hills in Los Angeles; but now crazy, choked with smoke, with enormous holes in the roads. And so to the south. The prevailing wind blows the smoke northward, and Manchester has the highest rate of chronic bronchitis in the world; so you take your children to the Cheshire suburbs. These places have amazingly high per capita incomes and no pleasures except the television, the car, and the pubs it takes you to.

In its magnificent years Manchester built a great orchestra, a great library, a great university (though it nearly foundered in the first decade from underendowment), and a great newspaper, which has now moved to London and omits the name of the city from its title. Corporate civic wealth is no longer much in evidence; things have changed. But among the features of the city which don’t change much one must count the poor. The Irish have lost their place at the bottom of the heap since the West Indians arrived, but the poor still have their quarters, sometimes the old ones.

A few months ago the Observer (February 3, 1974) ran a piece by Polly Toynbee headed “If Engels could see it now,” about the district Lower Broughton, which Engels once described after he came from north Germany to live in Manchester in 1842. The houses he wrote about in his book on the Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 are still inhabited. The city, having in 1965 declared them unfit, purchased them in 1968, intending to destroy them, but meanwhile it exacted rent. They had no lavatories until three years ago, when a TV program got some action; before that the buckets were emptied into street drains. No hot water, of course, and no bathroom. The sewers still back up into the kitchens.

Meditating the text of Engels, Mr. Marcus reflects that in 1844 the Manchester workers were living in shit. It seems that some of them, in Lower Broughton, still are. When a TV program or a newspaper momentarily lifts the veil (though never as persistently as the Morning Chronicle did in the late 1840s) our suburban calm is ruffled exactly as, again and again, such revelations disturbed the Victorian middle class. We, no more than they, reflect that this wretchedness is directly related to our contentment. We prefer to say that in spite of everything things are much better. We see evidence for, and approve, slow but sure social change. But perhaps, in the early and more explosive years of the city, it was right and reasonable to expect change of quite another kind?

Manchester, it was always agreed, was the most dramatic instance, but to live in a city of some sort was now to be almost everybody’s fate or choice. By the end of the century three quarters of the population had moved in, and even at that date housing and sanitation lagged far behind. We read today of what happens when the strip miners move in on a small Wyoming community: the most obvious and disagreeable consequences are always sanitary. This was so to a quite unbelievable degree in the first industrial expansion; for, as George Rosen notes in his somber essay on “Disease, Debility and Death” in The Victorian City, civic water technology and bacteriology were late nineteenth-century inventions. The consequences of not having them were already well understood in the Forties, when death rates were rising fast; and the desire to do something about the situation was not altogether altruistic. If the poor lived in shit the rich caught their diseases; fevers bred in Tom All Alone’s in Southwark struck down the rich across the festering river.

The Victorians were quite early able to prove a direct correlation between bad housing and death rate (infant mortality in Manchester was over 50 percent, with the usual class spread). But doctors had trouble distinguishing between different sorts of fever and “malaria,” and it took time to sort them out: typhus and typhoid were not properly distinguished till 1870, and the role of the body louse in the former was a discovery of the present century, though sanitation improvements had more or less eliminated the disease before then. Many other communicable diseases were epidemic, including some that killed mostly children and some that were psychiatric in character and so never tabulated by the statisticians.

The Victorian City adds to Rosen’s meticulous account of these matters Anthony S. Wohl’s study of the role of the Medical Officer of Health, employed by the middle classes to control a dangerous situation yet constantly hampered by their unwillingness to spend much money in the process. These men continued to assert what was already known: overcrowding means a high death rate. They added that families living and sleeping in one room are likely to fall short of the highest moral standards, and many are the euphemisms for incest, which was still perfectly commonplace when Beatrice Webb was doing her fieldwork. If this news did not stimulate the burghers to action, it may at least have given them a thrill; their covert envy of the unconfined sexuality of the poor is often noted. In one of the oddest and most entertaining chapters Richard L. Schoenwald studies psychoanalytically the motives of the great sanitary reformer Chadwick, and the resistance of the populace to such instruments of civilized discontent as the water closet, which, three centuries after Harington invented it, was still by no means in general use.

The danger here may be that one can make very sophisticated the old naïve assumption that the poor are somehow responsible for their own ills—sexual abandon and a friendly attitude to shit are their “natural habits”—an expression used by the Morning Chronicle of the Irish. Of course the slums, as Dyos and Reeder explain in a penetrating essay, were essential to capitalist enterprise as reservoirs of casual labor, and as economic counterweight to the suburbs. However reckless, the poor did not actively desire hunger, hard labor, and early death.

It is not, of course, in doubt that they were systematically and minutely exploited. Reading the novelists, or the reports of Mayhew and his fellow investigators, one has some difficulty in resisting the conviction that the class responsible for these exploitations was guilty of monstrous and deliberate cruelty. Bullied and cheated by the masters (the pettier the more brutal), the poor had to contend not only with the rape of their labor but with short weight, adulterated food; one reads of a trade in used tea leaves. Even their pleasures were reduced or adulterated: urban parks replaced the old open spaces, severe fines eliminated talking and singing from the factories.

The documentation of poverty and its indignities reached a new level of public exposure in the famous series of articles run by the Morning Chronicle in 1849-1850, and collected in The Victorian Working Class. Coming at the end of a decade of investigations, the series followed a fashion set by Dickens in the Daily News. “We have allowed them,” said an editorial on the poor, “to quench their thirst and cook their food with water poisoned with their own excrement.” Readers were shocked; they showed a capacity for reacting to such news as if hearing it for the first time. Similar revelations proved shocking in the reign of Edward VII and even in 1938, when the first evacuation of children from the cities revealed, as forcibly as a railway or motor road, the conditions of life among the poor. The horror soon wears off.

Mayhew was the Chronicle‘s ace reporter. Parts of his work he incorporated in London Labour and the London Poor, others were published three years ago with long and authoritative introductions by E.P. Thompson and Eileen Yeo.2 Selections from the other reporters are now available in The Victorian Working Class. They deal with rural labor and with the industrial workers, the “hands,” in the new cities. The reporters lacked Mayhew’s gifts and also his opportunities—the weird trades and the fantastic topography of London, “the attraction of repulsion,” as Dickens called it. The provincial scene lacks color and variety; and the reporters are more committed than Mayhew to the “system” as an aspect of natural law.

The Chronicle led, as might be expected, with Manchester. Work there begins at six, the “hands” summoned by bells or, later, sirens—still used (and accepted: half- and full-time are called by sirens in the northern game of Rugby League, familiar from David Storey’s novel This Sporting Life). The engine starts, and the workers are in their places by six; to be late is to be exorbitantly fined. (The fines were among the workers’ deepest resentments.) At 8:30 master and man broke for breakfast; at one o’clock for dinner. Work (after the Ten Hour Act) then continued from two to five.

The Chronicle represents everybody as reasonably happy with this arrangement, and as well fed and clothed. There were snags, of course: “Unhappily the bulk of Manchester arose during a period in which…master and man more commonly regarded each other as mutual enemies rather than as mutual dependants….” A vast new population had to be housed, and they fell into the hands of jerry-building speculators, heedless of amenity or sanitation. The “constant flux and reflux of poor renders the city hardly a fair test of the social condition created by the factory system.”

Perhaps it did take an Engels to see through such cant, as it took a Dickens to demonstrate that the schools admired by the Chronicle‘s reporter were merely extensions or agents of the factory system. The reporter does notice that the children of the workers are habitually drugged; day-nurses kept them quiet with opium, which often killed them. For opium, not religion, was the opium of the people. It could be regarded as further evidence of their fecklessness.

It must have been a fear of fecklessness, of “natural habits,” that prompted the almost senseless severity of the masters; for it goes much beyond what they could have thought necessary to the maintenance of profit. David Craig, in a fine essay on “Songs of the Bleak Age,” argues that the suppression of the old practice of singing at the loom contributed to the formation of a new working-class culture, organized, adversary, and eventually powerful; by 1919 the songs had disappeared and labor was formidably organized.3

But in the early days there was a powerful sense, recorded by Mrs. Gaskell and the dialect poets described in The Victorian City by Martha Vicinus, of a lost happiness, of better times. The new city was toughest on those who remembered something else, who had experienced Gemeinschaft and had now to accustom themselves to Gesellschaft—a distinction borrowed by J. A. Banks, in another excellent essay in the Dyos-Wolff book, from Ferdinand Tönnies. People had to be kept down; at work the repetitive work-cycle accomplished this, and the pattern was extended as far outside the factory as possible. Which may explain what was often remarked: the peacefulness and reasonableness of the workers, their extraordinary deference. Of course when they did protest in any positive way they were violently repressed.

An instance of extracurricular control is the temperance movement. Pubs, it is true, were often wicked places; there was, especially in dockside pubs, an evil custom of allowing the publican to pay out wages, and since he had a hand in rehiring he saw that most of the money was handed back to him at once. But the pub was also, for all practical purposes, the only community center of the poor. Brian Harrison, in The Victorian City, gives a detailed account of its development, especially in London. There were forty-six pubs in three-quarters of a mile of the Strand; and although landlords like the Duke of Bedford in Bloomsbury improved their estates by cutting down on pubs, they elsewhere grew ever more brilliant with gas and glass, and more diversified: there were pubs for medical students, prostitutes, actors, lawyers, foreigners, and so on.

These developments occurred in the teeth of the temperance movement, which got going just at the moment of major industrial change, around 1830. Its methods were pretty ruthless: the Band of Hope persuaded children to take the Pledge (I, in my laggard province, was perhaps one of the last children to swear this oath, which I break every day of my life). Temperance was powerfully associated with respectability, always in some measure desired by the upper working class. It mimicked its enemy, the pub, for the temperance society was valuable as a source of companionship, and of advice to newcomers; there were entertainments and soft drinks.

Yet in the Manchester of 1896 there was a pub for every 168 persons (though judging by some of the survivors they were as gloomy as temperance societies, and the ban on singing persists). Temperance prevailed no more absolutely than did the hysterical evangelical crusades launched even by the Catholics (“Get him under the drip of the Precious Blood”). “Enthusiastic” tendencies were always present among workers, and especially those connected with the weaving trade, but they held out pretty well against middle-class evangelism. Nor, for that matter, did proletarian enthusiasm play much part in the early efforts to organize labor. Chartism was peaceful and reasonable, which, as Engels observed, was why it must fail. There was not even anger, or at any rate useful anger.

What, then, did happen to induce militancy, to encourage the construction of a new culture for the world of Gesellschaft? Was it the Hungry Forties? It is now commonly argued that the Forties weren’t particularly hungry, and that writers such as Mayhew distorted the truth. Gertrude Himmelfarb’s formidable essay in The Victorian City claims that the section of the population Mayhew studied was much smaller than he pretended, that he treated “a relatively small, highly distinctive group of moral and social ‘aliens’ ” as representative of all the poor, so imposing upon them the image of the pauper. The Forties, it is argued, were anxious rather than hungry; and Mayhew was feeding this anxiety.

Here is an impressive modern version of the contemporary complaint against Mayhew in such papers as The Economist, which called his book “an encouragement to communism.” The opposite view is Eileen Yeo’s that Mayhew made “the first empirical enquiry into poverty as such”; that he defined a poverty line; that he grasped the connection between the plight of the poor and “the perils of the nation,” the slumps caused by overproduction and underconsumption—“too many shirts and too many shirtless”; and that he saw the iniquity of an arrangement by which “the proportion of the wealth which is to come to the laborer is to be regulated by no other principle than what the capitalist can induce or force him (by starvation or chicanery) to accept.”

In this debate some scholars remain agnostic. It may be that when standards are in general rising poverty becomes more conspicuous; so that not poverty but the observer’s consciousness of it grows more acute. What, then, of Engels? Was his shocked reaction to the Manchester poor merely another reflex of this middle-class consciousness or conscience? The answer may be that he had a deeper view of poverty, understanding it as a condition of not only material but also of psychic privation. This he could have partly learned from Carlyle, though not from the statisticians. But it was from his own philosophical education that he acquired the means to think of the condition of the working class in Manchester as of world-historical moment, dialectically an inevitable prelude to revolution.

Engels’s Manchester book doesn’t always enjoy a good press. His translators and editors, W. O. Henderson and W. H. Chaloner, call him “no historian”—he peddled an unexamined myth of pre-industrial happiness, and by asserting that conditions had worsened in the Forties helped to establish another myth. As a prophet he was no better, jauntily asserting that the next slump must bring the revolution, whereas England got through that slump in 1847, and through the year of revolutions that followed. And “the British working-class movement has developed on quite different lines from those Engels confidently predicted.” He was wrong about the widening gap between rich and poor; wrong about the inability of the system to continue when child-labor was banned; wrong about so much that the wonder is why people bother about a work so low on scholarship, so prone to unacknowledged use of secondary material, so garbled. The reason may be that The Condition is a brilliant political tract (“I charge the English middle-classes with mass-murder”) and that this alone enabled it to be more than ephemeral; which is the view of Henderson and Chaloner.

Lenin took a different view: “many descriptions of the dreadful conditions under which the workers lived had appeared before Engels came on the scene…. But Engels was the first to show that the workers were something more than a social class in distress. He explained that the degraded economic condition of the proletariat was in itself the stimulus which would enable this class to make progress in the future.” If you hold this view you must believe that the condition of the working class had worsened, or that a new consciousness of that condition—enriched by the concept of Verdinglichung, or reification—had the same effect. Statistics might feed but could not found such a consciousness, which in one form might stem from the imagination of Dickens, in another from the Hegelian conceptual array of Engels.

Mr. Marcus is interested in the Hegelian version. He does not trouble to confute those who suggest that Engels exaggerated the whole thing, though he seems to have a grudge against Henderson and Chaloner rather deeper than a distrust of their translation will explain. This is perhaps unfortunate, since it might tempt some readers to reject his study before it is fairly under way. But he is avowedly a literary critic rather than a historian; and if he declines one contest he energetically accepts another, the struggle to rescue his discipline from what he sees as mere fashionableness and academicism—to upgrade the critic from man of letters to “critical intellectual.” The heart of his book is in its close readings of Engels’s and other relevant texts.4

Marcus provides a historical sketch of Manchester, then a brief account of the life of Engels as a young man, as preludes to a report on the confrontation of the two. The city he claims as the paradigm, the archetype, the site of the “world-historical experience,” neatly recounting the peculiar history which prepared it for this fate. For Marcus, unlike some Victorian and some modern optimists, there is no possibility that the condition of the populace was a merely transitory or accidental misery. “Something new had happened. In part that newness consisted in the actual conditions that were being created and disclosed; in part it had to do with human consciousness struggling to make, and often to resist, the radical alterations and accommodations within itself that these conditions required…. What had entered the world was the distinctive modern conscious experience of the extreme.” And he proceeds to examine, in his capacity as critic, the language of some who consciously responded to this “grand historical crisis.”

Here he is of necessity very selective, preferring to say little of Mrs. Gaskell, who for all her faults knew Manchester from within—you get a scanty and false notion of North and South from his one quotation, and of Mary Barton none at all; and curiously enough Mrs. Gaskell is omitted from the index. Kathleen Tillotson’s essential Novels of the Forties escapes mention anywhere.

On his own showing, the value of Marcus’s book depends on the success of its deep scrutiny of texts. He scores some hits and some misses. He makes a good deal of Dickens saying of his first visit to cotton mills that the worst differed little from the best: “Ex uno disce omnes.” Dickens’s use of Latin at this point is supposed to be his way of emphasizing the strangeness of his experience, and the psychic space he needed to put between it and himself. But although it may be true that Dickens was not much given to Latin, this tag is simply part of the period lexicon, to be used when you wanted to say, like a former vice president, “When you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all”; and even a writer not much given to classical tags would reach for it. This is making too much of a casual epistolary expression.

A more serious distortion occurs, I think, in the treatment of Carlyle’s first reaction to Manchester:

At five in the morning all was still as sleep and darkness. At half-past five all went off like an enormous mill-race or ocean-tide. The Boom-m-m, far and wide. It was the mills that were all starting then, and creishy [greasy] drudges by the million taking post there.

Marcus rightly observes that the water imagery suggests a “radical transformation” of nature, but by misinterpreting the expression “taking post” he diminishes his own point. It does not mean “taking up their posts”—this puts the workers inside the mills, and locates the metamorphosis there. What they are doing is rushing through the streets to the mills, themselves tide and mill-race; so the city becomes an extension of the factory. The whole environment exhibits life and power subordinated to the clock and the machine. You can still see it happen, in a modified way, in towns dominated by large factories.

However, Marcus makes keener observations than these. Disraeli thought Manchester “the type of a great idea,” just as surely as Athens. But when his Coningsby went there he noted the machines that had replaced men, and described them as “mysterious forms full of existence without life”—a phrase “packed with intelligence,” as Marcus rightly remarks. However, Disraeli then undermines it, and falls into silliness; he lacked the intellectual resources of Engels.

Marcus isn’t infatuated with Engels; he remarks a certain overconfidence, even a proneness to misunderstanding, as when Engels supposed the Plug Plot riots of 1842 had political significance. He was not altogether free of class feeling, witness his constrained reaction to the death of his working-class mistress. But he had the right training, and he had the intelligence and the energy. From the Wuppertal of his youth he knew the connection between puritanical money-making and civic gloom. Finding in Manchester a high rate of unemployment and inadequate responses to it—Chartism, like Owenism, left him unimpressed, the one legal, the other mystical—he set out, with Mary Burns as guide, to get to know the workers and to “read” the unknowable city.

He already understood that want could not be satisfied out of mere charitable vanity, an eighteenth-century notion inappropriate to this terrible modernity. It can be said that he brought a philistine energy to the task of understanding what he saw as a revolutionary situation. But he could also see and feel. London horribly dissolved mankind into monads; but Manchester was still more important, the center of class exploitation, where a gentleman might live without ever seeing a working-class quarter; where the streets were façades to cover the evil; where, if you looked, you could see people living in shit.

…generations of human beings, out of whose lives the wealth of England was produced, were compelled to live in wealth’s symbolic, negative counterpart. And that substance which suffused their lives was also a virtual objectification of their social condition, their place in society: that was what they were. We must recall that this was no Freudian obsessive neurosis or anxiety dream; but it is as if the contents of such a neurosis had been produced on a wholesale scale in the real world. We can, then, understand rather better how those main street palisades were functioning—they were defensive-adaptive measures of confinement and control. And we can understand what they were concealing: plenty.

This passage shows Marcus at his best—perceptive and indignant—yet with a failure at the end, for plenty is an unhappily ambiguous colloquialism. (What was concealed was precisely its opposite.) But it conveys the depth of Engels’s feeling about that proletarian indignity and misery which he thought to be the essential prerequisite of the workers’ resurrection from the spiritual death of agrarian paternalism, the pre-condition of their move toward authenticity. Once understood as “the universally negated,” they could be seen in dialectical terms. The loss of their Lebenstellung, their place in life; of their pleasures; even of their children, half of whom died before they reached the age of five, while the survivors faced the same life of psychological and economic privation—these would stir up the necessary anger against the righteous masters. Even crime became, for Engels, romantic rebellion. And out of conscious anger would come the revolution that would end the demoralization not only of the workers but of the masters too, of the class that oppressed as well as of their victims; revolution would prove, as cholera did before it, that all men were members of one body.

This conducted tour of The Condition of the Working Class in England certainly leaves one with the feeling that Engels understood an alien scene differently and more deeply than most native observers; and that the way was here prepared for the first volume of Capital, a generation later. Meanwhile the English critique continued in its less systematic way, and produced the masterpieces of Dickens as well as the slow process of reform and the growth of an indigenous labor movement Engels had little time for.

No doubt Engels’s insight was more precise than Carlyle’s, more practical than Dickens’s. But The Victorian City demonstrates that the situation was more complicated than he supposed; and also, perhaps, that the life of the “negated” class was richer than he allowed. Human diversity, and even gaiety, were harder to crush than he thought. One thinks of the mining communities, whose culture is so private that politicians can never understand it—even D. H. Lawrence, who came out of one, grew ambiguous about it as he moved up the ladder, for his miners are sometimes dancers, sometimes demons; there is a taint of the middle-class envy and fear. So, too, with life in the mill towns. Oldham is not a prospect of misery to its inhabitants; it is, and has been, the ground of a life they would not change. The Victorian culture was one of very great diversity defying monolithic explanation; and the one thing everybody is right about is that we must find in it the origins of our own complexities.

  1. 1

    The magnificent editing of the volumes is reflected as much in the 434 illustrations—brilliantly chosen and often beautiful in themselves—as in the organization of the thirty-eight essays. G. H. Martin and David Francis contribute an authoritative chapter on the Victorian camera. The daguerrotype of the Forties, with an exposure so long that sitters had to wear iron clamps, was a superior replacement for the portrait (in the US it was greeted, by both Morse and Hawthorne, as super-annuating the fallible artist, and that included Rembrandt) but it could not be replicated, and Fox Talbot’s photographic negative replaced it.

    It was, as the authors say, the image of the mass-production techniques of the society it would serve. The wet-plate arrived in the Fifties, cutting exposure time to ten seconds. Photography as art could still hold its own against photography as a means of record, but the Seventies saw celluloid roll film and lightproof cameras. The last step was the development of the two-tone block for newspaper printing. The Victorians by the Sea documents the democratization of the beaches, and in so doing uses some exquisite photographs by F.M. Sutcliffe, perhaps the greatest of the photographers, and some interesting “candid” shots taken on the seashore by Paul Martin, with a camera hidden in a bag.

  2. 2

    The Unknown Mayhew, edited by E. Yeo and E. P. Thompson (Random House, 1971).

  3. 3

    Craig has also a particularly good essay on Hard Times, and others on topics remote from the theme of this review. I’m often in deep disagreement, but his book is one of the most serious collections of literary criticism to appear in recent years.

  4. 4

    As Marcus notices, that Engels’s text is in German doesn’t make his task any easier; but he gets around this difficulty rather well. There is evidently need for an accurate translation; a pity Marcus didn’t do one. (Sound translation and authoritative editing are much harder to come by, nowadays, than competent literary criticism, and it is unfortunate that they excite less interest.) Mrs. Wischnewetzky’s version of 1877 had the advantage of Engels’s editing, but he cut down on his old “semi-Hegelian language” and could not cure the lady’s graceless English. “Mrs. Wischnewetzky, he pertinently snorted, ‘translates like a factory’ “—so Marcus, reporting Engels. He does a fair amount of pertinent snorting himself; a tendency to awkwardness in his own style seems to assert itself most frequently when he is rather obscurely blowing on other writers—as when he assaults Erving Goffman, in a gratuitous footnote, for falling into “the fallacy of misplaced abstractness,” having just himself committed this sentence: “What in Engels and Mill is a rich blending of historically concrete instances that tend to reveal an emerging universal, has here been leached out into ahistorical generalities and empty inclusiveness.”

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