The Condition of the Working Class in England

Miles Taylor writes:

This is a very English account of The Condition of the Working Class in England, a book that was never intended for an English audience. It wasn’t translated until 1886, and even then only for the American market; it didn’t appear in this country until 1892. Engels’s commentary is littered with special asides and explanations for German readers, and although he dedicates the work to the English working class, he does so with apologies for his German tongue and tone. Nor was the book, as Hunt implies, mainly about Manchester, although Engels knew Manchester best. Just one-tenth of the text deals with living and working conditions in the city. Elsewhere, he ranges freely around the UK. All the major cities are included, as are rural areas and mining districts. Not that he had travelled very widely: he went where the official ‘blue books’ and concerned commentary of the early 1840s had already been. And he reproduced much of the racial and social prejudice of his fellow observers, finding savagery in Sheffield, child abuse in Willenhall (the location of Disraeli’s ‘Wodgate’ in Sybil), and lazy Irish everywhere. Like other foreign visitors to this country in those years, and like countless writers before him, he was using the condition of England to say something about the condition of his own country. His depiction of urban despair was a warning to his fellow Germans of what might follow if they did not heed the signs of unrest in Silesia and Bohemia.

(LRB 17 December 2009)

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