Paul O’Flinn


Them and Us in Literature


8. Hands, Knees and a Book by Dickens

Remember You’re a Womble!

The fact that you’re reading this means that you’re human and that in turn means that you’ve got a brain, eyes, hands, legs, sexual organs and so on. They make up the full you. It’s subversive to realise how often society has tried to deny or twist or split up that fullness in its own interests. Under capitalism, for example, complex human beings developing all their capacities don’t fit in at all well. The system’s not designed for them or their comfort, any more than a factory bench or a typist’s stool is designed for the comfort of the worker sitting on it. To fit in happily you shouldn’t be a man or a woman but some sort of Womble – tame, hard working and only half human.

Literature has often recorded attempts by employers to produce a race of uncomplaining Wombles. In 1854, for instance. Dickens called Manchester Coketown and described it and its people this way in Chapter 10 of his novel Hard Times:

In the hardest working part of Coketown; in the innermost fortifications of that ugly citadel, where Nature was as strongly bricked out as killing airs and gases were bricked in; at the heart of the labyrinth of narrow courts upon courts, and close streets upon streets, which had come into existence piecemeal, every piece in a violent hurry for some one man’s purpose, and the whole an unnatural family, shouldering, and trampling, and pressing one another to death; in the last close nook of this great exhausted receiver, where the chimneys, for want of air to make a draught, were built in an immense variety of stunted and crooked shapes, as though every house put out a sign of the kind of people who might be expected to be born in it; among the multitude of Coketown, generically called “the Hands”, – a race who would have found more favour with some people, if Providence had seen fit to make them only hands, or, like the lower creatures of the seashore, only hands and stomachs – lived a certain Stephen Blackpool, forty years of age.

Stephen looked older, but he had had a hard life. It is said that every life has its roses and thorns; there seemed, however, to have been a misadventure or mistake in Stephen’s case, whereby somebody else had become possessed of his roses, and he had become possessed of the same somebody else’s thorns in addition to his own. He had known, to use his own words, a peck of trouble. He was usually called Old Stephen, in a kind of rough homage to the fact.

A rather stooping man, with a knitted brow, a pondering expression of face, and a hard-looking head sufficiently capacious, on which his iron-grey hair lay long and thin, Old Stephen might have passed for a particularly intelligent man in his condition. Yet he was not. He took no place among those remarkable “Hands”, who, piecing together their broken intervals of leisure through many years, had mastered difficult sciences, and acquired a knowledge of most unlikely things. He held no station among the Hands who could make speeches and carry on debates. Thousands of his compeers could talk mach better than he, at any time. He was a good power-loom weaver, and a man of perfect integrity.

What bosses – or “some people” as Dickens calls them in that first paragraph – need are Stephen’s hands, the hands that work the power-loom and make a profit for the man who owns it. “Hand”, of course, was and still remains in many places the common term for a factory worker. It’s how he’s defined. His eyes don’t matter – what use are they anyway when all that surrounds him is the ugliness of Coketown that Dickens lays out here. Better that he shouldn’t see these things – really see them for what they are. His mind doesn’t matter either – it might give him ideas above his station and anyway you couldn’t make money out of it in those days.

Stephen wanders through Hard Times in a puzzled haze, aware that something is wrong but unable to focus it, unable to find words for it so that he can begin to attack it. His catchphrase is “’Tis a muddle” – a muddle whose roots are hidden from him so that he refuses to join the union. In the end he drops absurdly to his death down a disused pitshaft. He’s one of the very. first industrial workers to appear at the centre of an English novel and, significantly, one of the first anti-heroes – a brief, shabby; confused life and a violent, accidental death, a man robbed of his birthright but unable to name the thief.

If it suited employers to hire hands only rather than eyes and minds as well, then clearly education could be a threat to them – for it might develop the eyes to see and the minds to understand what struck Stephen Blackpool as an incomprehensible muddle. The employers arid their representatives realised that. A magistrate noted in 1807: “It is doubtless desirable that the poor should bc instructed in reading, if it were only for the best of purposes – that they may read the Scriptures. As to writing and arithmetic, it may be apprehended that such a circle of knowledge would produce in them a disrelish for the laborious occupations of life.”

Ii was attitudes like this that made reformers determined to equip the hands – the Wombles required by the bosses – with eyes and minds. The campaign for mass education succeeded in bringing schooling to everyone by the end of the nineteenth century. This was a tremendous advance, but it failed to bring real insight and anderstanding along with it. Part of the reason why can be glimpsed in Richard Altick’s The English Common Reader: a Social History of the Mass Reading Public, 1800-1900. Looking back from 1957 on the growth of literacy, he concludes:

The long hours and the monotony of work in factory and shop, the dismal surroundings in which people were condemned to spend such leisure as they had, the regimentation of industrial society with its consequent crushing of individuality, made it imperative that the English millions should have some way of escape and relaxation, some new and plentiful means of engaging their minds and imaginations. Books and periodicals were the obvious answer.

If we pull one word out of that liberal piety, it all falls down. “Imperative.” Why imperative? Imperative for whom? ... Precisely! Altick goes on:

Though in the first half of the century there was deep (and not wholly idle) apprehension that making the “lower ranks” of society literate would breed all sons of disorder and debauchery, in the long run the proliferation of reading matter proved to have been the oil that was needed to quiet the troubled waters ... The comparative tranquillity of Victorian society after the mid-century was due in no small part to the growth of the popular press.

One of the editors of that popular press, James Payn of Chambers Journal, put this argument in a nutshell in the 1860s: “Books are the blessed chloroform of the mind.” Educate the hand’s mind if that’s what he wants, but let’s make sure that mind stays asleep.

With the growth of mass literacy came the growth of mass pulp to absorb and deflect that literacy. The Religious Tract Society claimed that it set up the Boys Own Paper in 1879 “to illustrate by practical example the noblest type of manhood and truest Christian devotion.” It was soon selling a quartet of a million copies a week. Tit-Bits and the Daily Mail followed; heavily supported by advertisers, they were both selling over half a million copies per issue by the end of the century. What Orwell later called the dictatorship of the chocolate manufacturers had arrived.

By that time also sections of the working class had won the right to vote and so The survival of the system became dependent on their support. It therefore became essential to train workers to accept the values of that system and all it stands for. Education became not, liberation but drilling in servility, as two of the most acute late Victorian authors pointed out. In his novel The Way of All Flesh, Samuel Butler observes gloomily of one of his characters that by far the greater part of his education had been an attempt, not so much to keep him in blinkers as to gouge his eyes out altogether. In Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest, Lady Bracknell remarks; “Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square.” Readers may remember that in 1968 there were signs that education in England was beginning to produce an effect and there were indeed acts of violence in Grosvenor Square. Since then it’s noticeable that the upper classes have decided that lots of shiny new universities are certainly not a help in solving the problems of British capitalism, though it’s a solution that a lot of their hopes were pinned on in the early sixties.

What Dickens, then, had sensed through the figure of Stephen Blackpool was the way that capitalism didn’t need people, it only needed hands. People are awkward. In large numbers they tend to form mobs and make policemen work overtime. But hands are harmless. They have no voices and if properly trained can make a lot of money for the man who hires them. Stephen Blackpool embodies a whole analysis of nineteenth century capitalist society, of the way that society rose on sweated manual labour and how it thought of us basis as “the hands”.

In the twentieth century The process of automation has replaced many of the hands. The focus of exploitation has shifted but exploitation itself remains, and so too do the partial human beings to service and staff it. Capitalist society now tries to preserve itself with a precariously interlocking and frantically stimulated system of greeds and so ii encourages people to think of themselves primarily as consumers living in a consumer society.

Consumers. It’s worth thinking about the term because it’s what we’re asked to call ourselves. No longer just hands but instead a sort of huge corporate mouth into which pours a spectacular stream of glossy crap. We’re invited to join a Consumers’ Association. There have been Ministers for Consumer Affairs. “But what about the consumer?”, demands the trendy BBC interviewer of some harassed trade unionist who’s gone on strike and interrupted the flow of glossy crap.

It’s imperative – imperative for them – that we should think of ourselves simply as consumers. If you think of yourself simply as a consumer, simply as a mouth, in that one-dimensional way, then of course you oppose strikes. Strikes interrupt the flow of consumer goods. Strikes are bad for consumers Strikes should be outlawed. But if you think of yourself as more than a consumer, if you think of yourself in multi-dimensional terms – as a worker, a father, a mother, a human bring and so on – then you might identify with that harassed glossy crap-packer on the box, you might see his problems as your problems too. You might support his strike.

Hands in the nineteenth century, consumers in the twentieth. What will we be next? Knees? Left armpits? Nostrils? Who knows? Nobody yet, though there’s probably an adman somewhere with a shrewd idea. It’s clear that the system doesn’t like the full you but is happy to use and plug away at any temporarily profitable part. The full you could be a complex nuisance but the partial you is pretty easy to handle. Dickens suggests as much in a scene in Chapter 11 of Hard Times. Stephen Blackpool the power-loom weaver meets Mr Bounderby, his boss:

“Now, you know,” said Mr Bounderby, taking some sherry, “we have never had any difficulty with you, and you have never been one of the unreasonable ones. You don’t expect to be set upp in a coach and six, and to be fed on turtle soup and venison, with a gold spoon, as a good many of ’em do!” Mr Bounderby always represented this to be the sole, immediate, and direct object of any Hand who was not entirely satisfied; “and therefore 1 know already that you have not come here to make a complaint. Now, you know, I am certain of that, beforehand.”

“No, sir, sure I ha’ not coom for nowt o’ th’ kind.”

Mr Bounderby seemed agreeably surprised, notwithstanding his previous strong conviction. “Very well,” be returned. “You’re a steady Hand, and I was not mistaken.”

And so Stephen, isolated and bewildered, not a full human being but just a steady hand, wanders off and drops down a hole. Isolated, bewildered hands often did. Isolated bewildered consumers often will. But what happens when the Wombles come back out of their holes and stop living off scraps of rubbish? If they could see themselves as full human beings they might want the whole bloody Common.


Last updated on 13.8.2001