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Senate House Library

A Novel Approach: Social Campaigning through the works of Nicholas Nickleby and Michael Armstrong


In our latest blog, Tansy Barton, Co-Curator of our Childhood in Dickensian London exhibition and Academic Librarian: Manuscripts and Book Studies, explores the power of the socially-conscious novel...

A Novel Approach: Social Campaigning through the works of Nicholas Nickleby and Michael Armstrong

In the late 1830s, two London writers embarked on ‘tours of the North’ gathering material for their next works of fiction. The writers envisioned works that would have an impact on the hearts and minds of their readers and inspire social change. Both of the books feature in our exhibition: Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby (1838-39) addressed the very specific target of cheap Yorkshire Schools and the way they treated their pupils while Frances Trollope’s Michael Armstrong (1839-1840) took on the much larger problem of child labour and the conditions in the textile mills of the north.

Both had taken trips at the request of Lord Ashely, later the Earl of Shaftesbury, one of the main architects of factory legislation and reform. He recruited writers to advocate for his cause and to produce campaigning literature that would sway opinion towards support of further regulation of factory conditions. Both would produce works that addressed the systematic mistreatment of children but on different subjects and with very different results.

Michael Armstrong: ‘England’s first industrial novel’

Frances Trollope had begun publishing novels and memoirs in the 1830s as a means of income to support her family. These already had a campaigning edge, particularly her anti-slavery novel The Life and Adventures of Jonathan Jefferson Whitlaw (1836). She enthusiastically took up Lord Ashely’s and the Factory Movement’s cause for The Life and Adventures of Michael Armstrong, the Factory Boy, serialised in shilling parts from 1839. 

In February 1839, she travelled to Lancashire with her illustrator Auguste Hervieu, her son, Thomas, and letters of introduction from Ashley. They spent a month touring textile mills and meeting with reformers. The visits along with campaigning literature and parliamentary reports on factory reform informed her fictional exposé of the exploitation of children in mills.

The book tells the story of Michael Armstrong, a nine-year-old orphaned mill worker who is adopted by the mill’s owner in an act of showy philanthropy to impress a lady. Michael is soon abandoned to work in much worse conditions in another mill before eventually escaping and re-uniting with his brother.

Michael Armstrong is often described as 'England’s first industrial novel' for its setting among the textile mills of a fictionalised Manchester but the work was not received well. Trollope emphasised in the book that it was based on her first-hand observations but she was accused of drawing on out-of-date sources that didn’t reflect the current conditions in factories and mills.

Trollope was one of the first women to publish a novel in serialised parts, the low cost making it accessible to a wider audience. Along with the illustrations, this was seen as vulgar and unbecoming. The critics saw the content as incendiary and it inspired direct action against mills and factories. In the preface of the collected edition in 1840 Trollope distanced herself from ‘men who have stained their righteous cause with deeds of violence and blood’ and abandoned her plan for a second part of the novel covering Michael as a campaigner for factory workers.

For the love of children: Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby and the Yorkshire Schools

Charles Dickens also travelled to the North for Lord Ashley. But he did not take up the cause so enthusiastically. Writing to Ashely in December 1838 he showed some ambivalence towards the campaign but a desire to address the suffering of children:

[I] saw the worst cotton mill. And then I saw the best…there was no great difference between them… I mean to strike the heaviest blow in my power for these unfortunate creatures but whether I shall do so in the 'Nickleby,' or wait for some other opportunity, I have not yet determined.

Dickens did not address the conditions of the mills of Lancashire in Nicholas Nickleby. Instead, he aimed his pen at ‘Yorkshire Schools’, cheap boarding schools used by middle-class families as a way to educate their illegitimate and unwanted children. The conditions, treatment of children and standard of education were exposed to a wide audience and satirised in the book in the form of Dotheboys Hall and the sadistic schoolmaster Wackford Squeers. 

Dickens began publishing Nicholas Nickleby in parts in March 1838. Like Trollope, he drew on his observations and hoped to bring to the attention of his middle-class readers the mistreatment of children. The two novels publication overlapped and Dickens was incensed by what he saw as a poor imitation of his work, writing in a letter of February 1839 ‘If Mrs. Trollope were even to adopt Ticholas Tickleby as being a better-sounding name than Michael Armstrong, I don't think it would cost me a wink of sleep.’

The personal and political impact of the socially conscious novel

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.