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A nation of readers
The history of Cheap popular Literature is a long and instructive chapter in the history of the condition of the people.
I went the next Morning to buy the Songs but he told Me he has sold them all - (his price is a penny apiece) I asked him where I could buy them - he Said he was only the person that Sold them and a Man Came and left them with him - he says I have something in My pockett (this he Spoke very Softly) pulling out a Small Pamphlet which was the plan of a Society in Holborn for the reform of Parliament - writ in Most Seditious Language.
(Spy report on Thomas Spence, December 1792)2
The year is 1712. Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, producers of the popular periodical the Spectator, are smarting about the introduction of the new stamp duty. In conversation with their printer, they worry about the effect the tax will have on sales, and how it will undermine their cultural ambition to expand and civilise the reading public. Their vision of the future sees national greatness as dependent upon the spread of literacy. Once 'every handicraft in the country shall read', Britain will be transformed into a 'nation of readers' where books will 'circulate rapidly throughout the whole country'. But their printer is sceptical of this Utopian plan to democratise knowledge and enlightenment. In his view, the common reader 'must have coarse food: ghosts and murders'. The stamp duty, by making good publications more expensive, will simply reflect the intractable social division between polite and popular culture. Social and political stability derives from a restriction of literacy, not its universalisation. The lower orders, addicted to their 'coarse food' of sensationalism, are simply incapable of refinement.
It is no coincidence that this conversation seems to prefigure the debates about the common reader which took place in the latter part of the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth century. The scene is in fact fictional. It formed part of the opening article in Charles Knight's relaunched Penny Magazine of 1846, and was meant to strengthen Knight's claim that he was the true inheritor of Addison and Steele's mantle.3 Knight positions the nineteenth-century revolution in 'cheap' literature as the historical closure of the early eighteenth-century construction of the public sphere. But the vignette also reveals Knight's ambivalent attitude towards the lower-class reader: on the one hand, every 'handicraft' should be welcomed into the symbolic realm of the reading public; on the other hand, this elevation requires the renunciation of bad habits and poor taste. But what happens if the common reader refuses to abandon 'coarse' pleasures? Knight could not accept the fact that a passion for 'ghosts' and 'murders' could co-exist with the grand march of the intellect, but in 1846 he stared defeat in the face. Popular literature had become something which Knight believed was unimaginably dangerous and debased: a unique fusion of 'improvement' and sensation, education and entertainment, politics and fiction. The new innovators in cheap literature were Edward Lloyd and George W. M. Reynolds, the antichrists of Knight's moral and cultural universe. To their opponents, Lloyd and (in particular) Reynolds seemed to confirm all the longstanding conservative myths about the common reader's innate licentiousness. But one purpose of this study is to show that the real challenge posed by the success of Reynolds and the radical tradition he represented was the yoking together of radical political analysis, popular enlightenment or 'useful' knowledge and literary pleasure. The implied readership of Reynolds's cheap publications was transgressive, multiple and intriguingly complex, but it was not 'unknown' or beyond the pale. To paint the popular reader in such colours is to reproduce Victorian mystifications.
The transformation of popular literature in the 1840s can only be fully understood by placing it within a longer process of political and cultural change. The seminal period for defining the key terms in the politicisation of the common reader's cultural role was the 1790s. I aim to show that it was during this decade that the revolutionary agency of the 'people' as a political and literary force was indelibly imprinted on British culture. To some extent, this point does not need contesting. To begin with, there are the landmark historical instances of direct repression: trials, censorship and 'gagging'. Nor would the stamp duty debates have taken up so much of the time and energy of the political classes if the common reader was not perceived as a political force. The pioneering postwar studies of R. K. Webb, Richard D. Altick and Louis James mapped out this political and cultural territory, and their work still remains in many ways unsurpassed.4 The work of more recent literary critics and cultural historians such as Jon P. Klancher, Iain McCalman, Mark Philp, Jon Mee, David Worrall, Kevin Gilmartin, Anne Janowitz, Paul Keen, Andrew McGann, John Barrell and Helen Rogers has significantly broadened, deepened and refined our knowledge of the radical or plebeian 'counter-public sphere' in the period of the 'making' of the English working classes.5 But taken as a whole, there are still significant omissions and blindspots in this mapping and remapping of radical literary and cultural history. To begin with, many literary studies have emanated from within Romanticism, and therefore terminate at the Reform Bill of 1832, leaving untold the vital story of the Victorian 'remaking' of the common reader. The major exception to this disciplinary regulation is Janowitz's impressive Lyric and Labour in the Romantic Tradition, a book which covers a span from Thomas Spence through Chartism to William Morris. Janowitz's book has allowed me to leave the study of the radical poetic tradition safely in the hands of such capable scholars. My own quarry is the interface between popular and radical literature, and the defining generic paradigms for that tradition are not poetry but the 'cheap' publications: the periodical, the series and popular fiction. These are forms which epistemologically and practically overlap and merge. As Altick notes, 'It is almost hopeless to draw a firm line of bibliographical distinction between the penny part-issue of an individual novel and the cheap miscellany; they were both serials, and, so to speak, blood brothers.'6 The reference to 'blood' is perhaps an unintended irony, as accusations of literary and political sensationalism (the resort to violence) defined much of the tone and content of the debate about the common reader. One of my aims is to interrogate this notion of sensationalism and to expose the distortions of anti-radical constructions of 'cheap' literature.
In order to do this, I agree with Philp that conservative sources from the 1790s and later must be taken into account, as they expanded the political literacy of the nation at the same time as they desired to regulate it.7 Conservative and liberal anti-jacobinism has been underplayed or even ignored by some of the scholars working in the area of 'plebeian' studies. This oversight has also had the effect of leading to a rather masculinist bias, as one of the striking features of the anti-radical literary tradition is the predominance of women writers and representations of female agency. On the other hand, the fact that women writers participated vigorously in the public sphere of political propaganda does not mean, as some recent work has implied, that all such writing was progressive or emancipatory. In particular, I offer in chapter 3 a cautionary reassessment of Hannah More, a conservative writer who has undergone a worryingly generous political facelift through the endeavours of some leading feminist scholars.8
This point leads me another weakness in the existing work on the rise of the common reader, which is the failure to integrate public politics and textuality. This book can be regarded as a return to the politics of class, though my understanding of that term has been influenced by the impact of the 'linguistic' term on social history, and by the operative mediations of gender and political discourse. As a literary critic, I am also interested in the agency of texts - their production, dissemination, reception and interpretation - but I do not subscribe to a deconstructive notion of agency which detaches texts from a 'real' history which exists alongside of them. Nor do I substitute texts or discourse for history, a tactic all too common in the ingenious insights of new historicist criticism. On the other hand, I offer close readings of a generous sample of radical and anti-radical popular texts, as too often such texts are merely cited but not interpreted, but I try to show that all such texts were embedded in the wider public debate. This is one of the ways in which I depart from Louis James, who saw the emergence of 'fiction for the working man' as a diversion from politics (in essence, a political defeat), and to some extent reinforced this falling away in his own methodology.9
So I make no apology for utilising a metanarrative, the ongoing campaign for the radical political transformation of Britain. While this metanarrative is not homogeneous or monolithic, it does provide a coherent context for the variety of publications which participated in the construction of an alternative intellectual and cultural tradition. I try to show how the textual strategies of radical print culture interacted with this political context during a period when debates about politics and literature became mutually defining. This was a process of continual appropriation and reappropriation, of rapid response, innovation, imitation, assimilation and subversion. The attempts of the British state and its dominant cultural institutions to eradicate, marginalise or regulate 'cheap' literature and the radicalised common reader led to the development of some significant and memorable literary forms and subcultures: the publishers' 'library', the didactic tale of 'improvement', the journal of 'popular progress', the cult of 'family' and 'household' reading. This print culture formed the primary literary consciousness of the majority of mid-Victorian readers, and it is my contention that these readers inhabited a cultural formation which was indelibly shaped by the ongoing war against a 'jacobin' or Frankensteinian enemy-within. I argue that in the aftermath of 1848 there was a renewed political and cultural effort to obliterate the memory of Chartism in general and Reynolds in particular. The relative success of that offensive has been responsible for the collective 'forgetting' of a vital chapter in the development of nineteenth-century popular culture and popular politics. I have halted my story around the point of the stamp duty abolition, though it could, no doubt, be continued.
Habermasian critics have perhaps too readily accepted his thesis that nineteenth-century popular culture represented the nemesis of the liberal public sphere.10 In fact, radical cultural aspirations overlapped considerably with the aims of moral reformers from the polite classes, though that does not mean that British radicalism was merely a pre-conscious form of liberalism. A further goal of this book is to illuminate this alternative tradition of rationality and respectability, a tradition rooted in the belief that political reform would consolidate not undermine citizenship, and a tradition which, had its vision of social emancipation been realised, would have dramatically altered the symbolic landscape of the nineteenth century. For example, the abolition of aristocratic 'old corruption' would not only have fundamentally altered the structure of politics and class in Britain, it may also have displaced some of the most central forms of popular and mainstream nineteenth-century culture, such as melodrama and romance.
I am, of course, aware of the limitations of my approach. Too many of my sources are London-based, though many of them had a national circulation. In focussing on periodical print culture, I realise that I have neglected the 'live' medium of plebeian theatre. In part, as was the case with poetry, I have left this field to more capable critics.11 I have tried to respond to the point best expressed by Worrall, that 'printed journals were only a small part of radicalism's symbolic economy', by locating the verbal within a 'symbolic economy' of visual representation and within a radical tradition which generated respectable and unrespectable forms of cultural practice.12 But the main reason for my concentration on 'printed journals' is that I believe it was precisely the material agency of radical and popular print, its tangible and iconic power, its conspicuous presence as an expression of public opinion and popular taste, circulating with speed through the nation, which made it so feared and so controversial, and which guaranteed the longevity of the literary revolution which began in the 1790s.13
Given that one of my aims in this study was to provide an alternative literary history of the Romantic and early Victorian periods, it made sense to give the book a broadly chronological structure. Part Ⅰ covers the seminal period of the late eighteenth century and in particular the 'revolution controversy' of the 1790s. This was a moment when the idea of the 'enlightened common reader' made a dramatic impact on the British political and cultural scene. Chapter 1 revisits the contribution of Paine to this debate in order to show that radical eighteenth-century notions of popular sovereignty established the basis for the emergence of a new kind of reading culture: the plebeian counter-public sphere. Chapter 2 looks at the contested cultural practices of the new plebeian literature in its most distinctive generic forms: the pamphlet, the periodical, the miscellany, the 'cheap' publication or 'pig's meat' anthology. In addition to looking at Spence, Eaton and Thelwall, however, I also show that mounting counter-revolutionary pressure of loyalist propaganda forced a split between popular literature and bourgeois 'Romantic' radicals such as Coleridge and Godwin. I look at the loyalist literary counter-offensive which tried to incorporate rather than simply eradicate radical discourse. The bulk of chapter 3 is devoted to a reassessment of Hannah More's vital intervention into this controversy and takes issue with her recent critical rehabilitation as a 'revolutionary reformer'.
Part Ⅱ covers the period between the repression of radicalism in the late 1790s and the emergence of Chartism in the late 1830s. I show that during these years there was a gradual merging of the 'jacobin' periodical tradition of the 1790s and paradigmatic new forms of popular cultural pleasure such as cheap fiction, sensational reportage and the visual stimulation of the cheap woodcut. At the same time, the cultural forces of anti-radicalism were constantly being reconstituted and remobilised. Hence chapter 4 argues for the importance of liberal and conservative writing, notably Edgeworth's popular tales and More's now forgotten but intriguing anti-Cobbettite stories of 1817. My discussion of radical journalism charts its progress through the Six Acts and culminates in an analysis of Carlile's Rotunda as the exemplary venue of a new type of 'virtuous public excitement'. In chapter 5, I follow this theme through to the unstamped press of the 1830s. Although this remarkable efflorescence of radical periodical production has usually been viewed as a response to the regulatory forces of Benthamite and Evangelical moral and political reform (I focus in particular on Martineau's tales and the 'cheap' publications of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK)), I argue that the real significance of the unstamped press was its embracing of popular, often sensational forms of reading pleasure which enhanced rather than diminished its radical appeal. It was this legacy which proved so influential for the Chartist press of the 1840s.
Part Ⅲ has several aims: to show that radicalism played a key role in the emergence of both the Victorian popular press and the 'Condition of England' debate; to show that this significance was deliberately obscured by dominant Victorian culture, particularly during the crisis years of 1848 and after; and to show the areas of overlap between the literary forms and political causes of radicalism and the new, popular liberal press in which women writers were often prominent. In chapters 6 and 7, I broaden the definition of 'Chartist' literature to include not only stories which appeared in Chartist periodicals but also the pioneering careers of those two founders of the Victorian popular press, Lloyd and Reynolds. I consider the variety of narrative forms and pleasures in Chartist writing, such as Utopianism, satire, Bildungsroman and melodrama, but I also focus on ideological and literary tensions in the Chartist construction of patriarchy and anti-semitism. In chapter 7, I argue that Reynolds was particularly effective in radicalising not only the content but the aesthetics of popular literature, and that his ability to make the text a material political agency must have formed a key part of his mass appeal. Chapter 8 argues that there is a significant overlap between radical and middle-class journals on the issue of gender politics and women's rights. I see the 'journals of popular progress' as a relatively untapped source of women's political writing, and also as the culmination (for this study) of the tradition of the female-authored 'tale'. In order to compare the intersection of class and gender in the 'polite' and Chartist periodical, I focus on stories about the plight of the needlewoman, that most iconic of Victorian female sufferers. In chapter 9, I argue that the Chartist revival of 1848 and the mass popularity of Reynolds sparked a new offensive for the loyalty of the common reader. This attack took a number of new forms of intervention and regulation: the lampooning of Reynolds in satirical magazines; the launching of rival 'respectable' journals by middle-class proprietors such as Kingsley and Dickens, but also, as importantly, by the new 'cheap' publisher and popular educator John Cassell; and moves to abolish the stamp duty (this finally happened in 1855). Although this anti-jacobin crusade had some success in negating the memory and impact of the radical construction of popular literature in the nineteenth century, I show that Victorian anxieties about the reading habits of the common reader (founded, as usual, on a good deal of misconception and misrepresentation) remained firmly in place.
'A new aera in our history'
|Introduction : a nation of readers||1|
|1||The people's enlightenment : the radical diffusion of knowledge in the late eighteenth century||11|
|2||Writing for their country : the plebeian public sphere in the 1790S||26|
|3||The pax femina? Hannah More, counter-revolution and the politics of female agency||56|
|4||The palladium of liberty : radical journalism and repression in the postwar era||81|
|5||'Democratic fervour and journal ascendancy' : popular culture and the 'unstamped' wars of the 1830s||112|
|6||The Charist revolution||139|
|7||Fathers of the cheap press or 'able speculators'? Edward Lloyd and George W. M. Reynolds||162|
|8||The rights and wrongs of woman||192|
|9||Acts of oblivion : 1848 and after||218|