‘Signs of the Times’

the essay in which Thomas Carlyle announced himself as an important critic of the industrial upheaval which convulsed the country throughout his lifetime.

WHEN Francis Jeffrey accepted the piece for the Edinburgh Review he was giving a relatively unknown author a sizeable platform for strikingly original ideas (ER 49:439-59).  It was an act of generosity which allowed Carlyle to formulate his ideas and reach a wider audience than his relatively constrained publishing career had managed till that time.  The essence of the article lies in the bold statement: ‘Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand’. The ironic opening which surveys the means by which the industrial revolution has penetrated every aspect of life, from the trivial to the important, metamorphoses in this statement into something more serious – a statement of the baleful side-effects of the revolution on the life of the working class whose labour sustained it.  Carlyle had grown up in rural Ecclefechan and, after University, taught in small-town Annan and Kirkcaldy; except for brief visits to London, Birmingham, and France, his other life had been spent largely in Dumfries-shire, so he wrote with an outsider’s vision of the negative effects of a revolution which those who lived in it, or accepted its benefits, scarcely noticed.  The result can be seen most clearly in the hands of Dickens who, in Hard Times (1854), explicitly develops the theme of mechanical education, management, and employment practices and their deadening effect on human beings.  ‘Signs of the Times’ resonates through much Victorian social criticism.

Ian Campbell, University of Edinburgh


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