The Chartist Movement and Literature Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

The Chartist Movement and Literature

Chartist literature stands as an important source of historical and cultural information about working-class life in nineteenth-century Great Britain. The movement from which the literature arose flourished from about 1837 to 1854. Committed to improving the lives of working-class people and achieving democratic political reforms, Chartism was a powerful and influential response to the industrial revolution and the growth of an entrepreneurial middle class. The movement's Charter of 1838 advocated six points: universal suffrage, yearly elections, secret ballots, no property-owning qualifications for members of Parliament, equal electoral districts, and salaries for members of Parliament. While the six points of the Charter dealt specifically with voting and electoral reform, Chartism came to encompass much broader social, political and cultural goals. Notably a movement of a literate and often self-educated working class, Chartism from the start inspired a large body of literature, including speeches, essays, poetry and songs, stories, and novels—all of which appeared in the extensive Chartist press. In addition to producing its own literature, the movement was sometimes represented, usually critically, in the industrial novels of middle-class writers such as Elizabeth Gaskell and Charles Kingsley. The organized movement had dissolved by the mid 1850s, yet it left an important legacy for the later development of socialist literature and the Labour Movement in England.

Chartism emerged in the 1830s in response to difficult economic circumstances and numerous restrictions and laws which benefited the middle and upper classes at the expense of working-class people. Important precursors were the unstamped press, which priced newspapers out of the reach of the lower classes, and Ebenezer Elliot—the "Corn-Law Rhymer"—who set an example of political poetry in the 1830s. Virtually all Chartist writing was published in the Northern Star or in one of the dozens of other papers that made up the Chartist press. Along with essays and speeches, the early writing emphasized poetry and songs. These were intended to inspire and educate a popular audience, blending the folk language of protest with more complex ideas of class and social reform. After 1848, as the movement's impetus merged with larger political reforms sweeping Europe, there was more fiction—stories that were moral fables, and serial novels that examined the movement and its leaders. Two of the most enduring of the latter are Ernest Jones's De Brassier: A Democratic Romance (1851-52) and Thomas Martin Wheeler's Sunshine and Shadow: A Tale of the Nineteenth Century (1849-50). After the demise of the movement, some of its leaders and participants turned to writing autobiographical and historical accounts.

Much of the literature produced by Chartists is considered weak and not especially memorable. As such it has greater historical than literary value. All of the leading Chartist writers were movement leaders as much as—or often more than—poets and novelists. Their verse typically aimed, like popular ballads or protest songs, for a wide and uncritical audience. Some of the poets, notably Thomas Cooper, aspired to the highest literary standards and used complex forms and meters, but such efforts were less than successful, and generally failed to reach the intended audience. Chartist novels borrowed plot structures and styles from popular romantic fiction and struggled with the tension between artistic aims and didactic purpose. Along with their own self-representations, Chartism and its concerns and leaders were portrayed by middle-class industrial and social reform novelists. Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton (1848) and Benjamin Disraeli's Sybil; or, the Two Nations (1845) both deal with Chartist concerns, while Charles Kingsley's Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet. An Autobiography (1850) is generally considered to have been inspired by Thomas Cooper's works.

Chartism as a political and social movement had run its course by around 1854, though various writings by and about Chartists would continue to be published for the next few decades. While the movement as a whole failed to achieve any of its stated political goals, it had a lasting impact on the development of working-class culture. Most importantly, the movement is credited with shaping a working-class consciousness amenable to the new middle class as well as to the traditional aristocracy. It also marked the emergence of a working-class literary voice and the possibility of self-representation, which led to the first full and positive portraits of working-class lives. All of this ultimately helped shape the socialist novels of the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries.