Both novels show English writers growing use of the power of fiction to shine a light on social and political issues to inspire change. Despite the reaction it provoked, Michael Armstrong was part of the campaign to improve factory conditions that led to the legislation in the 1840s improving conditions, hours and the provision of education. Despite these Factory Acts and economic change reducing the number of children employed in industry, child labour was far from eradicated. Children continued to work in large numbers throughout the 19th century in domestic service, in shops, in street trades and in small workshops and cottage industries.
Dickens’s focus on the more isolated and less politicised issue of Yorkshire Schools and standards of education was more successful. In his preface to the second edition of Nicholas Nickelby he wrote ‘I make mention of the race, as of the Yorkshire schoolmasters, in the past tense. Though it has not yet finally disappeared, it is dwindling daily.’
Dickens rarely directly addressed the issue child labour himself. Some of his child characters worked: Little Nell to support her Grandfather in The Old Curiosity Shop, Oliver as a workhouse apprentice, Jo in Bleak House earning a meagre living as a crossing sweep. And David Copperfield’s experience working at Murdstone’s factory, which drew directly on Dickens own childhood experience of working in a blacking factory. An experience that perhaps made this a painful and difficult issue to tackle.
Sources and Further Reading:
Benziman, G. (2014). “Feeble Pictures of an Existing Reality": The Factual Fiction of "Nicholas Nickleby". Dickens Studies Annual, vol.45, pp.95-112.
Dickens, C. (1916) The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. London: McMillan.
Ransom, T. (1995) Fanny Trollope: a remarkable life. Stroud: Alan Sutton
Trollope, F. (1840) The Life and Adventures of Michael Armstrong, The Factory Boy. London: H. Colburn.
Walton, S. (2011) Industrial sightseeing and Frances Trollope’s Michael Armstrong, The Factory Boy. Women’s Writing, vol.18, no.2, pp.271-292.