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, George makes little effort to help Alton, but he does introduce him to Lord Lynedale, another Cambridge student. Lynedale respects Alton’s abilities, despite the difference in rank between the two men, and he is interested in improving the agricultural workers on his family estates and helpful in finding a publisher. He introduces Alton to Dean Winnstay, who arranges for publication of the poetry. The dean, however, asks Alton to omit certain crucial passages that he considers politically subversive. Alton agrees, as it is the only way to see his work in print. Through the dean, Alton meets Eleanor Staunton. Eleanor is sympathetic to the plight of the working classes and argues that workers and Anglican clergy should be reconciled.
Feeling guilty about having betrayed his poetry, Alton returns to London and begins to make his living with hack writing for the popular press, especially for Feargus O’Flynn’s Weekly Warwhoop , while waiting for his book of poetry to appear in print. When at last it does, Alton resumes...
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contact with his upper-class acquaintances. He learns that his cousin George is pursuing ordination and plans to marry Lillian, and that Eleanor and Lynedale have married, but that the latter had died in an accident.
Alton also continues his Chartist activities, and although O’Flynn turns against him because of his success as a compromised poet and because of his upper-class connections, Alton pleads to represent the London Chartists at an agricultural workers’ rally. He finds the rally is to be held near D—, the town where the Winnstays live. When the rally turns into a riot, Alton is arrested, tried, and sentenced to three years in prison. For three years, he remains infatuated with Lillian, tormented by the sight of her house from his cell. He also is tormented by knowledge that his cousin George is pursuing her, too, as he becomes a successful clergyman of the new and fashionable High Church.
Alton is released just in time to help present the People’s Charter (a petition calling for enactment of the Chartist movement’s democratic goals) to Parliament on April 10, 1848. Mackaye has long warned Alton and Crossthwaite that the Chartist movement is too influenced by rogues and demagogues such as O’Flynn and that the charter itself is filled with false signatures. With his dying breath, he predicts that the attempt to present it will prove a disaster. Meanwhile, Crossthwaite and Alton dream of revolution and prepare for street fighting. When April 10 arrives, Mackaye is proven correct. The Chartist leaders, fearing arrest, flee the rally; the London workers ignore the presentation; and the meeting breaks up in disarray. As Alton, despairing, walks the streets, he meets the betrayer Downes, now living in poverty. Downes’s wife and children, dead of fever and starvation, lie covered by the coats they had been sewing. Alton calls for help, but it comes too late to prevent Downes from committing suicide.
Alton’s despair deepens into illness and delirium. Nursed back to health by Eleanor and Crossthwaite, Alton becomes convinced through long discussions with Eleanor that the Bible is the true charter, that workers should earn their rights by reforming their characters, and that class cooperation rather than class conflict is the prerequisite for bringing God’s kingdom to pass. Alton also learns that the coats that had shrouded Downes’s family had infected George and Lillian, killing the former and destroying the latter’s beauty.
As he comes to learn of Eleanor’s charitable activities among the London poor, Alton realizes that he had loved the wrong woman, but he finds an opportunity for redemption. Mackaye has bequeathed him money on condition that he and Crossthwaite emigrate for seven years. Eleanor cannot go with them, for her health is declining, so Alton and the Crossthwaite family set sail for Texas. The night their ship arrives on the American shore, Alton dies. His last written words are a poem, calling for a day of hope between workers and the upper classes.