Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

"Fairy Palaces" and "Wonderful Toys": Machine Dreams in Household Words

Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

"Fairy Palaces" and "Wonderful Toys": Machine Dreams in Household Words

Article excerpt

Technological production, at the beginning, was in the grip of dreams. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, 152.

In the second serial installment of Hard Times, published as the leader in Household Words on 8 April 1854, Dickens "strike[s] the keynote" with his memorable description of Coketown:

   It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if
   the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but, as matters stood it was a
   town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage.
   It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which
   interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and
   ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it, and a
   river that ran purple with an ill-smelling dye, and vast piles of
   building full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling
   all day long, and where the piston of the steam-engine worked
   monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state
   of melancholy madness. It contained several large streets all very
   like one another, and many small streets still more like one
   another, inhabited by people equally like one another, who all went
   in and out at the same hours, with the same sound upon the same
   pavements, to do the same work, and to whom every day was the same
   as yesterday and to-morrow, and every year the counterpart of the
   last and the next. (167-8)

The passage has become a locus classicus amongst nineteenth-century accounts of the blighting effects of the factory system. Coketown's dismal aspect is imaginatively evoked through its unexpected likeness to the spectacular shows of London: "savages," snakes, elephants and other exotic creatures could all be seen on exhibition in the metropolis at mid-century. (1) While their similarity to an oriental menagerie appears to endow the factories and their incessant engines with animal life, the factory workers themselves resemble automata, manifesting the repetitive, uniform movements of the machinery they operate. The irony in Dickens's fanciful description of such a monument to "fact" is reinforced in the tenth chapter, where the narrator remarks the lights in the "great factories" looking "when they were illuminated, like Fairy palaces--or the travellers by express-train said so" (240). The visual magic of this light-show, conjured by the perspective from the express-train window, is starkly juxtaposed with the unsettling somatic effects felt by Stephen Blackpool after work, "standing in the street, with the odd sensation upon him which the stoppage of the machinery always produced--the sensation of its having worked and stopped in his own head" (240). While Dickens's description of Coketown blends industrialism and spectacle in the instructive and entertaining manner of the mid-Victorian exhibition, Stephen's experience confuses the boundaries between body and machine in a way which is emblematic of a wider contemporary concern with the relations between the organic and the mechanical in Victorian technological culture.

Dickens's account of Coketown is excerpted in the latest Norton Anthology of English Literature (eighth edition) published in 2006, as an exemplary text in the literature of industrialism. Situated alongside extracts from Engels's The Condition of the Working Class, Kingsley's Alton Locke, Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor and the First Report of the Children's Employment Commission of 1842-3, it may provide the latest instance of what Herbert Sussman identifies, in an article published in 2000--"Machine Dreams: The Culture of Technology"--as a prevailing "technophobic" impulse in Victorian Studies: "In the journals and in the classroom, industrialization is engaged by reading anti-industrial writing--the Luddite views of Ruskin, industrial novels by visitors from London or from the clerical world" (Sussman 197). Indeed, the Norton Anthology includes only one proponent of the factory system in an extract from a damning review of Robert Southey's expose regarding the evils of industrialism by Thomas Babington Macaulay. …

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