Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Macaulay's Revolution: New Historicism, the Working Classes, and Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Macaulay's Revolution: New Historicism, the Working Classes, and Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South

Article excerpt

Thomas Babington Macaulay has been reductively positioned in criticism of Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South as a social critic unsympathetic to the plight of the working classes. This essay strives to revise these erroneous assumptions through a new historicist reading Macaulay's works and Gaskell's North and South. Gaskell's use of rhetoric and characterization is read against a dialogic political context created from many of Macaulay's speeches and essays. Analyzing such works as Southey's Colloquies, for example, and using it as an intertext against which we can read characters like Margaret Hale, provides us with the means of tracing her evolution in the narrative as a critic of Tory repression of the working classes. Other essays specifically focused on addressing the nascent power of the working classes, like "Parliamentary Reform," "The Ten Hours Bill" and "Education," enable us to trace Macaulay's critique of Tory paternalism and flesh out, through an intertextual analysis of John Thornton's character among others, Gaskell's concern to promote a trajectory of character development that embraces Macaulay's reform-minded Whiggism.

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The condition of England crisis has been defined by Eric Evans as the period of class and religious conflict over issues such as factory reform, education, public health, poor law reform, and religious toleration that stretched from 1827-1850. (1) The debates over resolution of the crisis appearing in Victorian books, periodicals, and speeches during this period have provided a rich rhetorical context upon which Cultural Studies and New Historicist critics have drawn to demonstrate the effect of literature in raising political awareness within a contemporaneous context. (2) The seminal work influencing or establishing this analytical method, creating a kind of condition-of-England genre, was arguably Raymond Williams' Culture and Society: 1780-1950. Williams challenged disciplinary boundaries in this text by treating fiction as a form of political commentary: so-called "Industrial Novels" (3) were repositioned by Williams, set alongside the polemical writings of John Stuart Mill and Thomas Carlyle concerning the crisis of the industrial system, and the works of J.H. Newman and Matthew Arnold on issues in education and religion, and given equal status as responses. Analyzing the formal properties of literature and focusing on the rhetoric within these novels, Williams attempted to assess them by constructing intertextual relationships between them and the political positions and rhetoric of the non-fiction prose documents. (4)

Yet while there is little question that Williams' original historicist strategy continues to influence cultural approaches to literary study, it remains, especially in the discussion of particular social commentators, reductive and exclusionary. This is conspicuously the case in his treatment of Thomas Babington Macaulay in relation to Williams' Marxist class-specific focus which tries to determine whether or not authors embrace social attitudes that victimize the working classes. In Culture and Society, Williams summed up Macaulay's position toward educating the lower classes by implying that Macaulay's views were generated primarily by middle and upper class preoccupations with protecting property: " 'the ignorance' of the 'common people' was a danger to property, and ... therefore their education was necessary." (5) Similarly, in Williams' The Long Revolution, which continues his earlier analytical approaches in Culture and Society, he confines Macaulay's attitude toward extending the suffrage to workers to the unqualified extremist position that universal suffrage is 'incompatible with the very existence of civilization'." (6) Williams goes on to propose that Macaulay is "read perhaps with less interest, not because his ability seems less, but because his way of thinking seems increasingly irrelevant." (7)

The industrial novels of Elizabeth Gaskell are, by contrast, of preeminent interest for Williams because of her documentary method which "is useful to a social history preoccupied by this period. …

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