Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*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...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

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 This innovative biography, which draws on unpublished documents, illuminates the place of physical love in Kingsley’s thinking and private life.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.