How the Pen is Mightier than the Sword

Andrew Hughes M.A. (Dec 2014) Re-edited 28 May 2022

Nineteenth century Britain was a melting pot of political challenge and protest.  It had been fuelled by the French Revolution, influenced by the remains of the Enlightenment at the end of the eighteenth century and amplified by the radical demands of men like William Cobbett, Henry Hunt and Thomas Paine.

Far subtler than demanding the vote, campaigning against the Corn Laws or protesting against Catholic Emancipation, was the underlying message of art, literature and poetry. Its gentle and manipulative message groomed the hearts and minds of a developing nation ready for change after the Industrial Revolution. The pen was mightier than the sword. Changes in education made it possible for new generations to be influenced by powerful poetry, literature, music and art. Intellectual individualism started to challenge the traditional authority.  Underlying messages gave long-term imputes and dimension to the more obvious calls for change. This was not an individual effort to challenge authority. Literature, whilst demonstrating a personal message, collectively and subliminally demonstrated the results of a decadent and decaying socio-political and ecclesiastical establishment with elements of political turpitude; with corruption and perpetuating sinecures. It was not the writer or the poet as an individual who challenged society but the message that he created along with his contemporaries. It was the art and not the artist. However, Isaiah Bloom described the Romanticism era as striving for movement and change either as individuals or collectively.[1] Bloom was wrong; it was a reduced religious focus in books, plays, poetry and even music that challenged the order of the day. Just as science had challenged religious authority that had already come under attack in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, literature was pushing forward this new thinkers’ radicalism.

Victorian literature challenged authority because it pushed the boundaries of traditional values, sexuality and political experimentation.  Romanticism in the arts peaked between the years 1800 and 1850, reacting to the Industrial Revolution, opposing aristocratic political dominance and in turn influencing radicalism and nationalism. This literary iron fist in a silk glove started with Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballards in 1798, detailing the hardship of the nation’s poor. The message was reinforced over the next few decades by Mr and Mrs Shelley (his politics and her science), as well as Byron and Keats. Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, 1838, attacked the New Poor Law of 1834 and the subsequent harshness of the workhouse.  Samuel Smiles illustrated rise of successful men from humble beginnings in his book Self-Help in 1859 energised ambition. Smiles’ meritocratic theme directly challenged inherited wealth and power just a few years before further reform demands led to the Reform Act of 1867. Even Mrs Beeton challenged the authority of domestic gender in her 1861 in her Book of Household Management. The practicalities of Mrs Beeton were no less powerful than the unholy Gothic literature of the day which was bursting with sin and forbidden pleasure. It showed that religion was no longer in control; the Church was less of an Erastian tool. In the same year, the very readers who had once unquestioningly respected the pedigree of their patricians were absorbing Dickens’ message against self-indulgence and social status in Great Expectations. It is here that Pip rose from apprentice to Gentleman but endured guilt for not earning his own wealth whilst suffering the ‘shame’ of his common roots. It was at the end of the century that the social pecking order came under its biggest threat with the 1894 inheritance tax that destroyed aristocratic wealth for generations.

The second half of the nineteenth century also saw the emergence of Realism over Romanticism in literature and art, still challenging authority but by a more direct presentation of difficult social issues.  Unapologetic images by Herkomer’s and Fildes’ paintings counter argued a more subtle Romanticism.  After the three Reform Acts of 1832, 1867 and 1884, authority was still challenged by literature when Modernism emerged at the end of the century to challenge the new bourgeois social order.

However, not all literature and art had a radical message. George Cruikshank’s picture The British Beehive showed the rigidity of social class and occupational divisions, almost celebrating life’s pecking order. Harold Bloom (1959) warned of the dangers of ‘politicising literary studies’ stating that it could deter those who want to read and learn for pleasure.[3] Meanwhile, aesthetic views of literature and the arts did not appreciate political, ethical or moral links, favouring simplistic values of taste and beauty. Others would argue that the influence of Shelley, Keats and Byron, for example, were limited because their popularity was centred on the Continent and not at home. Literature offered a thematic and continuous challenge to tradition and authority spreading the message of the ‘need’ for change and massaging emotions. Literature did not just record, recall and rationalise history, but sometimes created its pathway, nature and speed.

[1] I. Berlin, The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Humanity, 2nd Edition. (London: Pimlico, 1959), p.96.                                                                                                                                           

[2] J. Mullans, 'Middlemarch: Reform and Change', 2013, (Accessed 30/12/14).

[3] H. Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence, A Theory of Poetry, 2nd Edition (New York: OUP, 1973), p. xvi.