Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

"Is There No Work in Hand?": The Idle Son Theme at Midcentury

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

"Is There No Work in Hand?": The Idle Son Theme at Midcentury

Article excerpt

The famous graveyard scene opening of Dickens's Great Expectations refers to Pip's five infant brothers, all dead and buried, "who gave up trying to get a living, exceedingly early in that universal struggle." Pip is indebted to the five stone lozenges marking their graves for a belief, "religiously entertained that they had all been born on their backs with their hands in their trousers-pockets, and had never taken them out in this state of existence" (35). (1) For a novel at least partly about the dignity of labor, this is an iconic image, overlooked in the wealth of other iconic images, of birth, death, and guilt, with which this scene abounds. Its depiction of five sons lying down with their hands immobilized in a stereotypical gesture of idleness is all the more meaningful in light of Dickens's frustration with his own seven sons, who by this time were active mainly in running up debts for their father to settle, or trying one career opening after another without success. What to do with sons addicted to the leisured life of a gentleman with private means was a pervasive concern throughout the mid-to-late Victorian period, especially among fathers who had worked strenuously to provide a living for themselves and their families. As a cultural phenomenon, it can be traced back to Prince Albert, the nearest we come to an early Victorian father-figure or role-model for the nation, and his disaffected eldest son, the Prince of Wales, over whom both he and Victoria despaired throughout his life. Bored with enforced education, and easily distracted by various kinds of dissipation, especially horses and women, "Bertie" apparently had no aspirations to be like his earnest hard-working father. Although his is an extreme case, it seemed to set the tone for middle-class young men who were sufficiently confident of paternal handouts and convinced of their own "gentlemanly" status to be unmotivated to work at a career. This was especially true of second-generation middle-class youths whose fathers had established secure economic foundations for the family. As Dickens himself put it in a letter of 1860, a small independence was "that worst of cushions": enough to make a man feel he was safe from destitution and free to "look about him" for an indefinite period (Letters 9:246). (2) Henry Gowan of Little Dorrit is one such cushioned son, having inherited "that very questionable help in life, a very small independence," which has made him "difficult to settle" (250). Both in fiction and autobiography, as well as letters, Victorian men are heard lamenting the apathy and inertia of educated young men who, like Dickens's own Richard Carstone in Bleak House, mysteriously fail at one profession after another, remaining indifferent to the satisfactions of a job well done.

In fact among the most magnetic personalities of the age were two young men who failed to achieve anything of significance in their short lives. Arthur Hallam, whose personality Alfred Tennyson glorified in his 1850 In Memoriam, was only twenty-two when he died; while John Sterling (1806-44), faithfully commemorated in an 1851 biography by Thomas Carlyle, signally failed to establish himself in any one career. As Carlyle himself admits, there was nothing significant in Sterling's life to warrant a biography, and none of the three great middle-class professions--law, medicine, or the church would have suited him. Uncharacteristically, for one so eloquent about the importance of work, Carlyle was inclined to blame the professions, which he calls "regimented human pursuits," rather than the man: "In a better time," he hopes, "there will be other 'professions' than those three extremely cramp, confused, and indeed almost obsolete ones" (Life 40-41). No less a workaholic than John Stuart Mill admired Sterling's "frank, cordial, affectionate and expansive character," as did Harriet Martineau, another byword for ceaseless activity, even when ill, and no great friend of Sterling during his lifetime: "I still do not see why S's life shd ever have been written," she admitted, but Carlyle's rendition had made it "beautiful" (93; 222). …

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