The value of Carlyle’s teaching lies in the fact that he insisted upon the sanctity of work. “All true work is religion,” he said, and the essence of every true religion is to be found in the words, “Know thy work and do it.”
The best test of the worth of every nation is to be found in their standard of life and work and their rejection of a life of idleness. “To make some nook of God’s Creation a little fruitfuller, better, more worthy of God; to make some human hearts, a little wiser, manfuler, happier—more blessed, less accursed! It is work for a God. . . . Unstained by wasteful deformities, by wasted tears or heart’s-blood of men, or any defacement of the Pit, noble, fruitful Labour, growing ever nobler, will come forth—the grand sole Miracle of Man, whereby Man has risen from the low places of this Earth, very literally, into divine Heavens. Ploughers, Spinners, Builders, Prophets, Poets, Kings: . . . all martyrs, and noble men, and gods are of one grand Host; immeasurable; marching ever forward since the beginnings of the World."
[Footnote 5: Carlyle, Past and Present.]
Carlyle was, above all things, sincere; he looked into the heart of things, and hated half-beliefs. Men, he said, were accustoming themselves to say what they did not believe in their heart of hearts. The standard of English work had become lower; it was ’cheap and nasty,’ and this in itself was a moral evil. Good must in time prevail over Evil; the Christian religion was the strongest thing in the world, and for this reason had conquered. He believed in wise compassion—that is to say, he kept his sympathy for those who truly deserved it, for the mass of struggling workers with few or none to voice their bitter wrongs.
His teachings are a moral tonic for the age, and though for a long time they were unpopular and distasteful to the majority, yet he lived to see much accomplished for which he had so earnestly striven.
Literature was beginning to take a new form. The novel of ‘polite’ society was giving place to the novel which pictured life in cruder and harsher colours. The life of the toiling North, of the cotton spinners and weavers was as yet unknown to most people.
In 1848 appeared Mary Barton, a book dealing with the problems of working life in Manchester. Mrs Gaskell, its author, who is best known to most readers by her masterpiece Cranford, achieved an instant success and became acquainted with many literary celebrities, including Ruskin, Dickens, and Charlotte Bronte, whose Life she wrote.
Mary Barton was written from the point of view of labour, and North and South, which followed some years later, from that of capital. Her books are exact pictures of what she saw around her during her life in Manchester, and many incidents from her own life appear in their pages.
North and South shows us the struggle not only between master and men, as representing capital and labour, but also between ancient and modern civilizations. The South is agricultural, easy-going, idyllic; the North is stern, rude, and full of a consuming energy and passion for work. These are the two Englands of Mrs Gaskell’s time.