Thomas Carlyle, “with purse oftenest in the flaccid state,” bears closely in mind the fact that “ the miraculous breath of Life in , breathed into nostrils by Almighty God” Carlyle, p. 37. Margaret Hale, who is of modest but comfortable means, witnesses a multitude of sufferings during her time in Milton, but she maintains her lofty notions of God and Christianity, even as her father, a man of the church, questions the godliness of the church’s economic practices.
How does it come to pass that humans can endure and/or witness such suffering as was endured by the working classes of 19th century England and maintain their religious convictions all the same? It seems that the coexistence of the two phenomena would, or should cause some cognitive dissidence for a pious person, but here are four examples of people, two fictional Bessy and Margaret, two real Carlyle and Dodd, who can apparently reconcile religion and suffering. Perhaps Christianity was so ingrained in the culture and in these individuals that faith was more of a reflex than a conscious decision.
Dodd raises the question, but dispels it without ever actually examining it. Near the very end of his narrative he asks, “Is it consistent with the character of this enlightened, Christian country… that we, worn-out, cast-off cripples of the manufacturers, should be left to die of want at home? â€”Forbid it, Heaven. ” Dodd, pp. 318-319. His assertion of inconsistency is correct, but Heaven, despite his appeal, had clearly not forbidden a thing. The God in whom he has placed his faith has allowed for his suffering, and the church that he respects and to which he submits himself has not acted on his behalf.
Either England was a Christian country in name only, or the Christian church cared little about the welfare of individuals who hadn’t the means to make a donation; either way, the issue of moral impropriety in the church itself is another issue. The fact remains that any society that is content to send children to labor in factories at an exceedingly young age, as Dodd was, lacks the moral grain that one would suppose is integral to upholding religious fervor.
Carlyle takes a fairly businesslike and not religious approach to his condition of England manifesto, but the overwhelming Christian sentiment of the era naturally finds its way into his writings. He seems to be of the mind that God has given him enough simply by giving him life, but as a non-Christian, non-religious reader of Chartism, the very mention of Christianity and the overwhelming injustice of England’s social structure at the time is an inherent paradox.
There is something of a synapse in reasoning where he contends that “… society ‘exists for the preservation of property'” Carlyle, p. 36, but maintains that the English social structure is a Christian one. The fault lies not in Christianity per se; Jewish people, for example, have struggled since the Holocaust to reconcile their own faith with such an abhorrent occurrence that viciously seized the lives of six million Jews and six million others. Still, the problem of intellectual and emotional dissidence remains the same.
Perhaps the most perplexing of all of these characters is Bessy Higgins. She not only maintains her ardently religious beliefs in the face of utter physical ruin caused by factory working at too young an age and the loss of her mother, but actually seems to draw upon her suffering to amplify her faith. Bessy is resigned to death, even anticipates and welcomes death, which is not unheard of considering how ill she isâ€”save for the fact that she is only nineteen years old.
It is her faith, her utter devotion to the Bible and to her notions of God and Heaven that make death seem a welcome reprieve from the suffering that she has endured, albeit suffering at the hands of the same God. In some respects, her faith is an asset in that it helps her to withstand the pain that has come to characterize her very existence; however miserable Bessy may be, her unhappiness is quelled somewhat by her expectation of a glorious Heaven. At the same time, the desperation for something good to cling to cheapens her faith somewhat.
Without knowing how pious Bessy was before she became ill which is, in a way, irrelevant, because she would have been very young, the fact that she has found religion and it is a comfort to her is very nice, but indicates that she is religious out of necessity; that is, religion is the only thing that keeps her going. Perhaps this is as good a reason as any to be religious. Still, religion is her escape, her way of coping. On that level, it does follow that Bessy is so very strong in her Christianity; as a coping mechanism, it works very well.
However, upon examination by a more critical mind, it is hard to understand how an individual who has been so wronged by society and has been dealt such a difficult hand in life can contend that there is indeed a benevolent God, one who is just saving up all the good that is Bessy’s due for the afterlife. Margaret Hale is steadfast in her Christianity. The daughter of a parish priest and a young woman with the benefit of education, this makes a great deal of sense. Margaret is also a character who questions many things, and questions probingly and critically, especially for a woman her age in that era.
The condition of the working class in Milton, the moral rightness of Mr. Thornton’s actions, the validity and the intelligence of the labor strike, and many other things come under Margaret’s quite critical lens. It is almost out of character, then, for her not to raise more questions about the congruence of the suffering and the injustice that she witnesses, and a supposedly Christian society. Even Mr. Hale is able to distance himself enough to raise questions about the church’s practices, and perhaps it is his maturity and totally pure faith that allows him to do this.
Margaret is young, very idealistic, and for all her quickness, all the books she has read, she adheres to religion not ignorantly, but blindly. When Bessy enumerates her sufferings on pages 101-102, and becomes nearly violent I her anguish so much as she can muster from her sick-bed, anyway, Margaret’s response is to calmly inform her, “Bessyâ€”we have a father in Heaven,” to which Bessy replies, “I know it! I know it. ” Gaskell, p. 102 It seems as though somehow both of them missed Bessy’s entirely valid tirade.
The existence of God may be a comforting and reassuring thing in which to have faith, but if he doesn’t care about the working class while they are in the world, why do the people of the working class invest that faith? There are examples of individuals who rejected Christianity in light of the horrendous quality of life to which the working classes were condemned. Nicholas Higgins is of that school; he not only rejects religion for himself, but discourages the ailing Bessy from finding comfort in scripture. Although he comes off as somewhat hard-nosed, particularly in the way he speaks to Bessy about her greatest source of comfort.
Still, assertions like “… when I see the world going all wrong… leaving undone all the things that lie in disorder close at its handâ€”why, I say, leave a’ this talk about religion alone, and set to work on what yo’ see and know,” Gaskell, p. 92 make Mr. Higgins more credible than his socioeconomic position and consequent lack of formal education would suggest. He cannot, in his mind, reconcile piety with the hardships to which he and his fellow men of the working class are condemned. He has been educated in the “school of hard knocks,” as they say, and there is no course requirement in blind faith at that school.
The condition of England was a preoccupation in Victorian literature. Although the very same questions of how a benevolent God can condone suffering exist even in our contemporary society, wherein social injustice continues to be a fact of life, we live in a considerably more secular culture. The dichotomy of a Christian society that suffered such high levels of poverty, suffering, and inequity is hard to digest. William Dodd and Bessy Higgins clung to their faith perhaps out of need, as a survival mechanism.
Thomas Carlyle and Margaret Hale were maybe conditioned to be so pious, had it so deeply ingrained in them from their culture that they knew no other way to take in the world. It is easier to be critical of faith and religious belief in the face of widespread suffering from the vantage point of a vastly different culture. Still, such accounts of the Victorian period make it apparent that it was necessary to reconcile Christianity and the reality of the social condition of England in order to make sense of that society, or at least a semblance of sense.