VII. The Years of Growth and Fear The Age of Critical Realism

In 1815 Britain occupied a strong position in the world after the defeat of Napoleon. Its self-confidence was based on industry, trade and navy. Britain used its power to control the world markets. The UK kept its ships in almost every ocean of the world. It became a very powerful empire in a world scale. But at home Britain was in danger. The population was 13 million people in 1815. A lot of former soldiers, taking part in the Napoleonic Wars, were looking for work; unemployment was increasing, the prices doubled, the disappointment of the working class was growing. Towards the end of 1820’s the rise of a powerful manufacturing and trading class was obvious. The political victory of the bourgeoisie brought no relief to the working class and worsened its living conditions.

The new methods of exploitation were invented. Crime and misery caused much trouble. People were hungry, they ate birds and animals. The dirty and crowded workhouses were hated and feared. There in the workhouses, the poor lived in dangerous conditions. Nevertheless, only those who lived in the workhouses were given any help at all.

Several uprisings took place in 1815-1830. In 1819 the working people and their families gathered in Manchester to protest against the social inequality. They were attacked by the government, and eleven people were killed during that riot. The rich feared the poor, but they understood the need to reform the law in order to improve social life in the country. The Whigs wanted to avoid the revolution only by reform. The Tories were more conservative: they hoped that Parliament would accept only the rich. Nevertheless, the middle class was represented in Parliament. The poor were still kept out of it.

There were reasons for fear. Since 1824 workers began to join together in unions. They tried to defend their rights, and in 1838 they put forward a People’s Charter, demanding the democratic changes of the Parliament, including the right to vote and be elected.

Chartism had important literary results in the development of popular poetry. The Chartists revived the revolutionary poems of George Gordon Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley. It is interesting to know that Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Song to the Men of England” became a Chartist marching-song.

Romanticism now seemed too abstract, too aloof with its symbols and mystery. It had already done its work. The social circumstances had changed. Everyday life of the “hungry forties” demanded a new literary presentation of the social problems. Hardships and sufferings of the common people were described in realistic prose. A new literary trend came into being — critical realism. Critical realism had to reflect life as it was. Realistic prose took the shape of short essays, more objective and informative than romantic literature had been. But the influence of the romanticists of the beginning of the 19th century was observed even in the works of the greatest realist of England Charles Dickens.

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