Luddism in Nineteenth-Century Literature Essay - Critical Essays

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.

Representative Works

Charlotte Brontë
Shirley (novel) 1849

Samuel Butler
Erehwon (novel) 1872

George Gordon, Lord Byron
“Byron to Lord Holland, 25 Feb. 1812” (letter) 1812
“Song for the Luddites” (poetry) 1816

Thomas Carlyle
Signs of the Times (nonfiction) 1829

Samuel Taylor Coleridge
“Cologne” (poetry) 1834

John Keats
“To Charles Cowden Clark” (poetry) 1884
“To Leigh Hunt, Esq.” (poetry) 1884

Harriet Martineau
The Rioters; or, a Tale of Bad Times [published anonymously] (novella) 1827
The Turn-out; or, Patience the Best Policy [published anonymously] (novella) 1829

John Ruskin
Modern Painters (criticism) 1843

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Frankenstein (novel) 1818

Percy Shelley
“Queen Mab” (poetry) 1813

William Wordsworth
“Sonnet on the projected Kendal and Windermere Railway” (poetry) 1844

Criticism: Overviews

Frank Ongley Darvall (essay date 1934)

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.]


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Malcolm I. Thomis (essay date 1970)

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...

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Kirkpatrick Sale (essay date 1995)

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...

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Brian Bailey (essay date 1998)

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...

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Nicols Fox (essay date 2002)

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...

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Criticism: The Literary Response

Martha Vicinus (essay date 1968)

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...

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Igor Webb (essay date 1981)

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...

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Susan Zlotnick (essay date 1998)

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...

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Nicols Fox (essay date 2002)

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...

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Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 311 words.)