Victorian Literature Chartism
by
Kirstie Blair
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0012

Introduction

Chartism was a national political movement, associated with working-class radicalism, with the avowed goal of forcing the British parliament to accept the “Six Points” of the People’s Charter: a vote for every man over 21, secret ballots, no property qualification for MPs, salaries for MPs, equal constituencies, and annual parliaments. All of these demands except the last would be met within a century. The People’s Charter originated from the London Working Men’s Association (LWMA) and was published in 1837. It rapidly became the platform for a burgeoning political movement that went far beyond the more modest aims of the LWMA. Following mass meetings across the country, the first gathering of Chartist delegates met in London in February 1839. In July of the same year, they presented a petition signed by well over a million people to Parliament, which rejected it. Outbreaks of violence followed, particularly in Wales in November 1839, where the abortive Newport uprising led to police violence against demonstrators and the arrest and transportation of its leaders. A second Chartist petition was presented to Parliament in May 1842 and again rejected, followed by a general strike (the Plug Plot riots) across the north. During the mid-1840s, Chartism’s most charismatic leader, Feargus O’Connor, turned his attention to his “Land Plan,” which was to provide members with their own land for cultivation. Despite some successes, the grandiose scheme largely failed. In April 1848, a final unsuccessful attempt was made to force Parliament to accept the Chartist petition, after a mass rally on Kennington Common stoked by fears of revolution. Chartism has generally been perceived as having lost much of its force after 1848, though recent historians have demonstrated the extent of its legacy in the 1850s and beyond. From the outset, Chartism had a tendency to splinter into different groupings according to geographical region, economic status, and political affiliation. Nonetheless, its success lay in its creation of a broad consensus of agreement across the country, fostered in particular through widely circulated Chartist newspapers and periodicals. In addition to its political orientation, Chartism was also a significant literary movement. Many of its leaders achieved success as poets, and the literature produced by Chartists (cited below) should be supplemented with important Victorian novels—notably Charles Kingsley’s Alton Locke, Benjamin Disraeli’s Sybil, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton—which responded directly to Chartism and its contexts.

General Overviews

The history of Chartism is contentious, and its geographical, class-based, and chronological diversity means that few 20th- and 21st-century historians have attempted to assess the movement as a whole. Introductions to historical works on Chartism from the 1980s and 1990s often lament the absence of a comprehensive study of the movement. Chase 2007 goes some way toward remedying this and provides an excellent starting point. Thompson 1984 is a classic study of Chartism and remains one of the most important publications of the last decades of the 20th century, still highly relevant. Tholfsen 1976 helpfully locates Chartism within a wider UK context, while Weisser 1975 does the same for the European context. Both works also situate Chartism in relation to other radical movements of the period. Due to the popularity of Chartism as a topic on A-level history courses in the United Kingdom, there are also a number of general studies of the period and the movement aimed primarily at 16-to-18-year-old students, which are not listed in this bibliography entry.

  • Chase, Malcolm. Chartism: A New History. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2007.

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    Important general study of Chartism, taking a broadly chronological approach but interspersing the narrative with biographical accounts of less well-known Chartist activists. Successfully highlights the disparate nature of Chartism while creating a clear narrative about the events and personalities involved. Excellent starting point.

  • Tholfsen, Trygve. Working-Class Radicalism in Mid-Victorian England. London: Croom Helm, 1976.

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    Situates Chartism in relation to working-class radicalism more generally: pp. 83–108 are specifically on Chartism. Remains a useful study on the period, though some of its arguments have been qualified by more recent work.

  • Thompson, Dorothy. The Chartists: Popular Politics in the Industrial Revolution. New York: Pantheon, 1984.

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    Highly influential study of Chartism by one of its most important historians. The study sandwiches a middle section titled “Who Were the Chartists?”—which contains a particularly welcome early discussion of women in Chartism—between historical studies of the years 1838–1841 and 1842–1850.

  • Weisser, Henry. British Working-Class Movements and Europe, 1815–48. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1975.

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    Contains two chapters titled “The Chartists and Europe, 1836–1844” and “The Chartists and Europe, 1844–8.” Useful study of Chartist connections with Europe and the strategic importance of European events in Chartist rhetoric and policy.

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