Charles Kingsley was a remarkable Victorian. An Anglican clergyman, he is often associated with the founding of Christian Socialism and also of “muscular Christianity.” He was a social reformer but also an academic, serving for some time as a professor of modern history at Cambridge University. He also wrote articles on scientific subjects, rather like character Dean Winnstay, who in some ways represents these aspects of Kingsley himself. Kingsley is now better known as a novelist who wrote social realism as well as children’s fantasy, including The Water-Babies (1863).
Kingsley’s Alton Locke is solidly rooted in the historical events of the 1840’s. In 1848, Kingsley had made a tour of Jacobs Island in Bermondsey, one of the worst of London’s slums, and had made it the basis of both Yeast (1848, serial; 1851, book), his first novel of social criticism, and Alton Locke. Kingsley also drew on his social observations for his description of working conditions among London tailors. Before writing Alton Locke, he published an inflammatory and powerful pamphlet, “Cheap Clothes and Nasty” (1850), which describes the tailors’ trade in the London sweatshops.
The Chartist movement of the 1840’s also provides background for the novel. Chartism took its name from the People’s Charter, a petition to the British parliament that called for universal suffrage for men, the secret ballot, and other political reforms, all of which would have turned Great Britain into a democracy with working-class participation in government. The Chartist movement ended in a somewhat anticlimactic attempt to deliver the People’s Charter to Parliament on April 10, 1848. Kingsley used real-life characters for Alton Locke. Feargus O’Flynn and the Weekly Warwhoop represent the Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor and his Northern Star. Alton Locke himself is based on two Chartist tailors: Thomas Cooper, who was likewise a poet, and Walter Cooper, who had converted to Anglicanism. Sandy Mackaye is a type of Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish social reformer, who had influenced writer Charles Dickens as much as he had Kingsley.
Alton Locke is told in the first person and thus has in its writing all the...
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