Popular culture and the impact of industrialisation

Industrialisation had a dramatic effect upon all aspects of Victorian life. Paul Schlicke examines how it led to the growth of commercial entertainment and the presence of these new cultural forms in the novels of Charles Dickens.

The evolution of popular culture

Before the rise of industrialism, the cycle of seasons regulated people’s lives. Christmas and summer solstice were occasions for communal enjoyment; spring renewal was marked by May Day rituals; harvest homes celebrated the end of the growing season. Itinerant showfolk travelled an annual circuit from village to village, assembling at fairs, offering kinds of entertainment which dated from the Middle Ages: stilt-walking, puppet shows, singing, dancing, performing animals, freaks and games. Violent sports such as cock-fighting had largely disappeared by the early years of the 19th century, but amusement was robust, largely male, and well lubricated by drink. Above all it was local and participatory.

In the towns, street performers and costers selling their goods with lively patter were ever-present, but urban settings lacked space for recreation, and rapidly expanding industrial towns were designed to support work rather than to provide leisure facilities. The population more than doubled in the first half of the century; that, and migration to the cities broke down the social cohesion of rural villages. In addition, crowded slums made mere survival precarious and turned the public house into a vital social centre, as unsanitary conditions made water and milk less safe to drink than beer and gin. Low wages and long hours left workers with little time and money for any activity other than work. The rise of industrialism imposed a wholly new concept of time, based on rigid clock-discipline and divorced from seasonal patterns.

Repressive measures

Increasingly, those in authority fought the very existence of popular culture. Evangelical Christianity considered idleness the root of evil and opposed any activity other than worship on Sunday, the one day in the week when workers had leisure time. Utilitarian philosophy promoted life based on hard-working self-interest rather than outgoing communal enjoyment. Temperance reform struck at a basic ingredient of social cohesion – the shared act of drinking together.

The gradual collapse of the old, stable, conservative society, under the pressures of a quarter-century of war against France and repressive measures taken by reactionary governments, fearful of the mob and a potential repetition on home soil of the French Revolution, further undermined traditional popular culture. The government was hopelessly out of touch with the populace, passing repressive legislation, suppressing literature deemed to be seditious, sending in the troops when people gathered peacefully (Peterloo), and fighting tooth and nail against the slightest reform to a hopelessly antiquated form of government. The Times referred to anyone who wanted more (like Oliver Twist; like the Chartists) as ‘destructives’.

During the 1830s and 1840s the old cultural traditions were fading faster than new forms were emerging to replace them. The precarious existence of Punch and Judy showmen, stilt-walkers, canine performers and travelling waxworks which Dickens presented in The Old Curiosity Shop records the social reality.

The rise of commercial entertainment

In the long term, old patterns of participatory popular culture gave way to larger scale, commercially based entertainment in which spectators paid to watch professional performers. Theatres and circuses grew in size and number, and in the second half of the 19th century music hall and organised sport burgeoned in popularity. These offered intimacy between the largely working class audience and the stars, and included ritual participation as everyone joined in singing the chorus or cheering their team.

But increasingly entertainment was big business, with high salaries, professional management, strict licensing in the halls and codified regulations for football and rugby. Dickens loved the theatre and the circus (although he was appalled by the introduction after mid-century of daredevil acts by Leotard on the flying trapeze and Blondin on the tightrope) but the commercial developments of entertainment held no attraction for him; instead, he turned repeatedly in his writing to the humble enjoyment of carefree fun with friends and family, the shared delight of being entertained, and above all the values of imaginative delight and fellow-feeling which entertainment promoted.

Dickens’s observations of popular culture

Every-Day Life and Every-Day People, the subtitle of Dickens’s first published volume, Sketches by Boz, announces the subject which was to be the focus of his writing throughout his lifetime (1812–1870). Dickens cared passionately about the social and economic opportunities of ordinary people and actively defended their right to leisure and amusement.

Dickens first began publishing sketches in 1833 in magazines and newspapers. His purpose in writing them, he declared, was to record his own amusement from observing people at work and play, and to provide amusement for his readers. The sketches take us to a private theatre, a circus, a pleasure garden, a song and supper club; Boz observes people singing, dancing, drinking, and pottering in their garden. The same year that the sketches were collected as Sketches by Boz (1836) the adversarial nature of his stance was registered in his pamphlet Sunday Under Three Heads, which contains a stinging attack on proposed legislation to restrict Sunday leisure pursuits. Dickens insists that ‘nothing but good humour and hilarity prevail’ in the ‘innocent and harmless’ pleasures which working people share with their friends and families (ch. 1).

Nicholas Nickleby, dedicated to his friend William Charles Macready, the foremost tragedian of the day, includes a lovingly observed portrayal of a troupe of strolling actors, and records the sheer delight in performance which motivates them, as seen when Vincent Crummles exuberantly embraces Nicholas on a public street and takes histrionic leave of his ‘lion-hearted boy’ (ch. 30). The circus performers in Hard Times dramatise Dickens’s conviction that love of theatrical performance is innate and essential to human well-being; the ringmaster Mr Sleary asthmatically gives voice to Dickens’s axiom, ‘People must be amuthed. . .they can’t be alwayth a working, nor they can’t be alwayth a learning. Make the best of uth, not the wurtht’ (ch. 6) And in the character of Dick Swiveller in The Old Curiosity Shop Dickens creates his most engaging case for the values associated with love of entertainment: Swiveller’s lively imagination makes him receptive to the mysterious little servant he discovers lurking beneath the law-office; playing games with her, offering her food and drink, and inventing an exotic identity for her as the Marchioness, he creates for us real a heroine as wonderful as anything out of a fairy tale or the Arabian Nights.

From the fire-gazing visions of Lizzie Hexam and Louisa Gradgrind, the cricket match between the Dingley Dellers and All-Muggleton, the Christmas dinner of the Cratchits, or the night out of Smithers and Potter, Dickens’s many depictions of entertainment and amusement, and his conviction of the importance of imaginative receptivity, provide some of his most engaging writing and take us to the core of his values.

  • Paul Schlicke
  • Paul Schlicke (BA Stanford, PhD University of California San Diego), author of Dickens and Popular Entertainment, compiler of the Dickens entry in the Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature (3rd edn), editor of the Oxford Companion to Charles Dickens, and author of numerous articles, reviews and editions, taught at the University of Aberdeen 1971-2010. He has served as president of the Dickens Society of America, president of the international Dickens Fellowship, and chairman of the trustees of the Charles Dickens Museum. He is currently editing Sketches by Boz for the Clarendon Press.

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