|HISTORICAL BACKGROUND||ABOUT CHARLES LAMB||INTERPRETATION||RELEVANCE TODAY|
The years surrounding the publication of “Verses for an Album” were tumultuous for Great Britain. 1828, the year of the poem’s publication, marked the repeal of the Test Act. Instituted after the formation of the Anglican Church, the Test Act required that all holders of government offices be Anglicans, effectively shutting Dissenters, Catholics, and Jews out. The repeal of the Test Act is credited to the rise of the middle class, who tended be Protestant “non-conformists” (non-Anglican Protestants). Anna Barbauld, one of the greatest poets of the Romantic period (and a Protestant Dissenter), wrote a pamphlet directed at those who opposed the repeal of the Test Act in which she criticizes claims that its repeal would destroy the Church of England. The Test Act, she says, was designed to prop up an ailing church: “Fenced and guarded as she is with her exclusive privileges and rich emoluments [. . .] does she tremble at the naked and unarmed secretary?” Rather than reform the church and make it better for everyone, Barbauld insinuates that the clergy, together with the state, enacted legislation to artificially keep the church a viable institution. “Nonconformity was the usual creed of the self-made wealthy manufacturer; but it would never have been tolerated in the heyday of the Tory Party,” says T.K. Derry. The rise of the middle class – a trend that had begun back in the Restoration of 1660 – would prove to be important to Great Britain, for it was the middle class that caused changes in the structure and function of government with its demand for moderation, instead of extremes.
Politics at this time were tumultuous, as the House of Lords and the House of Commons competed for political control. The Tory Party, a conservative party that wanted to maintain the status quo, was dying as the growing middle class demanded reforms that gave them more control at the expense of the aristocracy. The problem was that voting in Britain was still limited to land-holding males, meaning that only aristocrats and upper middle-class men had any say in the government. The Reform Bill was introduced in 1831 as the solution to the problems of representation. The bill would redistribute Parliamentary seats and, most notably, extend the vote to men who lived on property worth £10 a year, which would double the size of the electorate to 800,000. As expected, the Reform Bill was rejected by the House of Lords in October, 1831, as it would have been a threat to their power. Britain erupted in riots in the months that followed, and the House of Lords was frightened enough to pass the bill in early 1832.
The new parliament enacted many social reforms. Slavery was completely abolished in Great Britain in 1833. Though the slave trade had been shut down in 1807, 1833 marked the year when people who still existed as slaves were freed. Also in 1833, the Factory Act prohibited employing children under 9 years old in textile mills, required that children between 9 and 13 be “half-timers,” and restricted 13-18 year-olds to twelve-hour workdays. The new parliament provided state grants for private education (mostly elementary schools operated by Nonconformists).
The guiding spirit behind all of these reforms was what Peter Borsay describes as “the culture of improvement.” He lays out several elements of improvement: “A commitment to change was fundamental. Not limited change, which stopped when a specified goal was reached, but an endless process of alteration and transformation. Nobody could rest on their [sic] heels. There was no end game, other than perhaps salvation, only a series of targets that once attained were replaced by others.” A scientific revolution was happening in Britain that encouraged the investigation of the natural world by empirical means, instead of relying on old precepts. Joseph Priestly discovered oxygen and Henry Cavendish discovered that water was a compound, composed of other elements, not an element in itself. Insanity was theorized to be due not to demonic possession but to a flaw in upbringing. Borsay observes that the culture of improvement “demonstrated a belief in the human capacity and responsibility to improve an imperfect world.”
Derry, T.K. British History from 1760 to 1964. London: G. Bell & Sons, 1965.
Borsay, Peter. “The Culture of Improvement.” The Eighteenth Century: 1688-1815. Ed. Paul Langford. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002. 183-210.