Against the Machine: Luddites

Written by Brian Van Norman
Review by Ann Chamberlin

1812. England faces Bonaparte and a war in America. Novels from this period like Jane Austen’s can ignore this darker side as ladies stroll through the grounds in floating empire gowns and meet dashing soldiers. On the other hand, in novels like this one, you can learn what those soldiers stationed on English ground—more of them there than were actually fighting France—were really up to as the Industrial Revolution took hold in Yorkshire and other counties in the north. The human cost upon which the likes of Charles Bingley made their fortunes initiated untold human suffering.

I found the first couple of chapters daunting as we were introduced to numerous characters in clumps: one group, the impoverished Luddites, who were trying to save their livelihoods against machines concentrating the means of production into fewer and fewer hands. On the other side amassed the owners of those machines and the mills they ran on water or coal power. These introductions were made in a way that made it difficult to sort one common English name from another.

After that, the more important characters came quickly to life, in scenes of debased cruelty as well as elevating heroism. I found the whole saga very engaging, particularly so as we come to understand that these are real historical characters, drawn from court records and lists of wanted and condemned men. Their descendants—including me—walk among us today. The research and style are commendable for accuracy and their ability to evoke the time period.

Parallels to technology’s stranglehold on lives and livelihoods today are seamlessly but not anachronistically drawn.