Luddism in Nineteenth-Century Literature
Luddism in Nineteenth-Century Literature
Literature written in response to the 1811-12 Luddite revolt and resulting movement by workers against the English textile factories that displaced craftsmen in favor of machines.
In Nottinghamshire, England, in 1811, a series of “machine-breaking” disturbances began that would rock the English weaving industry and become a symbol of the protest against the new industrialization of the nineteenth century. The movement that followed, Luddism, attempted to secure decent compensation and working conditions for those displaced by the advent of new industrial machinery. The “Luddite riots,” as they were known, were carried out by workers in the textile industry, mostly weavers, who for centuries had enjoyed the status of fine independent craftsmen but who were now faced with losing their livelihood because of the new machines. They took their name from Ned Ludd (also called “King Ludd” and “General Ludd”), a probably mythical figure who reputedly lived in Sherwood Forest and in whose name virulent anti-industrialization proclamations were issued. While Luddism began as a nonviolent form of protest, with workers appearing in factories on behalf of Ludd and demanding reasonable compensation and acceptable work conditions, it soon turned violent. Factory owners who did not comply found their expensive machinery wrecked. Workers began to break into factories at night to destroy the new technology—stocking frames, cropping frames, power looms, and other machines—that were making their own skilled work obsolete. From Nottinghamshire, Luddism quickly spread to other areas of England where weaving was an important part of the economy and where the new technology was displacing craftsmen, including Yorkshire, Lancashire, Leicestershire, and Derbyshire. By February 1812, Luddite “armies” had smashed about a thousand machines. That month the government proposed that machine-breaking should become a capital offense, and Parliament passed the Frame Breaking Act that enabled people convicted of machine-breaking to be sentenced to death. The government also deployed troops into the areas where the Luddites were active. In April 1812, led by the cropper George Mellor, the Luddites attacked Rawfolds Mill and killed a manufacturer, which led to mass arrests and the execution of more than a dozen workers. The disturbances continued for another five years, with the crisis heightened by a rise in wheat prices and plummeting textile prices. The revolt ultimately failed and the movement was suppressed, but the discontent and plight of workers displaced by the newly industrialized economy continued to be a pressing social issue for Britain throughout the rest of the nineteenth century.
Although at the time relatively little was written about the revolt—either in the press or in literary works—the Luddites and their cause became well known, and this local movement by a small number of displaced textile workers remains a familiar episode in English history. However, the Luddites are often wrongly associated simply with a distrust of technology when in fact Luddism is better characterized as an early movement that recognized the dangers and social costs associated with human dependence on new technology. The nineteenth-century figures who wrote about the 1811-12 rebellion focused on this aspect of the workers' struggle. While not all were directly sympathetic with the Luddites, almost every writer who discussed the disturbances acknowledged that the celebrated economic progress associated with industrialization failed to take into account the dramatic changes that emerging technology had inflicted on the lives of workers. The two most famous authors who wrote about the rebellion were the poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, who delivered an impassioned speech in the House of Lords defending the actions of the Luddites, and Charlotte Brontë, whose novel Shirley (1849), set during the time of the disturbances, offers a complex view of the changes precipitated by the new technology. Although the Romantic poets William Wordsworth, Percy Shelley, John Keats, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge did not directly acknowledge the revolt in their writing, some of their poems have been interpreted as supporting the cause of the workers. Less familiar to most readers today are the broadside poems and ballads written by workers in response to the new factories, as well as the poems, songs, threatening letters, petitions, and proclamations written by the Luddites themselves. Most accounts of and discussions about Luddism have been written by historians who note the paucity of responses to the event by contemporary writers. Critics who have written about the literature associated with the Luddites have discussed the “hidden” Luddite sympathies in the works of Romantic and Victorian writers, examined Brontë's attitude toward the rebellion and the recording of history in Shirley, and discussed the rhetorical strategies and style of the Luddites in their writings. Scholars have also noted that the lessons taught by the Luddites and their literary sympathizers are especially relevant in the twenty-first century, as computers and their associated technology have fundamentally altered the role of contemporary workers just as machines changed the lives of nineteenth-century craftsmen.
Shirley (novel) 1849
Erehwon (novel) 1872
George Gordon, Lord Byron
“Byron to Lord Holland, 25 Feb. 1812” (letter) 1812
“Song for the Luddites” (poetry) 1816
Signs of the Times (nonfiction) 1829
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
“Cologne” (poetry) 1834
“To Charles Cowden Clark” (poetry) 1884
“To Leigh Hunt, Esq.” (poetry) 1884
The Rioters; or, a Tale of Bad Times [published anonymously] (novella) 1827
The Turn-out; or, Patience the Best Policy [published anonymously] (novella) 1829
Modern Painters (criticism) 1843
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Frankenstein (novel) 1818
“Queen Mab” (poetry) 1813
“Sonnet on the projected Kendal and Windermere Railway” (poetry) 1844
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SOURCE: Darvall, Frank Ongley. “The State of Public Opinion.” In Popular Disturbances and Public Order in Regency England: Being An Account of the Luddite and Other Disorders in England During the Years 1811-1817 and of the Attitude and Activity of the Authorities, pp. 319-44. London: Oxford University Press, 1934.
[In the following excerpt, Darvall considers why so little attention was given to the Luddite Rebellion and other similar worker uprisings, noting that while those of the middle and lower classes sympathized with the rebels, few upper-class people—Lord Byron being a notable exception—criticized the government's response to the revolt.]
The astonishing thing about all the early Regency disturbances was not that they should have provoked anxiety on the part of the authorities and terror on the part of some manufacturers and members of the public but that this anxiety and terror should have been so restrained.
When one leaves these general questions, as to the amount of attention given to, and the extent of the alarm occasioned by, these disturbances, and proceeds to discuss in detail the attitude of the different classes of society to the disorders and to the measures taken against them, the record is more complicated. The lower classes outside the disturbed districts do not seem to have been much interested in disturbances elsewhere. They probably knew little about...
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SOURCE: Thomis, Malcolm I. “Machine-Breakers and Luddites.” In The Luddites: Machine-Breaking in Regency England, pp. 11-40. Newton Abbot, Eng.: David & Charles, 1970.
[In the following excerpt, Thomis discusses the social and political context of the Luddite Rebellion and attempts to define exactly who the Luddites were and what they sought to achieve. He also examines inconsistencies in depictions of Luddism in writings from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.]
The Luddites present initially a problem of definition. It is useless to write or argue about them unless their identity is clear.
Employers were being threatened by letters signed ‘Ned Ludd’ in December 1811, and in that month the Nottingham Review carried reports of stocking-frame breakers or ‘Luddites as they are now called’. The name was first used, it seems, of men who broke stocking-frames in 1811, and shortly afterwards John Blackner, a historian of Nottingham, proffered an explanation of the term which has satisfied most historians since that day. Blackner suggested that ‘the framebreakers assumed this appellation from the circumstance of an ignorant youth, in Leicestershire, of the name of Ludlam, who, when ordered by his father, a framework-knitter, to square his needles, took a hammer and beat them into a heap’; when frame-breaking began in Nottingham in 1811 Ludlam was remembered and...
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SOURCE: Sale, Kirkpatrick. “With Hatchet, Pike, and Gun.” In Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution: Lessons for the Computer Age, pp. 7-24. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1995.
[In the following essay, Sale provides background on the Luddite revolt and other events in the workers' movement against machines. He then discusses nineteenth-century responses by British intellectuals and artists to the new industrialization and shows the relevance of Luddism to twenty-first-century life.]
It was about a half hour after midnight on an April Sunday in 1812 that the band of some six score Yorkshiremen finally made their way down the rutted lane that led to a place called Rawfolds Mill, a looming multistory building, protected by a gated wall, housing the hated woolen machines of the hated manufacturer William Cartwright. Ostensibly organized as a military brigade, though bedraggled somewhat now after their hour-long march on a dark and still winter-cold evening, they stood with kerchiefs and coal-blackened faces readying themselves for their attack: in the front several lines of men armed with rudimentary guns and pistols, behind them rows bearing hatchets and the great “Enoch” hammers that blacksmiths used, and to the rear numbers of men with the kind of assorted weapons—mauls, pikes, bludgeons, even stones—an English village would...
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SOURCE: Bailey, Brian. “Local Responses and Government Reactions.” In The Luddite Rebellion, pp. 33-52. Gloucestershire, Eng.: Sutton Publishing, 1998.
[In the following excerpt, Bailey describes the industrial unrest that took place in several regions in the early nineteenth century and examines the responses to the troubles by manufacturers, the government, newspapers, writers, and the workers themselves.]
Colonel Ralph Fletcher, a magistrate of Bolton, Lancashire, was among the first to voice his conviction that the Nottinghamshire machine-breakers had set a dangerous example to northern manufacturing districts where machinery was held at least partly responsible for the economic distress of workers.1 The literate among aggrieved Yorkshiremen were reading almost daily accounts of fresh Midland outrages in the pages of the Leeds Mercury and other newspapers, as well as reports that the hosiery masters were in some cases ready to give way to the knitters' demands. Between November 1811 and January 1812 inclusive, Midland hosiery workers smashed an average of around 175 frames per month. F. O. Darvall says that an average of two hundred frames per month were broken between November and February.2 This appears to be a slight exaggeration but, at any rate, the number of smashed frames represents about 2 per cent of all those estimated to have been in operation in the three...
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SOURCE: Fox, Nicols. “The Frame Breakers.” In Against the Machine: The Hidden Luddite Tradition in Literature, Art, and Individual Lives, pp. 24-40. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2002.
[In the following essay, Fox discusses the historical context of the Luddite revolt.]
The word Luddite is newly trendy. It finds its way into articles and essays at the elite edge of media consumption and is flung as a stylish insult at holdouts against this or that innovation or technology. It is usually meant as a lighthearted taunt of those who refuse or are unable to keep up with what is commonly referred to as progress. Applied to oneself, it is often a form of denial—as in, “I'm no Luddite,” or, more often, faintly apologetic, as in “I'm no Luddite, but …” (a phrase that goes just before the admission that some technology or innovation is disliked or has been spurned). Although people who use and hear the word have clearly come to understand its general meaning—it connotes a misguided and hopeless attempt to resist technological innovation—it's a fair bet that few know precisely where the term came from.
Those who swore allegiance to Ned Ludd (or King Ludd) earned themselves the name, although precisely who he was remains a mystery. But whatever its origins, between 1811 and 1816, in the five central manufacturing counties of England—a triangle that included parts of...
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Criticism: The Literary Response
SOURCE: Vicinus, Martha. “Street Ballads and Broadsides: The Foundations of a Class Culture.” In The Industrial Muse: A Study of Nineteenth-Century British Working-Class Literature, pp. 8-59. London: Croom Helm, 1968.
[In the following excerpt, Vicinus explores the response of weavers to the mechanization of their trade as described in popular working-class broadside literature, which the critic says protested against the factory system and insisted on the rights and personal dignity of the individual.]
Broadsides contain a wealth of commentary on industrialization. Many works praise various inventions and improvements, such as ‘Steam Boots’, about a ‘Hollander bold’ who wears steam boots to rocket about Europe. But far more common was anger and resistance to change. The intensification of work in the mines and cottages and the development of the factory system meant the death of an older, more varied life. With these changes songs became more critical of the present and nostalgic for the past. The deepest reactions to change came in those areas or occupations that were long established, with their own songs and lore. In contrast, the railways did not yield many songs until after the first two waves of building. (In the United States and Canada the industry was one of the richest in tales and songs; it was the American missionaries who first brought to England the familiar metaphor of the...
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SOURCE: Webb, Igor. “History and the Novel, and the Novel as History.” In From Custom to Capital: The English Novel and the Industrial Revolution, pp. 101-61. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981.
[In the following excerpt, Webb considers the historical accuracy of Charlotte Brontë's novel Shirley.]
The importance of the years 1812-13 to Charlotte Brontë is of course significantly different from their importance to Jane Austen. But to set Shirley next to Mansfield Park is first to appreciate the continuity of a special history, the history of women's feelings, and thus of repression and fulfillment, in the “middle ranks” of English society during the Industrial Revolution. Eugene Forçade said of Shirley that “as a picture of society, the novel could have been called Shirley, or the condition of women in the English middle class.”1 This, then, is the substantive continuity. Both authors view human possibilities by reference to the condition of middle-class women; and this defining place, from which both authors begin and out of which both develop their responses, generates the problem each attempts to grasp and solve: How, under what circumstances of character and society, can fulfillment be achieved? We can separate within this problem two related but distinct questions: What qualities are necessary in the individual for...
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SOURCE: Zlotnick, Susan. “The Fortunate Fall.” In Women, Writing, and the Industrial Revolution, pp. 62-122. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.
[In the following excerpt, Zlotnick examines how Charlotte Brontë's novel Shirley represents history, noting the author's ambivalent treatment of the Luddites. The critic asserts that the reaction to industrial capitalism by female writers was complex and very different from that of nineteenth-century male writers.]
Charlotte Brontë's second published novel, the much-anticipated successor to Jane Eyre, must have indeed seemed like a dish of “cold lentils and vinegar without oil” to readers expecting the Sturm und Drang of the first. Despite Brontë's significant achievement, Shirley is not a novel calculated to keep readers on the edge of their chairs, turning pages until the small hours of the morning. As Brontë acknowledges in a letter to William Smith Williams, “Those who were most charmed with ‘Jane Eyre’ are the least pleased with ‘Shirley’; they are disappointed at not finding the same excitement, interest, stimulus, while those who spoke disparagingly of ‘Jane Eyre’—like ‘Shirley’ a little better than her predecessor. I suppose its dryer matter suits their dryer minds. … Mere novel-readers, it is evident, think ‘Shirley’ something of a failure” (Wise and Symington 3: 35). While...
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SOURCE: Fox, Nicols. “Romantic Inclinations.” In Against the Machine: The Hidden Luddite Tradition in Literature, Art, and Individual Lives, pp. 41-73. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2002.
[In the following essay, Fox illustrates how the Romantic poets protested against industrialization while sympathizing with Luddites and other workers displaced by emerging technology.]
There is an intriguing gap in the life of poet, painter, mystic, and eccentric William Blake. No one is quite certain what he was doing between the years 1811 and 1817. No major works were published during that time, and mentions of him are rare. It is almost as if he had vanished. There was gossipy speculation that he had been committed to an asylum for madness, but there is no evidence for that either. Eventually he reappeared, but the absence remains an enduring puzzle.
To someone interested in the Luddite uprising, those particular dates leap from the page. The first frame-breaking forays began in 1811, and although the organized rebellion lasted no more than 18 months, effectively ending with the deaths of those fourteen men on the gallows at York Castle in 1813, sporadic attacks continued until 1816 when, to all appearances, the movement was moribund. To suppose that the overly anxious and high-strung Blake was involved in these very physical and risky undertakings; to imagine that he donned a cap and raised...
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Binfield, Kevin. “Industrial Gender: Manly Men and Cross-Dressers in the Luddite Movement.” In Mapping Male Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century England, edited by William Brewer, Elizabeth Dell, and Jay Losey, pp. 29-38. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2000.
Discusses the implications of the Luddites' wearing women's clothing during attacks on factories in Yorkshire and Lancashire.
———. Writings of the Luddites, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004, 304 p.
Provides an extensive collection of poems, proclamations, petitions, songs, and letters written by Luddites or Luddite sympathizers between 1811 and 1816. This volume includes an in-depth introduction to the texts, providing a historical overview for those unfamiliar with the particulars of the Luddites and their activities, explorations of their rhetorical strategies, and an examination of their literary context.
Dinwiddy, J. R. From Luddism to the First Reform Bill: Reform in England 1810-1832. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986, 88 p.
Examines the reform movements of 1810-32, including Luddism, in relation to the ideas and motives that inspired them.
Fox, Nicols. “The Mechanized Hand.” In Against the Machine: The Hidden Luddite Tradition in Literature, Art, and Individual...
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