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.
Tales and Sketches of Lancashire Life. 5 vols. (stories) 1862-3
Poems on Various Subjects (poems) 1865
Looking for the Dawn: A Tale of the West Riding (novel) 1874
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
Sybil; or, the Two Nations (novel) 1845
Political Pilgrim's Progress (novel) 1839
John M. Fothergill
Gaythorne Hall (novel) 1884
(The entire section is 294 words.)
Overview: Nineteenth-Century Working-Class Fiction
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...
(The entire section is 14462 words.)
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 O'Connor? Surely, politically and virtually, this movement is defunct. The hubbub of voices has ceased to rise, the clouds of dust have scattered, the waves have subsided into peace. The safety of Old England seems no longer endangered by our domestic foe. What has become of Carlyle's forebodings and awful mystic prophecies? Surely the event has disproved them all. Where are the turbulent leaders of sedition, and where are their besotted followers? Has not all passed like a fever-dream? Like the unsubstantial fabric of a vision, leaving not a wrack behind? And may we not eat and sleep in safety now, and hug ourselves upon our calm security? Such is the notion, probably, of many of our readers, or something not far from it: they are disposed to say...
(The entire section is 44952 words.)
The Chartist Press
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, employment and citizenship than the society of the 1830s offered them. Other beliefs and other programmes were added to the central political demands of the Charter, and there were regional and occupational differences of emphasis. What was new and powerful about the movement, however, was its national character and the speed with which ideas and proposals for action were disseminated. This speed and this national dimension were achieved largely through the press.
The Chartist press was one of the foundations on which the movement was built, and one of the bridges with earlier movements. Of all the immediate precursors of Chartism, the 'war of the unstamped' was among the most significant and influential.1 Not only were...
(The entire section is 9300 words.)
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. History of the Chartist Movement. London: Truslove and Hanson, 1894, 438 p.
Detailed early history of the Chartist movement from a participant.
Harrison, J. F. C, and Dorothy Thompson. Bibliography of the Chartist Movement, 1837-1976. Sussex: Harvester Press, 1978,214 p.
Thorough bibliography of specifically Chartist writing and secondary studies.
Hobday, C. H. "The Chartists in Fiction." Our Time 7, No. 7 (April 1948): 72-173.
Discussion of Chartist fiction in the political and social context of the nineteenth century....
(The entire section is 445 words.)