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Author: Rob Breton

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.

Abstract only
Rob Breton

to simulate political radicalism. Of course, the radicalism of popular literature is undercover, often concealed under ‘cultural confrontations’. But attached to the undisguised fun it has going against the ‘respectable’ literature of social harmony is popular literature’s conflation of cultural and political confrontation. In a large way, this book is meant to challenge the decoupling of cultural and political confrontations when reading popular literature, and to bring out the interplay between them. Separating out cultural and political hostilities is analogous

in The penny politics of Victorian popular fiction
Howitt’s Journal and Douglas Jerrold’s Shilling Magazine
Rob Breton

progress, improvement, or reform journals set out to oppose and overturn the grouping of cultural and political differences in the popular press. I relate middle-class attitudes towards the Chartist narrative, always diverging and conflicting, to the appropriation of it by the popular press, where cultural and political confrontations are linked in the image of a unified ‘lower class’. The Howitts and Jerrold, on the other hand, insist on a divided people , the ‘poor’ and the ‘working class’, and link cultural maturity to political potential. However, although Howitt

in The penny politics of Victorian popular fiction
Rob Breton

the Newgate tag might also imply an alignment of cultural and political confrontation. 11 Explicit political content, however, is not common in calendars before the 1830s. Even in the 1840s, cultural confrontations are mostly represented by the actions of individual ‘scamps’ or reprobates such as ‘Robert Taylor, convicted of bigamy’. 12 Taylor is a ‘roguish adventurer’ who defends his bigamy with bawdy humour and a laugh at authority on the grounds of society’s avarice (multiple women marry him thinking he has money). Common criminals are frequently represented

in The penny politics of Victorian popular fiction
Rob Breton

Jack Sheppard had produced, the proximity between cultural and political confrontations. Referring to ‘the apprentices of London’ seeing a dramatic version of Jack Sheppard , the critic despairs that ‘Socialism and Chartism have sprung up and become rank and thriving weeds.’ 30 Socialism, Chartism, and murderous valets, that is, swirl together in The Times ’ panicked picture of ‘public evil’ overtaking a ‘Christian nation’. Finally, Juliet John says ‘that the controversial cult status achieved by Newgate texts and protagonists had very little to do with the

in The penny politics of Victorian popular fiction
G. W. M. Reynolds and The Mysteries of London
Rob Breton

is allowed a backstory to explain how they became ‘low’ – is hell-bent on vengeance, their desire for vengeance coming about in the absence of the legitimately just society, and the reality of the brutally unjust societies they describe. The novel documents how this becomes cyclical: those abused by ‘the system’ make for an increasingly dangerous society. Reynolds’s aesthetic of violence, the cultural confrontations, the outlandish revenge plots and gruesome viciousness, are also political. Cultural and political confrontations are not separable in a world that

in The penny politics of Victorian popular fiction