Literary daybook, Aug. 29

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
Published August 29, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Today in fiction

On Aug. 29, 1918, Rivers arrives in London; meets Charles Manning on the platform.
-- "The Ghost Road" (1995)
by Pat Barker

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1833, the Mills and Factory Act was passed in England. This was one of a series of acts passed in the 19th century to improve the "Health and Morals" of child laborers, but it was the first effective legislation in that it empowered national inspectors with unlimited, unannounced entry to the factories. The improved regulations -- no one under 9 employed, a 48-hour week for children aged 9-12, a 68-hour week for teenagers, some minimum provisions for education and health, etc. -- were largely the result of testimony given by young workers to a parliamentary committee investigating violations of earlier acts.

An early highlight in the literary testimony to such abuse is William Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper," published in 1789:

"When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue,
Could scarcely cry weep weep weep weep.
So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep ... "

Blake would spend his last years living in two rooms off the Strand, from which he had a glimpse of the Thames ("like a bar of gold") through alleyways which a young Charles Dickens then walked, on the way to his hated job as a label-paster at Warren's Blacking Factory nearby. In "David Copperfield" (1849), Warren's became Murdstone and Grinby, though with the same gray rats, black windows, long hours and starving child too fearful and poor to speak up.

The first industrial novel was "Michael Armstrong: Factory Boy" by Frances Trollope, mother of Anthony (and several other children who became writers). The competition for the reform theme was vigorous, and when Mrs. Trollope's publisher tried to attach her book to Dickens' reputation through some creative advertising, Dickens the rival author won out over Dickens the fellow crusader: "I will express no further opinion of Mrs Trollope, than that I think Mr Trollope must have been an old dog and chosen his wife from the same species." Reviewers were more annoyed by her polemics, putting the novel in the Luddite-Chartist basket as a reckless equivalent to "scattering firebrands among the people," and worthy of a prison term for its author.

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

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