Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 938
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 contradictions found in Alton’s own character. In many ways the novel is a bildungsroman, a story of one person’s development—spiritually, culturally, and as a writer. Kingsley takes the Victorian theme of self-help, the rising of the poor self-educated person, to some degree of attainment, but he refuses to follow the Victorian optimistic stereotype, so well typified in John Halifax, Gentleman (1856), Dinah Maria Mulock’s best seller. Alton can get only so far, especially because of his political views, and in the end, he is diseased and dies young and unfulfilled.
Ironically, Kingsley does produce a self-help antihero, Alton’s alter ego, his cousin George Locke. George knows that the best means for advancement for a working-class lad is to jump on the new High Church bandwagon. Without any real convictions, though very intelligent, he marries above his station and looks all set for a respected post in the church hierarchy. He has worked hard for it, but he has done this at the cost of losing any convictions and integrity. Kingsley refuses to reward this, and George is killed off before Alton, this time by typhus, which emanates from the unsanitary parts of London. The theme of disease as punishment for social ills is later used by Dickens in his Bleak House (1852-1853, serial; 1853, book).
The portrayal of Alton is intense. Although Kingsley gives Alton the same perceptions and experiences of the London poor, Alton never becomes Kingsley’s mouthpiece. Rather, Alton has to go through many stages of political thinking before he can reach Kingsley’s Christian Socialism. To do this, Alton voices various forms of radicalism associated with the decade: It is through his dialogues with Dean Winnstay, Eleanor, and above all, Sandy, that his own thinking is matured.
The dialectic form of Alton’s development is never merely intellectual. He is allowed personal emotions, from hope to despair, especially in his infatuation with Lillian Winnstay but also in the hopelessness of the means of protest available to him. Near the end, Alton’s fever and its long dream sequence take the reader into almost fantasy writing, as Kingsley portrays his own evolutionary views.
Inevitably, Alton Locke is classified as belonging to the condition-of-England subgenre of the social novel. Here it finds affinities with Benjamin Disraeli’s Conningsby: Or, The New Generation (1844) and Sybil: Or, The Two Nations (1845) in the alliance recommended between the working class and the upper class. Both writers feel the bourgeoisie has betrayed the lower classes and has exploited them, especially by using the laissez-faire theories of economic science. The upper classes, including the Anglican clergy, have the means and power to legislate for social improvements, thereby winning the respect and cooperation of all thinking workers. In this cooperation, the “mob” will be restrained, much unlike the French Revolution.
Kingsley has been criticized for allowing the dialectic to overwhelm the fiction. The fiction has its own weaknesses, for example, in the use of obvious melodramatic devices. However, these were common devices even with great novelists of the time, like Dickens and George Eliot. What saves the novel from such weaknesses is Kingsley’s clear human sympathies, his own descriptive abilities, and the tensions and contrasts he structures into the social and intellectual fabric of the text. Alton Locke also is a Christian novel, not only in its portrayal of Alton’s long coming to faith but also in its integrity as expression of Kingsley’s deeply held beliefs, born out of personal experience, suffering, and open-mindedness to the voices of the day.