Luddism in Nineteenth-Century Literature Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.