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The Chartist Movement and Literature

The Chartist Movement and Literature Essay - Critical Essays

The Chartist Movement and Literature


The Chartist Movement and Literature

Chartist literature stands as an important source of historical and cultural information about working-class life in nineteenth-century Great Britain. The movement from which the literature arose flourished from about 1837 to 1854. Committed to improving the lives of working-class people and achieving democratic political reforms, Chartism was a powerful and influential response to the industrial revolution and the growth of an entrepreneurial middle class. The movement's Charter of 1838 advocated six points: universal suffrage, yearly elections, secret ballots, no property-owning qualifications for members of Parliament, equal electoral districts, and salaries for members of Parliament. While the six points of the Charter dealt specifically with voting and electoral reform, Chartism came to encompass much broader social, political and cultural goals. Notably a movement of a literate and often self-educated working class, Chartism from the start inspired a large body of literature, including speeches, essays, poetry and songs, stories, and novels—all of which appeared in the extensive Chartist press. In addition to producing its own literature, the movement was sometimes represented, usually critically, in the industrial novels of middle-class writers such as Elizabeth Gaskell and Charles Kingsley. The organized movement had dissolved by the mid 1850s, yet it left an important legacy for the later development of socialist literature and the Labour Movement in England.

Chartism emerged in the 1830s in response to difficult economic circumstances and numerous restrictions and laws which benefited the middle and upper classes at the expense of working-class people. Important precursors were the unstamped press, which priced newspapers out of the reach of the lower classes, and Ebenezer Elliot—the "Corn-Law Rhymer"—who set an example of political poetry in the 1830s. Virtually all Chartist writing was published in the Northern Star or in one of the dozens of other papers that made up the Chartist press. Along with essays and speeches, the early writing emphasized poetry and songs. These were intended to inspire and educate a popular audience, blending the folk language of protest with more complex ideas of class and social reform. After 1848, as the movement's impetus merged with larger political reforms sweeping Europe, there was more fiction—stories that were moral fables, and serial novels that examined the movement and its leaders. Two of the most enduring of the latter are Ernest Jones's De Brassier: A Democratic Romance (1851-52) and Thomas Martin Wheeler's Sunshine and Shadow: A Tale of the Nineteenth Century (1849-50). After the demise of the movement, some of its leaders and participants turned to writing autobiographical and historical accounts.

Much of the literature produced by Chartists is considered weak and not especially memorable. As such it has greater historical than literary value. All of the leading Chartist writers were movement leaders as much as—or often more than—poets and novelists. Their verse typically aimed, like popular ballads or protest songs, for a wide and uncritical audience. Some of the poets, notably Thomas Cooper, aspired to the highest literary standards and used complex forms and meters, but such efforts were less than successful, and generally failed to reach the intended audience. Chartist novels borrowed plot structures and styles from popular romantic fiction and struggled with the tension between artistic aims and didactic purpose. Along with their own self-representations, Chartism and its concerns and leaders were portrayed by middle-class industrial and social reform novelists. Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton (1848) and Benjamin Disraeli's Sybil; or, the Two Nations (1845) both deal with Chartist concerns, while Charles Kingsley's Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet. An Autobiography (1850) is generally considered to have been inspired by Thomas Cooper's works.

Chartism as a political and social movement had run its course by around 1854, though various writings by and about Chartists would continue to be published for the next few decades. While the movement as a whole failed to achieve any of its stated political goals, it had a lasting impact on the development of working-class culture. Most importantly, the movement is credited with shaping a working-class consciousness amenable to the new middle class as well as to the traditional aristocracy. It also marked the emergence of a working-class literary voice and the possibility of self-representation, which led to the first full and positive portraits of working-class lives. All of this ultimately helped shape the socialist novels of the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Representative Works

Ben Brierly

Tales and Sketches of Lancashire Life. 5 vols. (stories) 1862-3

John Burland

Poems on Various Subjects (poems) 1865

James Burnley

Looking for the Dawn: A Tale of the West Riding (novel) 1874

Thomas Cooper

The Demagogue: A Comedy in Five Acts (drama) 1841

The Purgatory of Suicides, A Prison Rhyme (poem) 1845

Wise Saws and Modern Instances (stories) 1845

Alderman Ralph, or the History of the Borough and Corporation of Willowacre (novel) 1853

The Family Feud (novel) 1856

Old-fashioned Stories (stories) 1874

Poetical Works (poems) 1886

Benjamin Disraeli

Sybil; or, the Two Nations (novel) 1845

Thomas Doubleday

Political Pilgrim's Progress (novel) 1839

John M. Fothergill

Gaythorne Hall (novel) 1884

Thomas Frost

The Secret (novel) 1850

Elizabeth Gaskell

Mary Barton (novel) 1848

North and South (novel) 1855

M. C. Halifax

After Long Years (novel) 1874

Ernest Jones

"A Factory Town" (poem) 1847

"The Funeral of the Year and Its Epitaph" (poem) 1848

De Brassier: A Democratic Romance (novel) 1851-2

The Lass and the Lady; or, Love's Ladder [completed by Thomas Frost] (novel) 1853-5

The Maid of Warsaw, or the Tyrant Czar; A Tale of the Last Polish Insurrection (novel) 1854

Women's Wrongs: A Series of Tales (stories) 1855

William Jones

Poems, Descriptive, Progressive, and Humourous (poems) 1853

Charles Kingsley

Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet. An Autobiography (novel) 1850

W. J. Linton

"Hymns to the Unenfranchised" (poems) 1839

Records of the World's Justice (sketches) 1839

Harriet Martineau

The Rioters, a Tale (novel) 1842

Gerald Massey

Voices of Freedom and Lyrics of Love (poems) 1851

Poems and Ballads (poems) 1854

Poetical Works (poems) 1861

Henry Solly

James Woodford, Carpenter and Chartist (novel) 1881

John Watkins

What are your Politics? or, Judge for Yourself (drama) 1840

*John Frost: A Chartist Play in Five Acts (drama) 1841

Thomas Martin Wheeler

Sunshine and Shadow: A Tale of the Nineteenth Century (novel) 1849-50

*This play was published in a second edition in 1842 as John Frost, a Political Drama in Five Acts.

Overview: Nineteenth-Century Working-Class Fiction

Mark Hovell

SOURCE: "The Charter and its Origin," in The Chartist Movement, edited by T. F. Tout, Longmans, Green & Co., 1918, pp. 1-7.

[In the following essay,Hovell outlines the evolution of the Chartist movement, from its "working class" origins to its "radical" end.]

The Chartist Movement, which occupied so large a space in English public affairs during the ten years 1838 to 1848, was a movement whose immediate object was political reform and whose ultimate purpose was social regeneration. Its programme of political reform was laid down in the document known as the "People's Charter," issued in the spring of 1838. Its social aims were never defined, but they were sufficiently, though variously, described by leading men in the movement.

It was a purely working-class movement, originating exclusively and drawing its whole following from the industrialised and unpropertied working class which had but recently come into existence. For the most part it was a revolt of this body against intolerable conditions of existence. That is why its programme of social amelioration was vague and negative. It was an attempt on the part of the less educated portion of the community to legislate for a new and astounding condition of society whose evils the more enlightened portion had been either helpless or unwilling to remedy. The decisive character of the political aims of the Chartists bespeaks the strength of political tradition in England.

The "People's Charter" is a draft of an Act of Parliament, a Bill to be presented to the House of Commons.1 It is drawn up in a clear and formal but not too technical style, with preamble, clauses, and penalties, all duly set forth. It is a lengthy document, occupying some nineteen octavo pages, but brevity itself in comparison with a fully-drawn Bill for the same purpose from the hands of a Parliamentary draughtsman. The preamble is as follows:

Whereas to insure, in as far as it is possible by human forethought and wisdom, the just government of the people, it is necessary to subject those who have the power of making the laws to a wholesome and strict responsibility to those whose duty it is to obey them when made,

And whereas this responsibility is best enforced through the instrumentality of a body which emanates directly from, and is immediately subject to, the whole people, and which completely represents their feelings and interests,

And whereas the Commons' House of Parliament now exercises in the name and on the supposed behalf of the people the power of making the laws, it ought, in order to fulfill with wisdom and with honesty the great duties imposed on it, to be made the faithful and accurate representation of the people's wishes, feelings, and interests.

The definite provisions fall under six heads—the famous "Six Points" of the charter. First, every male adult is entitled to the franchise in his district after a residence of three months.2 Second, voting is by ballot. Third, there will be three hundred constituencies divided as equally as possible on the basis of the last census, and rearranged after each census. Fourth, Parliament is to be summoned and elected annually. Fifth, there is to be no other qualification for election to Parliament beyond the approval of the electors—that is, no property qualification. Sixth, members of Parliament are to be paid for their services.—

Besides these fundamentals of a democratic parliamentary system, there are minor but highly important provisions. The Returning Officers are to be elected simultaneously with the members of Parliament, and they are to be paid officials. All elections are to be held on one and the same day, and plural voting is prohibited under severe penalties. There is no pauper disqualification.3 All the expenses of elections are to be defrayed out of an equitable district-rate. Canvassing is illegal, and there are to be no public meetings on the day of election. A register of attendance of the members of Parliament is to be kept—a logical outcome of payment. For the infringement of the purity of elections, for plural voting, canvassing, and corrupt practices, imprisonment is the only penalty; for neglect, fines.4

As an arrangement for securing the purity of elections and the adequate representation of public opinion in the House of Commons, the "People's Charter" is as nearly perfect as could be desired, and if a sound democratic government could be achieved by the perfection of political machinery, the Chartist programme would accomplish this desirable end. The Chartists, like the men of 1789 in France, placed far too great a faith in the beneficent effects of logically devised democratic machinery. This is the inevitable symptom of political inexperience. We shall nevertheless see that there were Chartists, and those the best minds in the movement, who realised that there were other forces working against democracy which could not be removed by mechanical improvements, but must be combated by a patient education of the mind and a building up of the material welfare of the common people—the forces of ignorance, vice, feudal and aristocratic tradition.

The political Chartist programme is now largely incorporated into the British Constitution, though we have wisely rejected that multiplication of elections which would either exhaust public interest or put an end to the stability and continuity of administration and policy. In itself the Chartist Movement on its political side represents a phase of an agitation for Parliamentary Reform which dates in a manner from the reign of Elizabeth.5 The agitation began therefore when Parliament itself began to play a decisive part in public affairs, and increased in vehemence and scope according as the importance of Parliament waxed.

The abuses of the representative system were already recognised and turned to advantage by politicians, royal and popular, during the latter half of the sixteenth and the first half of the seventeenth century; but beyond a single timid attempt at reform by James I, nothing was attempted until the great politico-religious struggle between 1640 and 1660. It is here that we must look for the origins of modern radical and democratic ideas. The fundamentals of the representative system came up for discussion, and in the Instrument of Government, the written constitution which established the Protectorate in 1653, a drastic scheme of reform, including the normalisation of the franchise and a sweeping redistribution of seats, was made. In the preliminaries to this the question whether true representation was of persons or of property, which goes to the root of the matter, was debated long and earnestly by the Army in 1647. In the debate on the Agreement of the People, the Radical and Whig standpoints are clearly exhibited.6

Mr. Pettus—Wee judge that all inhabitants that have not lost their birthright should have an equal voice in Elections.

Rainborough—I think its clear that every man that is to live under a Government, ought first by his own consent to putt himself under that Government.

Ireton—. . . You must fly for refuge to an absolute naturall right. . . . For my parte I think itt is noe Right att all. I think that noe person hath a right to an interest or share in the disposing or determining of the affaires of the kingdome and in chusing those that shall determine what lawes wee shall bee ruled by heere, noe person hath a right to this, that hath not a permanent fixed interest in this kingdome.

Here obviously the question of manhood or property suffrage is the issue. Colonel Rich declared that manhood suffrage would be the end of property.

Those that have noe interest in the kingdome will make itt their interest to choose those that have noe interest. Itt may happen that the majority may by law, not in a confusion, destroy properties: there may bee a law enacted that there shall bee an equality of goods and estate.7

There was at the same time a demand for short and regular Parliaments, and that elections should be made "according to some rule of equality or proportion" based upon "the respective rates they (the counties and boroughs) bear in the common charges and burdens of the kingdome . . . to render representing House of Commons as neere as may bee an equal representative of the whole body of the People that are to elect." Parliament was to be elected biennially and to sit not more than eight months or less than four.8

Here, therefore, is the nucleus of a Radical Programme: Manhood Suffrage, Short Parliaments, and Equal Representation. We have even a hint at the doctrine of "absolute naturall right," which lies at the base of modern democratic theory since the French Revolution, and which found an echo in the minds of all Chartists two hundred years after the famous debates at Putney. With the downfall of the Commonwealth such conceptions of abstract political justice were snowed under by the Whig-Tory reaction. Henceforth both parties stoutly upheld the "stake in the kingdom" idea of representation. The height of this reaction came in the High Tory days of Queen Anne, when the legal foundations of the aristocratic regime were laid. The imposition of a property qualification upon would-be members of Parliament dates from 1710, when it was enacted that the candidate for a county must possess £600 a year and for a borough £300 a year, in both cases derived from landed property.9 This act was passed in the face of some Whig opposition, as the Whigs would have made exceptions in favour of the wealthy merchants of their party. Two years later followed the first of the enactments throwing election expenses upon the candidate.10 A further diminution of popular control resulted from the Septennial Act, though this was a Whig measure.

The Radical tradition, however, was not dead but sleeping. It lived on amongst the dissenting and nonconformist sections, whose ancestors had fought and debated in the days of Cromwell and had been evicted in 1662. The revival of Nonconformity under the stimulus of Methodism, the growth of political and historical criticism during the eighteenth century, and the growing estrangement between the House of Commons and the people at large, brought about a resurrection of Radicalism. In the second half of the century the Radical Programme appeared in full vigour.

The first plank of the Radical platform to be brought into public view was the shortening of the duration of Parliaments. In 1744 leave to bring in a Bill establishing Annual Parliaments was refused only by a small majority. In 1758 another Bill was refused leave by a much more decisive vote. In 1771 Alderman Sawbridge failed to obtain leave to introduce a similar measure, although he had the moral support of no less important persons than Chatham and Junius.11 In the same year a Wilkite society recommended that Parliamentary candidates should pledge themselves to support a Bill to "shorten the duration of Parliaments and to reduce the number of Placemen and Pensioners in the House of Commons, and also to obtain a more fair and equal representation of the people."12

By this time the flood of controversy aroused by the Wilkes cases was in full flow, and the tide of Radical opinion was swelled by the revolt of the American Colonies. In 1774 Lord Stanhope, and in 1776 the famous Major John Cartwright, published more sweeping plans of Parliamentary Reform. Cartwright's scheme is set forth in the pamphlet, Take your Choice. Annual Parliaments and the payment of members are defended and advocated on the ground that they were "the antient practice of the Constitution," an argument which was a mainstay of the Chartist leaders. Payment of members was in force down to the seventeenth century, the oft-cited Andrew Marvell receiving wages from his Hull constituents as late as 1678. In claiming Annual Parliaments as a return to ancient ways Cartwright had the authority, such as it was, of Swift.13 Universal suffrage, vote by ballot, and the abolition of plural voting also found a place in Cartwright's scheme, but he maintained the property qualification for members of Parliament.14 Thus four of the six "points" of the Charter were already admitted into the Radical programme. It only required a few years to add equal electoral districts and the abolition of the property qualification.

These were added by a committee of reformers under the guidance of Fox in 1780. The whole programme figured in the interrupted speech of the Duke of Richmond in the House of Lords in the same year and in the programme of the Society of the Friends of the People (1792-95). The Chartists were not unaware of the long ancestry of their principles.15 There was a prophetic succession of Radicals between 1791, when the first working men's Radical society—the London corresponding Society—was founded, and 1838, when the Charter was published. Down to the outbreak of the French Revolution the Radical faith in England, as in France, was mainly confessed in middle-class and some aristocratic circles. Wilkes, Fox, Sawbridge, and the Duke of Richmond are types of these early Radicals. With the opening of the States-General and the rapid increase of terrorism in France the respectable English Radicals began to shelve their beliefs. On the other hand, the lower classes rallied strongly to the cause of Radical reform, and the Radical programme fell into their keeping, remaining their exclusive property for the next forty years. When the middle class in the days after Waterloo returned to the pursuit of Parliamentary Reform, it was reform of a much less ambitious character. The working classes still held to the six points. During these forty years Radicalism became a living faith amongst the working class. It had had its heroes and its prophets and its martyrs, and when the salvation promised by the Whig reform of 1832 had proved illusory, it was perfectly natural to raise once more, in the shape of the "People's Charter," the ancient standard of popular reform.

By this time, however, the six points had acquired a wholly different significance. In the minds of the early Radicals they had represented the practical realisation of the vague notions of natural right. The programme was a purely political one, and was scarcely connected either with any specific projects of social or other reforms, or with any particular social theory. It represented an end in itself, the realisation of democratic theory. By 1838 the Radical programme was recognised no longer as an end in itself, but as the means to an end, and the end was the social and economic regeneration of society.


1 The Charter is divided into thirteen sections:

  • Preamble.
  • Franchise.
  • Equal Electoral Districts.
  • Registration Officer.
  • Returning Officer
  • Deputy Returning Officer
  • Registration Clerk.
  • Arrangement for Registration.
  • Arrangement for Nominations.
  • Arrangement for Elections.
  • Annual Parliaments.
  • Payment of Members.
  • Penalties.

2 Residence of three months is only mentioned casually, in connection with registration.

3 Added in 1842.

4 For full text see [William Lovett, Life and Struggles of William Lovett. London, 1876], pp. 449 et seq. This is the revised edition of 1842, but is substantially the same as that of 1838.

5 [E. and A. G. Porritt. The Unreformed House of Commons.Parliamentary Representation before 1832. Cambridge (University Press), 1903], i, 1.

6 [W. Clarke. The Clarke Papers, 1647-49, 1651-60, edited by C. H. Firth. 3 vols.], i. 299-307.

7Ibid. p. 315.

8Ibid. pp. 363 et seq., "Agreement of the People." Gardiner, Select Documents of the Puritan Revolution, "Heads of the Proposals."

9 Porritt, i. 166.

10Ibid. i. 185-195.

11 [G. S. Veitch. The Genesis of Parliamentary Reform. London, 1913], p. 34.

12Ibid. p. 32.

13Life of Major John Cartwright, by his niece F. D. Cartwright, London, 1826, i. 82.

14 Veitch, p. 48.

15 Lovett, Life and Struggles, p. 168. The preface to the first (1838) edition of the "People's Charter" contains a brief history of the "Six Points" from 1776 onwards.

P. J. Keating

SOURCE: "The Two Traditions, 1820-80," in The Working Classes in Victorian Fiction, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971, pp. 1-30.

[In this excerpt from a book about the working classes in Victorian fiction, Keating provides an overview and analysis of mid-century industrial and urban fiction.]


'If you look for the working classes in fiction,' wrote George Orwell in 1940, 'and especially English fiction, all you find is a hole.' He goes on to qualify this statement:

For reasons that are easy enough to see, the agricultural labourer (in England a proletarian) gets a fairly good showing in fiction, and a great deal has been written about criminals, derelicts and, more recently, the working-class intelligentsia. But the ordinary town proletariat, the people who make the wheels go round, have always been ignored by novelists. When they do find their way between the covers of a book, it is nearly always as objects of pity or as comic relief.1

It is important to distinguish between the quantitative and qualitative judgements being made by Orwell. On the one hand, it is simply untrue that the urban working classes ('the people who make the wheels go round') have always been ignored by novelists. There is, in fact, a considerable body of English fiction which deals with, or purports to deal with, not merely the exceptions acknowledged by Orwell but 'the ordinary town proletariat'. In the Victorian period alone there were some hundreds of novels written on this very subject. On the other hand, Orwell's objection to the presentation of the working classes 'when they do find their way between the covers of a book', while a slight exaggeration, is more just. For there are few English novels which deal with working-class characters in a working-class environment in the same sense as there are novels about the middle or upper classes in their own recognizably real settings: in other words, novels which treat of the working class as being composed of ordinary human beings who experience the range of feelings and emotions, social aspirations and physical relationships, that it is the special province of the novelist to explore.

Most working-class novels are, in one way or another, propagandist. They are usually written by authors who are not working class, for an audience which is not working class, and character and environment are presented so as to contain, implicitly or explicitly, a class judgement. The author may wish to show, for instance, that the working classes are basically no different from other people, or that they are, in a spiritual sense at least, more fortunate than other social groups: or that they are not at heart violent and so long as their just complaints are listened to sympathetically the middle and upper classes have nothing to fear from them. Or even more directly, that they need help, that they shouldn't drink, that more schools, hospitals or workhouses—as the case may be—should be built for them. Put simply the most important single fact about the fictional working man is his class.

The historical reason for this is easy to see. During the nineteenth century there were two periods when a significant number of novelists seriously attempted to present the working classes in fiction. Both were times of social upheaval when real or imagined class fears compelled people to look afresh at the basic social, economic and political structure of society. In the 1840s and 50s the motivating force was the outcry over the condition of industrial workers, together with the middle-class panic engendered by Chartist politics: in the period 1880-1900 it was the problem of urban slum conditions and the widespread public debate on Socialism. The fictional response in both periods was almost entirely non-working class. For the novelist who wished to write about the working classes but was not himself from a working-class background, the publicity arising out of these moments of crisis enabled him to create a social framework for his fiction within which he could present a way of life in every respect alien to his own, and closed to him at moments of greater stability. In both periods the fictional response trails behind political and social reform movements. The industrial novel develops only after the Blue Books and Chartism have paved the way, and the urban novel of the 1890s has a similar dependence on reform agitation of the previous decade. This is one reason for the narrow range of working-class experience presented in fiction, and it also explains why the fiction of each period is dominated and restricted by the single image of a Victorian city. In the earlier period Manchester is used to symbolize both the greatness and shame of Industrial England;2 in the later period the East End of London serves the same dual function for Imperial England. In both cases novelists were following rather than anticipating the forces making for change. When the crisis declined the interest of novelists declined also.

In so far as it is possible to talk at all of a genuine working-class literary tradition in the Victorian age, it is to be found in certain regional poets (both dialect and non-dialect), in a considerable mass of Chartist verse and doggerel, and most interestingly in the memoirs of working men who rose to positions of eminence in public life. Apart from a few Chartist novels imaginative prose is non-existent.3 A critical search in Victorian literature for a working-class tradition leads inevitably to the pessimistic conclusion reached by William Empson: 'It is hard for an Englishman to talk definitely about proletarian art, because in England it has never been a genre with settled principles, and such as there is of it, that I have seen, is bad.'4

Theoretically, of course, it is not necessary to be of the working class to write an outstanding novel about the working class, as É mile Zola's great trilogy, L'Assommoir (1877), Germinal (1885) and La Terre (1887) indicates. Nor does it follow that a workingman turned novelist will be able to write a good novel about his own class. Thomas Wright and Robert Blatchford are perfect examples of working-class writers who produced important documentary studies of working-class life and very poor novels on the same subject. Nor again is it a matter of sympathy for or hostility towards the workers as a class. This is almost totally unimportant. The crucial point is whether the novelist is effectively committed to artistic principles or to an overt class viewpoint. Most Victorian novelists come into the second category, and their presentation of working-class characters can be seen to become more successful as they themselves retreat from a position of authorial didacticism. This was very much the point made by Engels in his famous letter to Margaret Harkness:

I am far from finding fault with your not having written a purely socialist novel, a Tendenzroman, as we Germans call it, to glorify the social and political views of the author. That is not at all what I mean. The more the author's views are concealed the better for the work of art. The realism I allude to may creep out even in spite of the author's views. Let me refer to an example.

Engels's example is Balzac, whose sense of realism was so intense that it compelled him 'to go against his own class sympathies and political prejudices'.5 What Engels is praising in Balzac is his analysis of social relationships, not his treatment of working-class characters—there are in fact no urban or industrial workers in the Comédie humaine. With the partial exception of Dickens, this sense of realism is not applicable to the English novelists, who usually present working-class characters in relation to a specific social issue, and are therefore pre-eminently concerned with a form of realism analogous to a sociological document or parliamentary report. In their work we do not feel the realism creeping through in spite of the author's personal views. Rather, the reverse is true—we are too often conscious that the author's concern with social antidotes has weakened the power of his documentary realism. The constant presence of social purpose in the working-class novel leads to a manipulation of the characters' actions, motives and speech, in order that they may be used finally to justify a class theory held by the author. However hard the novelist tries to suppress his sympathy, or hostility, his own class viewpoint becomes transparently clear, and the artistic value of the particular work suffers. This is obvious enough when applied, for instance, to a temperance reform tale, but it is also true, in varying degrees, of most working-class novels written in the nineteenth century. Too often individual working-class scenes in Victorian novels are praised for their historical accuracy, while the total pattern and effect of the novel is either ignored or excused. When we look more closely at how exactly working-class characters are treated in relation to characters of other classes, we find time and time again that the novelist has unconsciously set into motion a process of avoidance which prevents him from dealing with his professed subject—the working classes.

This central weakness is most apparent in the imposition of unnatural values and attitudes upon working-class characters, allowing them free expression and a full life only in so far as this fits in with the author's preconceived, socially desirable image of them. William Empson's observation that 'proletarian literature usually has a suggestion of pastoral, a puzzling form which looks proletarian but isn't',6 is very relevant here. For although it is not my intention to use the phrase 'proletarian literature' in the sense that Empson uses it ('the propaganda of the factory-working class which feels its interests opposed to the factory owners'), his perceptive exploration of the ways that pastoral conventions may be subconsciously employed to hide latent radical or political ideas has a worth beyond the Marxist frame within which he places it. The technique, or to use Empson's terminology again, the 'trick' of pastoral, appears under many strange guises in Victorian working-class fiction, and just because a novelist will often vehemently defend his working-class scenes on the grounds of realism, this should not allow us to ignore the fact that what is carefully observed class reality to the author may well come over as pastoral to the reader.

Any attempt to show how the working classes are portrayed in Victorian fiction must return again and again to the apparent difficulties experienced by novelists in trying to establish a balance between commitment to a class viewpoint and artistic form. Prior to 1880 the problem is there but novelists seem barely conscious of it: after 1880 it becomes an issue of central importance and is most successfully resolved, I shall argue, in the short stories and ballads of Rudyard Kipling. Before looking in detail at the attempts by late-Victorian writers to solve this and other problems, it is necessary, if we are to be sure of what is new and what inherited in their work, to place them in a wider nineteenth-century setting.


The industrial novel of the 1840s and 50s is the only type of English working-class fiction to have received much attention from literary and social historians. In comparison the novel of non-industrial urban working-class life has been totally ignored. Ever since Orwell's common-sense rejection of Dickens as a 'proletarian writer' (a critical approach which differed little from that of Gissing forty years earlier), it has generally been accepted that the 'people who make the wheels go round' hardly exist in fiction, and certainly cannot be said to constitute a viable literary tradition. It is only in recent years that the work of George Gissing and Rudyard Kipling has been treated with the respect it deserves and so far this revaluation has produced little that is new on their contributions to working-class fiction. The slum novelists of the nineties have received even less favourable treatment, and are usually dismissed by literary historians as inferior imitators of either Zola or Dickens, according to the historian's point of view.

This prejudice in favour of the industrial novel is particularly surprising because not only were there far more novels written during the Victorian period which deal with the urban rather than the industrial working class, but in qualitative terms there is little to choose between the two. The industrial novels have retained a lasting interest largely because of their unusual subject matter, but hitherto the same critical allowance has not been given to the urban novel. Yet the fiction produced by writers such as Augustus Mayhew, Gissing, Kipling, Arthur Morrison, Henry Nevinson or Somerset Maugham is as successful as anything in the industrial tradition with the possible exception of Hard Times, the first half of Mary Barton and North and South. And if this fiction is considered for its presentation of the working classes then Hard Times also disappears and we are left with Mrs Gaskell as the sole representative. One major reason for this discrimination is the difficulty of defining what exactly is meant by the two words 'working' and 'class'. This can be clarified by examining how the meanings differ when applied to two separate literary traditions—the industrial and the urban.

To talk of the industrial tradition is to mean a handful of novels written primarily in the fourth and fifth decades of the nineteenth century. The earliest is Harriet Martineau's A Manchester Strike (1832). This is followed by Mrs Trollope's Michael Armstrong (1839-40); Helen Fleetwood (1839-40) by 'Charlotte Elizabeth' [Mrs Tonna]; Disraeli's Coningsby (1844) and Sybil (1845); Mrs Gaskell's Mary Barton (1848) and North and South (1855); and Dickens's Hard Times (1854). There the tradition virtually ends until the twentieth century. As has already been suggested, interest in industrialism as a subject for fiction was closely related to the rise and decline of Chartism, and once public concern with this particular form of conflict abated so did the novelist's ready-made frame of reference. In the 1860s and 70s the old framework was no longer valid, and novelists, lacking the kind of personal involvement that might have led them to write naturally of working-class life, simply waited until a new social framework was created for them. Then there was a resurgence of working-class fiction.

Of later industrial novels there is George Eliot's Felix Holt (1866), the only important novel written in response to the agitation for working-class enfranchisement in the sixties, and more concerned with this than industrialism; Charles Reade's attack on Trade Union villainy, Put Yourself in His Place (1870); Gissing's Demos (1886), in which the workers are urban rather than industrial; and William Morris's dream utopia News From Nowhere (1891), in which no recognizably real worker of any kind appears. The only late-Victorian industrial novel which deserves a place beside those of Mrs Gaskell and Disraeli is W. E. Tirebuck's now totally forgotten Miss Grace of All Souls (1895), certain passages of which Tolstoy was reported to have described as among 'the best examples of modern English fiction'.7

There is no difficulty about defining the worker in these novels. He is part of a composite portrait called Labour and is shown to be in bitter conflict with a further composite portrait called Capital. The Oxford English Dictionary gives as a definition of 'working class': 'The grade or grades of society comprising those who are employed to work for wages in manual or industrial occupations'; and defines 'class' as: 'A number of individuals . . . possessing common attributes, and grouped together under a general or "class" name.' The industrial worker fits perfectly into both of these definitions. In each novel the workers share in common skills, occupations, wage levels, and most important of all, interests and attitudes. Each worker is part of the same instantly recognizable whole. This is not to say that all workers are presented as identical or interchangeable types. Indeed, it is a constant preoccupation of the industrial novelist to show that within the working-class world there exist social hierarchies almost as rigid as those in society as a whole. In Mary Barton, for instance, Job Legh, John Barton, Jem Wilson and Davenport are completely unlike each other so far as intelligence, wage-earning capacity, occupational skill and moral strength are concerned, but they all appreciate that these distinctions are nothing compared with the class attitudes that bind them together. In the industrial novel the difference between a respectable artisan and the poor is decided by such factors as unemployment, the relative size of the family to be supported or personal character weakness. However high one may rise, or however low another may fall, each recognizes the possibility of himself in the other. They do not represent two separate worlds.

This sense of class oneness is conveyed more than anything else by the stark hostility of the industrial-town landscape (varied only by areas of appalling slums), and by the uniform tone of seriousness adopted by the novelists. Just as the novels were written because of a social problem, so are the characters treated with a moral intensity that is always directed towards heightening the tragedy of the working-class situation. Where there are efforts to present a more inclusive view of working-class life, these take the form of lingering remnants of an older, more...

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Chartist Fiction And Poetry


SOURCE: "The Chartists and Their Laureate," in English Review, vol. XVI, No. XXXI, October, 1851, pp. 55-86.

[In the following essay, the critic expounds upon the dangers posed to the British monarchy by democratic thinkers such as Lord John Russell, "the reforming Prime Minister," and Ernest Jones, "the chartist laureate."]

CHARTISM? IS not chartism defunct? may many a reader cry. Where are the noisy meetings of two years ago? Where is the loud parade of forces physical and moral? Where are the million pikes with which we were then threatened? Where is the O'Connell of that formidable movement—the redoubtable Fergus...

(The entire section is 44952 words.)

The Chartist Press

Dorothy Thompson

SOURCE: "The Chartist Press," in The Chartists, Temple Smith, London, 1984, pp. 37-56.

[In this excerpt, from a history of chartism, Thompson describes the development and characteristics of the Chartist press and explains its importance in creating a national movement.]

Chartism came about because the people in the different manufacturing districts found themselves agreed on the need for a movement to protect their existing institutions and achievements, to resist the attacks being mounted on them by the newly-enfranchised employing class, and to press forward for more freedoms and a more equitable system of taxation,...

(The entire section is 9300 words.)

Further Reading

Aydelotte, William O. "The England of Marx and Mill as Reflected in Fiction." In The Making of English History, by Robert Livingston Schuyler and Herman Ausubel, pp. 511-21. New York: The Dryden Press, 1952.

Discusses the social criticism of early Victorian novelists in England, with some emphasis on the role of Charles Dickens.

Barker, Clive. "The Chartists, Theatre, Reform and Research." Theatre Quarterly 1, No. 4 (October-December 1971): 3-10.

Discusses Chartist involvement in community theater in Britain in the 1830s and urges further study.

Gammage, R. G....

(The entire section is 445 words.)