The penny politics of Victorian popular fiction

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.

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