Alton Locke

by Charles Kingsley

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 634


*London. The novel’s London is a place of two nations: the powerful and the dispossessed, signed by the terms “West End” and “East End” respectively. The West End comprises the fashionable parts of London, such as Piccadilly or the Dulwich Art Gallery, in which the Dean Winnstay’s family lives and moves. The East End, the “cockney” side of London is the area of grinding poverty, slums, insanitary conditions and disease. Places are not named here, as they are in Dickens’s novels, apart from a brief excursion to Bermondsey, on the south bank of the River Thames, where, symbolically, houses of the poor are being demolished to make way for more fashionable homes.

As Dickens would do several years later in Bleak House (1852-1853), the reformer Kingsley shows particular interest in disease caused by lack of sanitation. However, unlike Dickens, he makes little symbolic use of the condition. On the other hand, the poor tailor Alton Locke’s boyhood London is invested with the literary features of the City of Destruction of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678, 1684). Its suburbs spread like tentacles deep into the countryside, devouring its natural beauty and life.


Sweatshops. Alton’s first place of work is ostensibly a respectable tailor’s shop, situated in London’s Piccadilly district. Downstairs it seems to promise high life. However, each higher floor of the building represents some disease caused by the dreadful work conditions. Similarly, as the novel progresses, each workplace seems worse than the one before, as the tailors’ working conditions deteriorate in the laissez-faire economics of the day, finally becoming an appalling prison whose workers have become bonded slaves.

Kingsley wrote at a time when Britain had emancipated its slaves, but the United States had not. The scheme at the end of the novel for dispossessed British workers to emigrate to the southern states of the United States is thus deeply ironic: Britain has established a system of slavery far worse than anything in America. Only Sandy Mackay’s bookshop and Eleanor’s co-operative stand against the loss of hope and the despair of the tailors in the failure of Chartism.

*Cambridge University

*Cambridge University. One of England’s two great centers of higher learning, the university here only superficially represents a center of learning. It is shown to be an institution taken over by the powerful for their sole benefit. Historically, the powerless had entry, but Alton Locke, representative of the nineteenth century’s talented powerless, finds none. He remains an outsider, forced to admire from afar the beauty of Cambridge’s architecture and its privileged denizens, including the dean’s daughter, Lillian Winnstay. While Locke is able to see through his cousin’s hypocrisy in advancing himself through his studies, he is unable to see through Lillian’s siren voice, and so compromises his poetry. Cambridge is thus another corrupting and debilitating place.


D——. Unidentified English town that represents anywhere else in the novel. While the town appears to be a cathedral city near Cambridge, it suggests Ely in the Fenlands, a flat marshy area of East Anglia. However, later agricultural scenes suggest a quite contradictory landscape, more akin to the Dorset of southwest England, where the Tolpuddle Martyrs became the first workers to attempt to form a trade union. For Alton, D—— represents both his greatest success, in having his poetic powers recognized by the dean, and his greatest failure, being imprisoned for three years for “inciting” the farm laborers’ food riot. It is altogether a place of false values and ideologies, much more so than Cambridge, where Kingsley was, after all, professor of modern history for some years. Kingsley’s own membership in...

(This entire section contains 634 words.)

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the Church of England does, however, give rise to some sentimental inconsistencies over the dean of the cathedral.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 238

Chitty, Susan. The Beast and the Monk: A Life of Charles Kingsley. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1974. This innovative biography, which draws on unpublished documents, illuminates the place of physical love in Kingsley’s thinking and private life. The chapter on Alton Locke discusses the London scenes that inspired Kingsley to write the novel.

Horsman, Ernest Alan. The Victorian Novel. Vol. 13 in The Oxford History of English Literature, edited by John Buxton and Norman Davis. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. This authoritative survey discusses minor as well as major novelists, and includes a good bibliography of secondary works for further reading. Horsman compares Kingsley’s Alton Locke with the works of Elizabeth Gaskell.

Martin, Robert Bernard. The Dust of Combat: A Life of Charles Kingsley. New York: W. W. Norton, 1960. This standard biography of Kingsley focuses more on his public life than on his private thoughts. Includes an extensive analysis of the background of social observation that led to the novel.

Uffelman, Larry K. Charles Kingsley. Boston: Twayne, 1979. A brief, clear overview of Kingsley’s works. In the chapter devoted to the three novels of social criticism, Uffelman relates the characters in Alton Locke to figures in British life during the 1840’s.

Williams, Raymond. Culture and Society, 1780-1950. London: Chatto & Windus, 1960. This is a classic analysis of modern British culture from a Marxist perspective. The chapter on Alton Locke focuses on the conflict among different conceptions of Chartism.


Critical Essays