The book explores the relationship between early Victorian popular fiction and radical politics – the way Newgate calendars and novels, penny bloods and crime or ‘low’ literature could intermittently express radical or even Chartist arguments about the need for working-class agency and empowerment. Offering new readings of Jack Sheppard, Sweeney Todd, The Mysteries of London and many other novels and short stories from the 1830s and 1840s, primarily emerging out of London, the book compares the popular to the radical canon, and specifically to a great deal of contemporaneous Chartist fiction. It finds that popular writers and editors attempted to attract a politicised working-class audience by including material that was not only a clear cultural confrontation, a challenge to polite society and middle-class taste, but also a political confrontation that asserted the value of working-class decision making. Understanding Chartism, Victorian Britain’s first nationwide attempt to bring in democracy and challenge the established political order, as a complex, shifting, and internally inconsistent movement, The penny politics of Victorian popular fiction offers a new way to look at the way popular fiction reused or repurposed Chartist and radical narratives. Radicalism and popular culture were in fact both engaged in intricate attempts to capitalise on a constituency of audiences understood to have multiple and expansive aesthetic and political tastes. The book makes clear why and how a popular press would invest in the political and social issues that were finding expression in a popular political movement.
Howitt’s Journal and Douglas Jerrold’s Shilling Magazine
The final chapter examines a number of reformist periodicals of popular progress and improvement that were concomitant with both the heyday of the popular and the Chartist press. In competition with those presses for working-class audiences, they tended to reject the image of their audience that emerges in them as interested in either cultural or political confrontations, or both. Focusing on Mary and William Howitt’s Howitt’s Journal (1847–48) and Douglas Jerrold’s Shilling Magazine (1845–48), the chapter looks at the way they cautiously responded to the radical canon but flat out rejected popular or ‘low-life’ literatures. The chapter makes clear that what the liberal periodical press feared most was the slippage of cultural and political confrontation between popular and radical genres. The acceptance of radical, and specifically Chartist, grievances by these papers, however reluctant, was contingent on the rejection of cultural challenges, as if the conflation of the radical and popular too dangerously offered a model for the conflation of moral- and physical-force Chartism.
The introduction sets out the argument of the book, that early Victorian popular literature includes previously unrecognised radical political content, demonstrating knowledge of and sympathy with the Chartist movement. It provides a new theoretical framework for reading popular literature, first by reviewing the main ways this literature and popular culture as a whole are most commonly approached, and then by challenging the assumptions behind that criticism. Whereas the dominant criticism has tended towards seeing popular literature as providing the means for some degree of cultural confrontation, it has been adamant in its refusal to accept that cultural confrontations can have a political counterpart, insisting for the most part on the place of social hegemony and the inherently conservative aspects of commercial enterprise. The chapter also outlines the complex relationship between cultural and political confrontations on the one hand, and the equally complex relationship between popular literature and radical politics on the other. Radicalism is treated as a force helping to construct the category of the popular. The popular, in turn, is understood to be exploring the radical to help expand its own market power.
This chapter expands on Chapter 1 by looking at the way the Newgate novel emerged out of Newgate calendars. The focus of the chapter, however, is on William Ainsworth Harrison’s Jack Sheppard (1839–40). The chapter examines the way that the novel was read in relation to the craze it initiated. It examines the reasons why authorities understood the novel as subversive, as potentially lending force to Chartism and radical politics. Unlike the dominant criticism that tends to separate out and isolate the fully recognised cultural confrontations in the novel, the chapter locates radical energies and direct political content in it. Though the novel also includes conservative content, the amenability to radicalism demonstrates yet again that there was an understood market for radical politics.
Chapter 3 reads penny bloods as intimating and even endorsing strains of political radicalism, if casually and sporadically. Focusing on a reading of Sweeney Todd (1846–47) that brings out its criticism of the relations of production, relations between employers and employees that get reproduced in social relations, the chapter demonstrates the use of radical tenets and tropes in the bloods so as to increase its share of a perceived market of poor and disenfranchised readers with active political imaginations. Radicalism is understood as part and parcel of the entertainment. The chapter also examines the image of the crowd in a number of other penny bloods, including Varney the Vampire and Ada, the Betrayed. Finally, the chapter looks at questions of authorship and audience in Edward Lloyd’s cheap periodicals.
Chapter 4 focuses on G. W. M. Reynolds, a hugely important figure in the development of both the popular press and Chartism. Refusing to accept the commonplace reading of Reynolds as a commercial entrepreneur using a half-baked radicalism to sell copy, the chapter argues that Reynolds was a dedicated radical attempting to maximise the size of his audience by folding into The Mysteries of London (1844–45) the non-radical, the reformist, and liberal. Reynolds’s radicalism continues to be widely questioned simply because the popular is not deemed to be compatible with a genuine radicalism. But Reynolds’s radicalism, his engagement with Chartist positions before he formally took the banner and declared himself a Chartist, becomes clear when measured against a Chartism that itself was filled with ambiguities, incongruities, and differences. The chapter offers a new reading of The Mysteries of London focused on its theme of vengeance by comparing it not to middle-class literature but to Chartist literature.
The chapter reviews the history of Newgate calendars, demonstrating that there are differences between editions of them that have not been adequately understood. The calendars in the 1830s and 1840s began to include numerous reports on riots, demonstrations, and apparent acts of sedition. They became increasingly politicised just as Chartism emerged. Yet the notorious way calendars would explicitly condemn rogues and rascals, but implicitly celebrate their courage or daring, continues with the representation of Chartists and their leaders, such as Feargus O’Connor. Though the admiration is qualified and sometimes muted, support for Chartists and their activities, for engagement and agitation, is palpable. In this way, the calendars made themselves available to an audience assumed to be interested in class and politics, an audience that enjoyed both popular crime and political innovation.