AN UNDERGROUND HISTORY OF EARLY VICTORIAN FICTION: CHARTISM, RADICAL PRINT CULTURE, AND THE SOCIAL PROBLEM NOVEL by Gregory Vargo, Reviewed by John Plotz
 

AN UNDERGROUND HISTORY OF EARLY VICTORIAN FICTION: CHARTISM, RADICAL PRINT CULTURE, AND THE SOCIAL PROBLEM NOVEL
By Gregory Vargo
(Cambridge, 2018) xii + 278 pp.
Reviewed by John Plotz on 2018-01-16.

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Thomas Carlyle and Benjamin Disraeli were not the only Victorian writers who told the tale of two separate Englands forever divided by caste and custom and no less by choice of reading matter. Many later scholars, some of them decidedly anti-Carlylean radicals, have found the "Two Englands" an enticing formulation, perhaps because this notion of an unbridgeable gulf not only betokens oppression but also offers the Lukácsian glories of a distinct proletarian consciousness. However, it ain't necessarily so. If you look carefully enough at who was reading what, and if you consider thoroughly what counterarguments the most firmly bourgeois writers aimed (implicitly or explicitly) to answer, the number of Englands shrinks back down to one.

In a nutshell, that is the case persuasively made in this accomplished first book by Gregory Vargo, Assistant Professor at NYU. It is a grave mistake, Vargo argues, to overestimate the barriers between radical and mainstream fiction, between masses and classes. It is not new for scholars to view literature from below. Yet by approaching both kinds of texts from this angle, Vargo offers an important shift of perspective on a whole series of verities about Victorian realism and melodrama. Thus the contours of an implicitly contested public sphere (neither wholly proletarian nor wholly bourgeois, nor perhaps wholly anything) become visible in a new light.

The book's Introduction, "Can a Social Problem Speak?" lays out the argument as a whole. While writers such as Martineau and Dickens presented themselves as indifferent or deaf to the "din" of writers from below, they actually attended very carefully to the substance of radical arguments and also to the formal innovations made by radical writers. The mildest version of Vargo's claim is that "the respectable world of letters was at least somewhat acquainted with a canon of radical literature and journalism" (25). But as the book proceeds, it gradually reveals the finer details of what writers like Martineau and Dickens owed to writers like Cobbett and Jones. Vargo also begins laying out what is potentially the most influential aspect of his argument: that for Chartist writers such as Ernest Jones, "melodrama as a whole was more capable of analyzing systemic forces than conventional critical wisdom indicates" (9). By Vargo's account, the later rise of sensation fiction itself "had its roots in the working-class literature of the preceding decades" (11). As Vargo puts it, "By combining the obsessions, claustrophobia and bewilderment, of the Gothic with quotidian renditions of work and home, Chartist and anti-New Poor Law fiction anticipated the sensation subgenre of the 1860s" (10-11).

In the first chapter of Part I, "Social Citizenship in the Poor Law Debates," Vargo treats in exciting detail the impact that William Cobbett had on latter-day economists and public intellectuals such as Harriet Martineau. This chapter shows how the oft-maligned Cobbett crucially anticipated many of the key reactionary and key radical currents of the tempestuous mid-century. Complementing this point, Chapter 2 explores the relationship between violence, "slow violence," and the melodramatic tactics of 1830s writers opposed to the New Poor Law.

In Part II, Vargo studies the relation between Chartist and radical writers--among them Ernest Jones and Thomas Cooper-- and more celebrated mainstream texts such as Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton. Notably turning aside from Cooper's celebrated poem, The Purgatory of Suicides, Vargo highlights instead his Simple Stories of the Midlands and Elsewhere, "loosely linked narratives" that revise the classical conventions of the Bildungsroman. These stories, Vargo writes, "splinter narrative perspective and embrace a dialogic structure." They combine regret for the limits of individual aspirations with "a forceful critique of those aspirations in the first place, a critique grounded in Cooper's political radicalism and his participation in the mass politics of the Chartist movement" (101-2).

In Chapter 6 of Part III, Vargo considers how the Chartist press treated the "colonial questions" of the British Empire in the 1840s and 1850s. According to Vargo, "the movement press synthesized a utilitarian tradition skeptical of militarism and colonial rule, an evangelical universalism opposed to slavery, and a radical analysis of the metropolitan class structure to forge a scathing critique of British imperial ambitions" (177). In Chapter 7, Vargo explores the Chartist influence on Dickens. Like the People's Paper, Vargo contends, Dickens's weekly Household Words and his novel A Tale of Two Cities, bears traces of the "Chartist Francophilia" that made Radical investment in the "lineaments of the past" (211) more than simply a British affair. Given his occasional contact with Cooper, Vargo suggests, Dickens may have imbibed more than he admits of radical assumptions about history--specifically about the dangers of repressing "historical memory" (225).

How should we understand the importance and contribution of Vargo's monograph? In Slow Print: Literary Radicalism and Late Victorian Print Culture (2013), Elizabeth Miller has persuasively argued that the radicalism of the later 19th century struggled to be heard against a cacophonous public realm. The main enemy, she contends, was overproduction of print rather than state censorship: instead of being silenced by governmental oppression, progressive voices were shouted down by social tumult and logorrhea. However, in the earlier era of the stamp tax, when the editors of the Northern Star felt it necessary to apologize for "that little red spot in the corner of my newspaper...your 'plague' spot," Vargo's book usefully reminds us that the state had been the prime enemy of radical efforts at free speech. An Underground History also illuminatingly complements Chris R. Vanden Bossche's Reform Acts (2014), reviewed elsewhere on this site, which shows how little-noted aspects of Chartist and radical thought subtly informed debates between Whigs and Tories --even though these debates might seem indifferent to the overt appeal of radical counterarguments. Both Vanden Bossche and Vargo usefully peer below the surface of the era's political clashes, showing how much inhabitants of "one" England must have been listening to the voices of the "other" England.

Equally potent is Vargo's contention that radical writing quietly affected both melodramatic fiction and the bildungsroman. In Vargo's telling, Chartist and other radical writers contributed melodramatic tropes to mainstream fiction, but mainstream writers received them silently, sub rosa, even while explicitly denouncing what they implicitly copied. This point suggests that the influence of Chartist writing may reach even beyond sensation fiction to later political subgenres such as Naturalism. Comparing revolutionary bloodshed with the gradual violence of famine in Ireland, Vargo notes, "[the Star] asks why one merits sensational prose little notice" (22). In thus stressing the Chartists' desire to make melodramatic language applicable to daily oppression as well as to outbursts of violence, Vargo instantly reminded me of Zola and other natural polemicists. Altogether, he sheds important light on the almost subvocalized conversations that precede those very public debates of the fin de siècle.

John Plotz is Professor of English at Brandeis University.


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