G. W. M. Reynolds’s narrator opens “Another New Year’s Day,” chapter 185 of The Mysteries of London, announcing the date: “It was the 1st of January 1841,” after which he proclaims it to be a time of reflection and stock-taking. His aim, however, is not as we might expect to persuade his readers to turn inward to self-reflection. Instead, his interests are political, not personal, for he wants his readers to recognize that “An oligarchy has cramped the privileges and monopolised the rights of a mighty nation,” the chief signs of which are three tyrannical bits of legislation:
The Poor-Laws! Not even did the ingenuity of the Spanish or Italian Inquisitions conceive a more effectual method of deliberate torture and slow death, than the fearful system of mental-abasement and gradient starvation invented by England's legislators. When the labourer can toil for the rich no longer, away with him to the workhouse! When the old man, who has contributed for half a century to the revenue of the country, is overtaken by sudden adversity at an age which paralyses his energies, away with him to the workhouse! When the poor widow, whose sons have fallen in the ranks of battle or in defence of the wooden walls of England, is deprived of her natural supporters, away with her to the workhouse! The workhouse is a social dung-heap on which the wealthy and great fling those members of the community whose services they can no longer render available to their selfish purposes.
The Game-Laws! Never was a more atrocious monopoly than that which reserves the use of certain birds of the air or animals of the earth to a small and exclusive class. The Almighty gave man "dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth;" and those who dare to monopolise any of these, to the prejudice of their fellow-creatures, fly in the face of the Lord of all! The Game-Laws have fabricated an offence which fills our prisons—as if there were not already crimes enough to separate men from their families and plunge them into loathsome dungeons. That offence is one of human construction, and exists only in certain countries: it is not a crime against God—nor is it deemed such in many enlightened states. The selfish pleasures of a miserably small minority demand the protection of a statute which is a fertilising source of oppression, wretchedness, ruin, and demoralization. The Game-Laws are a rack whereon the aristocracy loves to behold its victims writhing in tortures, and where the sufferers are compelled to acknowledge as a heinous crime a deed which has in reality no moral turpitude associated with it.
Were the Russian to boast of his freedom, Common Sense would point to Siberia and to the knout, and laugh in his face. When the Englishman vaunts the glory of his country's institutions, that same Common Sense comes forward and throws the Corn-Laws in his teeth. What! liberty in connexion with the vilest monopoly that ever mortal policy conceived? Impossible! England manufactures articles which all the civilised world requires; and other states yield corn in an abundance that defies the possibility of home consumption. And yet an inhuman selfishness has declared that England shall not exchange her manufactures for that superfluous produce. No—the manufactures may decay in the warehouses here, and the grain abroad may be thrown to the swine, sooner than a miserable oligarchy will consent to abandon one single principle of its shameless monopoly. The Corn-Laws are a broom which sweeps all the grain on the threshing-floor into one corner for the use of the rich, but which leaves the chaff scattered every where about for the millions of poor to use as best they may.
Like Thomas Carlyle who heaped scorn on England’s great landowners by answering answering, they were tending their game to the question, What was the aristocracy doing while the country experienced crisis? In Past and Present as in The French Revolution Carlyle warned that if they don’t do their job and treat those beneath them justly, they will be swept away, as had the ruling classes in France. Sounding the same warning, Reynolds points out that “The aristocracy of England regards the patience of the masses as a bow whose powers of tension are unlimited: but the day must come, sooner or later, when those who thus dare to trifle with this generous elasticity will be struck down by the violence of the recoil.” Unlike Carlyle — but like Matthew Arnold and many others after the passage of the 1867 Reform Bill — Reynolds see educating the masses as the solution, though in the early 1840s he obviously has no faith that Parliament will do anything to help the working classes and those under them. In fact, he assures his readers that “although our legislators—trembling at what they affect to sneer at under the denomination of "the march of intellect"—obstinately refuse to imitate enlightened France by instituting a system of national education,—nevertheless, the millions of this country are now instructing themselves!”
Whereas Carlyle looked to the Captains of Industry, the new industrialists of the North, for leadership, Reynolds looks to the factory worker, proclaiming, “Honour to the English mechanic — honour to the English operative: each alike seeks to taste of the tree of learning, ‘whose root is bitter, but whose fruits are sweet!’ Thank God, no despotism — no tyranny can arrest the progress of that mighty intellectual movement which is now perceptible amongst the industrious millions of these realms.”
Reynolds, who exclaims, “And how excellent are the principles of that self-instruction which now tends to elevate the moral condition of the country,” exults that it is no longer “confined within the narrow limits which churchmen would impose” but includes the sciences and “all subjects of practical utility, — its aim being to model the mind on the solid basis of Common Sense.”
Reynolds, George W. M. The Mysteries of London. vol 2. Project Gutenberg EBook #51294. Produced by Chuck Greif and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team. Web. 27 September 2016.
Last modified 27 September 2016