Alton Locke is a poor, cockney (working-class), retail-tradesman’s son. His father had invested all his money in a small shop that failed; by contrast, Alton’s uncle has prospered and now owns several grocery stores. Desperately poor, Alton’s widowed mother asks the uncle to find Alton a position as a tailor’s apprentice.
The tailor’s establishment is Alton’s first experience of the world outside his mother’s strict Baptist household. The workroom is closed, stinking, and filthy, and most of the other tailors are gross, vulgar, and irreverent. Alton is, however, drawn to a coworker, John Crossthwaite, who is more thoughtful than the others. Locke wants to improve himself by reading. Having exhausted his mother’s few narrow Calvinist theological tomes, he discovers a used-book shop. The shop owner, Saunders “Sandy” Mackaye, befriends him, lends him books, and gives him a place to live after his mother evicts him for reading secular books.
One morning, Alton is summoned to his uncle’s office for an interview, during which he meets his cousin George, who is about to enter Cambridge University. Together, they visit an art gallery, where Alton sees the beautiful Lillian Winnstay along with her father, Dean Winnstay, and her cousin Eleanor Staunton. Alton instantly falls in love with Lillian and spends the following year looking for her in London and feeling bitter toward the gentlemen who can visit her because of their rank in society. His frustration finds release in poetry. At first, he writes mannered, Byronic trash until, under Sandy’s guidance, he finds his voice in poetry that describes the lives of the poor workers of London.
Meanwhile, Alton’s employer, wanting to increase his profit margin, changes his business focus to the so-called show-trade—cheap, flashy, ready-to-wear clothing—and orders his employees to do piecework at home for much lower wages. Crossthwaite organizes a protest, which Locke joins, but they lose their jobs when Jemmy Downes, one of their number, reports them to their employer. Angered at this injustice, and under Crossthwaite’s influence, Alton joins the Chartist movement, which advocates the vote for workers. Mackaye thinks that Alton is too young to become involved in politics; he advises him to visit his cousin George in Cambridge, and to ask him for help in finding a publisher for his poetry.
Alton’s stay at Cambridge is memorable for several reasons: He comes to know his cousin better and is at last introduced to the people he had seen at the gallery so long before. To obtain security, George has decided to become a Church of England priest, despite preparation and having been brought up a Baptist. Being self-centered,...
(The entire section is 1116 words.)