Chartism

By Thomas Carlyle

One of the most salient social problems of the Victorian period was the struggle
of the working class. In Chartism by Thomas Carlyle, the problem is outlined; in

William Dodd’s narrative, it is recounted from personal experience. Elizabeth

Gaskell’s North and South is a fictional account of the very real condition of

England. Clearly, questions of social and economic injustice were on the front
burner even as the social oppression transpired. Another very prominent feature
of Victorian England was religion, more specifically Christianity. William Dodd
and Bessy Higgins are individuals who have endured enormous suffering, who have
lost any sort of quality of life to the factories, and yet adhere perhaps even
more strongly to their faith. Thomas Carlyle, "with purse oftenest in the
flaccid state," bears closely in mind the fact that "[he has] the miraculous
breath of Life in [him], breathed into [his] nostrils by Almighty God"
(Carlyle, p. 37). Margaret Hale, who is of modest but comfortable means,
witnesses a multitude of sufferings during her time in Milton, but she maintains
her lofty notions of God and Christianity, even as her father, a man of the
church, questions the godliness of the church’s economic practices. How does
it come to pass that humans can endure and/or witness such suffering as was
endured by the working classes of 19th century England and maintain their
religious convictions all the same? It seems that the coexistence of the two
phenomena would, or should cause some cognitive dissidence for a pious person,
but here are four examples of people, two fictional (Bessy and Margaret), two
real (Carlyle and Dodd), who can apparently reconcile religion and suffering.

Perhaps Christianity was so ingrained in the culture and in these individuals
that faith was more of a reflex than a conscious decision. Dodd raises the
question, but dispels it without ever actually examining it. Near the very end
of his narrative he asks, "Is it consistent with the character of this
enlightened, Christian country...that we, worn-out, cast-off cripples of the
manufacturers, should be left to die of want at home? —Forbid it, Heaven."
(Dodd, pp. 318-319). His assertion of inconsistency is correct, but Heaven,
despite his appeal, had clearly not forbidden a thing. The God in whom he has
placed his faith has allowed for his suffering, and the church that he respects
and to which he submits himself has not acted on his behalf. Either England was
a Christian country in name only, or the Christian church cared little about the
welfare of individuals who hadn’t the means to make a donation; either way,
the issue of moral impropriety in the church itself is another issue. The fact
remains that any society that is content to send children to labor in factories
at an exceedingly young age, as Dodd was, lacks the moral grain that one would
suppose is integral to upholding religious fervor. Carlyle takes a fairly
businesslike and not religious approach to his condition of England manifesto,
but the overwhelming Christian sentiment of the era naturally finds its way into
his writings. He seems to be of the mind that God has given him enough simply by
giving him life, but as a non-Christian, non-religious reader of Chartism, the
very mention of Christianity and the overwhelming injustice of England’s
social structure at the time is an inherent paradox. There is something of a
synapse in reasoning where he contends that "...society ‘exists for the
preservation of property’" (Carlyle, p. 36), but maintains that the English
social structure is a Christian one. The fault lies not in Christianity per se;

Jewish people, for example, have struggled since the Holocaust to reconcile
their own faith with such an abhorrent occurrence that viciously seized the
lives of six million Jews and six million others. Still, the problem of
intellectual and emotional dissidence remains the same. Perhaps the most
perplexing of all of these characters is Bessy Higgins. She not only maintains
her ardently religious beliefs in the face of utter physical ruin caused by
factory working at too young an age and the loss of her mother, but actually
seems to draw upon her suffering to amplify her faith. Bessy is resigned to
death, even anticipates and welcomes death, which is not unheard of considering
how ill she is—save for the fact that she is only nineteen years old. It is
her faith, her utter devotion to the Bible and to her notions of God and Heaven
that make death seem a welcome reprieve from the suffering that she has endured,
albeit suffering at the hands of the same