Some views of dirt and drudgery

John Forster

The Life of Charles Dickens

Book I chapter 2
'Hard experiences in Boyhood'

An account of Dickens's experience as a manual worker in a blacking factory, drawn largely from an autobiographical fragment.

Dinah Mulock (Mrs Craik)

Dinah Mulock (Mrs Craik, best known as the author of John Halifax, Gentleman 1826-1887) wrote numerous improving and progressive works. Her account of Quintin Matsys the Blacksmith of Antwerp was probably first published in one of the popular Chambers publications in the 1840s or 1850s, but the only edition I have found so far is that re-printed in The Half-caste published by Chambers in 1897.

This account portrays the rise of the blacksmith's orphan. First he becomes an inventive and prosperous blacksmith, then he becomes a supremely skillful painter. His rise is due to hard work and self-belief, helped by benefactors and inspired by the love of a girl of higher class. It is a story to "encourage the feeble, bring hope to the hopeless, and excite to energy the despairing". At no time is Quintin ashamed of his origins.

This text is available on-line at The Women's Genre Fiction Project web-site at Emory University

Samuel Smiles

Industrial Biography: Iron Workers and Tool makers

(from Chapter 12: 'Henry Maudslay')

Smiles describes the early experience of a blacksmith who rose to be a notable inventor and a large employer.

Frederick Engels

The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844
chapter 7

The iron district of Staffordshire


Engels describes the poor working and living conditions of iron workers in Staffordshire and Sheffield, and dwells particularly on the effect of their working conditions on their education and morals.

George Eliot

'The Natural History of German Life'

In this article from The Westminster Review of 1856, George Eliot discusses the work of the German social observer W H Riehl. She regards Riehl's work as a valuable corrective to "the miserable fallacy that high morality and refined sentiment can grow out of harsh social relations, ignorance, and want."

Mark Rutherford

(William Hale White)

Deliverance chapter 8

Mark Rutherford is obliged to earn his living as a clerk, and describes the demoralising effect of enforced contact with uncongenial colleagues and subjection to a tyrannical superior. His response is much like Wemmick's.

Charles Dickens

The Old Curiosity Shop chapter 45

Bleak House chapter 63

Little Dorrit Book I chapter 23

Short extracts describing industrial life from the viewpoint of outsiders. Arthur Clennam in Little Dorrit finds what he sees exciting and alarming. The old-fashioned trooper in Bleak House finds it alien and perplexing. Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop finds it terrifying.

Hard Times

This is Dickens's "industrial" novel. He describes a working class whose masters seek to reduce them to numbers, and a popular education system which starves the imagination.

The Uncommercial Traveller

XXXII 'A small star in the east'

XXXV 'On an amateur beat'

These are extracts from Dickens's journalism, describing two visits he made to the East End of London. In the first he meets a woman suffering from the effects of working in a lead mill. In the second he visits the lead mill and exonerates its owners from blame.

The "social work" view: Charlotte M Yonge

Charlotte M Yonge was one of the most prolific and popular of Victorian novelists. In addition to historical romances she wrote a number of "slice of life" novels, of which the most famous is The Daisy Chain about the large, motherless May family.

These extracts describe the attempts of the May children, in particular Ethel May, to help, educate and christianise a community of quarry workers a few miles outside town.

George Sturt

The Wheelwright's Shop

George Sturt was born in 1863 and took over his father's wheelwright shop in 1884. The older workmen he describes, such as George Cook the wheelwright and Will Hammond the blacksmith, would have started work sometime after the period of the story of Great Expectations but before the time Dickens's novel was written, and so give some sort of insight into the life which Pip might have had if he had stayed in the forge.