Last Updated on May 18, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 609
Alton Locke, a poor London tailor, self-taught poet, and political radical. Apprenticed to a tailor with the help of his rich uncle, Alton begins questioning both his widowed mother’s strict Baptist faith and the political system that oppresses the poor. His coworker John Crossthwaite introduces him to Chartism, a movement to give political rights to the working classes, and Sandy Mackaye, a philosopher and owner of a used book shop, encourages him to write. Through his rich cousin George, Alton meets and falls in love with Lillian Winnstay, whose father helps him publish his poetry. Frustrated because his low social status is a barrier to his love, Alton throws himself into political activism despite the warnings of Sandy Mackaye. When Lillian marries George and the Chartist movement collapses, Alton despairs, but a legacy from Mackaye allows him and Crossthwaite to move to Texas. Alton dies the evening their ship arrives in the New World.
John Crossthwaite, a political activist among the tailors. He is an honest man seduced by the chimera of political solutions. He introduces Alton to political thought and encourages him to believe that the plight of the workers can be improved only by means of class warfare. Under Crossthwaite’s influence, Alton attends rallies and becomes a public speaker. When the Chartist movement fails, Crossthwaite helps nurse Alton back to health.
Saunders (Sandy) Mackaye
Saunders (Sandy) Mackaye, a shrewd but benevolent Scottish philosopher who takes an interest in Alton’s intellectual and moral development. Under Sandy’s guidance, Alton learns to write about the daily conditions of the working classes. Sandy believes in reconciliation between the classes, rather than conflict, and so discourages Alton from pinning too many hopes on Chartism. He recognizes Crossthwaite’s good qualities despite the latter’s excessive commitment to politics. Hoping to save Alton and Crossthwaite from their own mistakes, Sandy leaves them funds, in his will, that will allow them to move to Texas.
George Locke, Alton’s rich cousin, an ambitious, self-centered, middle-class man who is attending Cambridge University to learn the ways of the gentry. He is friendly to Alton, although he wishes Alton would conceal his working-class origins. Despite his lack of interest in religion, he becomes a clergyman because of the security and the social standing associated with the position. After marrying Lillian, he contemptuously spurns Alton.
Lillian Winnstay, the beautiful, selfish friend (and later wife) of George Locke. She looks upon Alton as a pet or novelty but cannot see beyond his working-class background to appreciate his merits. She marries the less worthy George because he is of the right background and has the right income. Neither she nor George is interested in the betterment of the poor. The couple meet their just reward as the result of buying coats from exploited tailors: The coats turn out to be infected with a fever. George dies, and Lillian loses her beauty.
Eleanor Staunton, a friend of George and Lillian. She is a less attractive and vivacious, but more worthy, person. She debates politics with Alton, arguing for cooperation among the classes rather than conflict and stressing the importance of Christian charity in order to alleviate problems of the social order. When she marries an aristocrat with a social conscience, she puts her words into practice on his estates. After his death, she dedicates her life to improving the lot of the London tailors. Although she nurses Alton back to health, she cannot accompany him to Texas because her own health is declining. She wishes him goodbye and prays for a peaceful social order in England.