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Liberty’s Dawn

A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution


Emma Griffin


New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2013

Hardcover. x+303 p. ISBN 978-0300151800. £25


Reviewed by Ian Beattie

McGill University, Montreal



What does it mean for historians to “listen to” their sources? The history of 19th-century Britain has been marred by a frequent refusal to listen to a particular set of sources, those that arose from the “lower orders” or working class(es). Time and again, historians have omitted working-class voices from their work on the fictive basis that the sources simply are not there, or, if their existence is acknowledged, are fatally flawed in some way. In her recent work Liberty’s Dawn, Emma Griffin takes a hammer to this tendency as it relates to the era’s defining event – the industrial revolution. The particular hammer she wields is a heavy one: a collection of archives, supplemented by Griffin’s own research, of over 350 working-class autobiographies. For Griffin, the refusal to listen has been a maddening abdication of what is, in the end, a thoroughly simple task: just listen to what they are telling us. As she states in her introduction, “Historians have measured wages and working hours with meticulous care, yet none has sought to listen to, or make sense of, the messy tales that the workers left behind. In the pages that follow, we shall do precisely that” [16]. If this project is ambitious, it is also long overdue.

What Griffin hears is loud and clear. Though historians have painted an “unremittingly grim picture” of industrialization, in fact, the process brought new light into dark, drab lives, providing greater access to employment and the host of forms of enlightenment and empowerment that go with it. Griffin pauses for a moment – “I [do not] wish to replace one simple story (things were bad and getting worse) with another (they never had it so good!)” [19] – but within paragraphs offers what might be one of the most strident iterations of the “they never had it so good” view in the scholarship: “the industrial revolution heralded the advent not of a yet ‘darker period’, but of the dawn of liberty” [20].

Griffin is a polemical writer, and she leaves much to quibble with here. Her broad strokes can caricature the industrial revolution’s historiography. Some historians have certainly attempted to give sufficient attention to the suffering that industrialization caused, as Griffin, to her credit, does herself. I imagine, however, Griffin would have trouble finding someone to unreservedly endorse what she depicts as a consensus view: “the ordinary worker enjoyed a healthier, simpler, and less frenetic life before the smoke and steam of the industrial revolution” [55]. This treatment even extends to historians like the Thompsons whose concerns and conclusions would seem to lie closest to her own – indeed, Griffin’s allegedly unprecedented bibliography contains at least a certain degree of overlap with those of The Making of the English Working Class and The Chartists. More importantly, Griffin’s stark blacks and whites between pre- and post-industrial cause problematic distortions. The 18th century, in all of its historical particularity, is turned into a stand-in for all non-industrial societies. Even rural 19th-century Britain is rendered as pre-industrial, though the industrial revolution affected the countryside every bit as much as it did the cities. It is telling that Griffin does not mention the agricultural revolution, which is commonly treated as a necessary precondition of British industrialization.

All this, however, does not necessarily detract from the value of Griffin’s basic project. Griffin’s insistence on pushing her autobiographies to the fore of her work, on allowing them to provide its structure, is as necessary as it is revolutionary. Yet it is during this very act of listening, I would argue, that the work’s most fundamental problems arise, problems which are not unique to Griffin alone. It is Griffin’s motivating assumption that the act of listening is straightforward, requires no more than patience and open ears that reveals an unresolved issue in the way working-class sources are treated in British historiography in general.

One might begin by noting that Griffin’s project closely resembles that embarked on by postcolonial historians decades ago. Against an entrenched and monolithic historiography of powerful westerners and silent colonial subjects, non-white historians attempted to enter the voice, experience, and agency of the marginal and oppressed into the historical cannon. Unlike Griffin, however, these scholars assumed that this task was defined by its difficulty. It was not enough to simply import hitherto unheard voices into Western history and charge on as before. Rather, this reevaluation necessitated a strong and uncompromising critique of the methodologies and assumptions of history writing itself. The techniques and scholars of other disciplines entered the historical field; the very prose of the movement often became dense, complicated. The postcolonial project necessitated a history interpenetrated with doubt, to the point of questioning the viability of the project itself – Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” was offered as a real question.

In contrast, Griffin’s work relies on an assumption of what might be termed the transparency of the Western subject. In making her case for the industrial revolution, she marshals her sources to her side, going so far as to claim that it is not her making the case, but them; “It is not possible to frame the autobiographical literature within the dark interpretation without imposing a willful distortion upon the messages our writers are seeking to communicate” [16]. We must simply put the quotes on the page, read them, and we will understand. Interestingly, she describes this methodology many times over in a vocabulary of “telling” and “listening”: “We need to listen more carefully to what our first-hand witnesses are trying to tell us,” [19] “Some writers, it seems, simply refused to tell the story of wiring lives blighted by the advent of mechanization,” [25] “With so many first-hand witnesses to this transformative moment in world history we can surely do no better than listen to their verdict. What did those at the coalface tell us about their times?” [242].

What Griffin does not wrestle with, however, is the fact that it is not John Bennett, John Lincoln, or Margaret Davidson writing this book – it is Emma Griffin. No matter how many times she attempts the manoeuvre (and the catalogue above is by no means exhaustive), Griffin cannot abdicate the role of author. The texts that make up Griffin’s archives are the fraught, complex, efforts of an extraordinarily diverse set of individuals to compress the moments of an entire life into a slim stack of written pages. They were written for myriad reasons – for family interest, to document the Chartist movement, to repudiate it, to record the process of religious conversion, or whatever else. By conscripting these texts into staging a blunt historiographical intervention, Griffin has not unproblematically liberated them from the indifference with which earlier historians silenced them. On the other hand, to treat them cautiously, to treat them as representations would not be, as Griffin implies, to disbelieve them or cast them away. It would be to take them seriously, to try to understand their techniques, their valuations, their subtexts.

Griffin’s authorial interventions are at their barest in the chapter about working-class politics. To fit the proliferation of working-class radical and later Chartist activism into her frame, she chooses to celebrate workers “finding their voice”, what she calls “the sheer fact of having engaged in the public sphere” [213]. What these politicians actually said in that sphere, however, is erased from the page with the comment that “the broad contours of political awareness amongst the working classes are well known” [ibid.] When her autobiographers come to speak politics, Griffin abruptly switches off the microphone. Figures like William Lovett, Francis Place, Thomas Hardy, Robert Lowery – men who spoke often, loudly, and to great effect about the processes of industrialization – are frequently mentioned and even quoted by Griffin, but their political utterances are not allowed to disturb her text. Griffin’s sole description of the politics of Chartism is that it called for universal male suffrage, “amongst other things” [ibid.]

As non-white historians and historians of the non-white have long since discovered, however, the act of “listening” to the voices of the marginal and the oppressed irrevocably politicizes the historian’s work. It forces a set of questions that cannot necessarily be addressed as a field or as a discipline, but must often be worked out in a one-to-one relationship between the author and source – though they are frequently questions that cannot be answered. Am I this source’s advocate? Am I their guardian, their critic, their enemy? Such questions linger uncomfortably between the lines of Liberty’s Dawn, with Griffin’s declarations of her advocacy of her sources jarring with those sources’ own resistance.

Griffin’s assumption of transparency is also only valid in so far as we accept that these sources are “representative” – if this collection of 350-odd autobiographies, spread out over more than a century, can be taken as articulating a generalizable working-class experience. Again, with striking bluntness, Griffin insists they can. She recognizes that they might be criticized for only capturing the experiences of the literate, yet she responds that her writers were by no means uniformly privileged or successful. This leads her to conclude that “the autobiographies do indeed capture the life experiences of this group” [6]. Surely, however, the point about having an unrepresentative sample is that one could not know simply from referring to it in what ways it is unrepresentative. “Diverse” and “representative” are not synonyms. Indeed, there are two basic ways in which her sources lack representation; first, in that they were not dead at the relatively old ages at which they seem to have written, and secondly, that they do not seem to have been among the millions who emigrated from Britain for rural life in the colonies and America. Seeking to rectify either of these absences, of course, would likely temper Griffin’s optimistic portrait of the industrial era.

Perhaps, however, there is something revealing in the way that Griffin clings with such tenacity to these sources, this archive as a privileged vessel of 19th-century working-class experience. This doubtless is in part an effect of the connection one develops to a set of sources over the course of an extended research project. I would suggest, however, that it also reveals something of the unexamined 21st-century values that saturate Griffin’s work. Despite Griffin’s recurrent metaphor of aural and verbal communication, listening and telling, she actually adheres to these sources because they are written. To the literate modern-day reader, they seem transparent, easy, authoritative, while the meandering and edited forms by which other sources might have lasted to today render them dubious and unverifiable. Calling her sources “unusual and unique,” Griffin asserts, “Here is a collection of personal stories freely narrated by the ordinary men and women we wish to understand… For all their shortcomings, the autobiographies offer the best way – indeed the only way – to examine the lives of working people during a critical epoch in world history” [10].

The poor, however, can “speak” to the historian in other ways, and oftentimes we might find them saying something quite different than the message Griffin would have us hear. During Griffin’s period, for example, more than 70,000 of the industrial poor subscribed to the Chartist land plan, fueled by a fervent belief in the degradation of industrial living and the superiority of agrarian life. (1) In omitting such unwritten voices from her work, Griffin does not listen to what they had to say. Likewise, Griffin treats the spread of writing itself as an unmitigated good, but in doing so, positions herself against the vast numbers of working-class Chartists who offered harsh critiques of the educational systems Griffin celebrates. They could see Sunday and day schools both providing a valuable good in a relentlessly competitive job market, but also imposing a system of control, doing violence to thought, in a way that tainted and complicated their benefits. They fought for control over their own and their children’s education, and lost it. They prized an oral, public culture, and lost that as well, meaning it is lost to Griffin and her readers too. This complex set of relations, unconfinable to either a “pessimistic” or “optimistic” view of industrialization, is not allowed to trouble Griffin’s narrative.

At times, however, a greater complexity is allowed into Griffin’s text, and one can briefly witness the kind of scholarship these sources might receive. When Griffin seeks to enter female voices into her narrative, she immediately finds that there are not enough female autobiographies, and she must partially construct female experiences through the representations of men. Here, she takes the only defensible route, and distinctly shifts her relationship to the texts. To reach toward the women she seeks, she reads through, reads against, and interprets the voices of the men who wrote about them. Likewise, in the book’s two most sparkling chapters, treating marriage and sex, Griffin finally takes seriously her sources’ difficulty and the presence of “a coded language that can be hard to decipher” [134]. Her sources’ reticence is something Griffin at once acknowledges, respects, and tries to explore.  Silences become eloquent. She even embraces context, mining prior scholarship for ways to access her sources better, as in a compelling integration of her autobiographies and E.A. Wrigley’s famous statistical analysis of marriage practices. Yet she justly subordinates the quantitative to the qualitative, insisting that it is the personal, the immediate that makes up the real material of history. The results can be funny, moving, and at times disturbing, as when Griffin sensitively negotiates the absences in her texts around sexual assault and same-sex desire. Griffin’s approach manages to be at once cautious, complex, and intimate.

So what of Griffin’s central thesis? In fact, her basic point seems inarguable – thoughtless idealization of an agrarian past is unwise, and likewise it is indefensible to ignore the vital, diverse ways working people seized and made use of the dynamism of industrialized society. But I would argue the question Griffin implicitly poses and answers is the kind of question that arises from assuming our sources are simply there, transparent – above all, available. Surely, to truly listen it is necessary to allow the speaker ambiguity, reticence, and strategy, rather than accepting only clear yeses or noes to questions determined by the listener. And surely one of the necessary elements of history is a kind of translation – marking and navigating the distance between sources’ meanings, perspectives and frameworks of understanding and the historian’s own.

Taken on Griffin’s terms, this work could lead one to a sense of easy closure, a belief that listening to these authors is little more than an act of charity or personal interest – after all, if everything worked out for the best, what need is there to hear these stories? Griffin certainly does not wish this conclusion to be reached, but it is the sources themselves that make it impossible. In their complexity, their contested meanings, they cry out for more, and more open-ended scholarship as they trace the shift from one deeply unequal, frequently dehumanizing social system to another – that which we still live in today. The hundreds of writers in this fantastically rich bibliography sought to find meaning and joy in their lives and pride in their collective struggles when faced with circumstances over which they had no control. They left us with the task of living in and dealing with the Industrial Revolution’s aftermath, but they did not leave us with easy questions or easy answers. Liberty’s Dawn makes an invaluable contribution; indeed, more British history books need to start looking like this. Yet through her problematic act of listening, Griffin only gestures towards a more meaningful revolution. She points the way, but she does not lead us there yet.


(1) Dorothy Thompson, The Chartists (London: Temple Smith, 1984) : 93.



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