Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Reviewing the nineteenth century

I am most grateful to Stephen Roberts for writing a review of these two books.  They are printed on his excellent  Chartism & The Chartists website: http://www.thepeoplescharter.co.uk/index.htm

Richard Brown, Coping with Change: British Society 1780-1914 (Authoring History, 2013); and Before Chartism: Exclusion and Resistance (Authoring History, 2014).

Those who study, write and teach about Chartism will be familiar with the name of Richard Brown. His Chartism (1998) is one of a clutch of short histories of the movement; but, alongside that by Edward Royle, is the book that would top anyone's recommendations of where to begin when starting out on a study of the Chartists. Brown's contribution to our understanding of Chartism would be useful enough if he had written only that one book ... but he hasn't. Brown is in fact a prodigious writer. He does not, as a rule, delve deeply into primary sources in his writing. What Brown does is immerse himself in the relevant secondary sources; and 'immerse' is the correct verb because the range of Brown's reading takes in almost everything written on a subject and is truly astonishing.

Coping with Change is a door-stopper of a book. At 746 pages, it leaves no gaps - there are chapters devoted to industry, agriculture, transport, public health, education, crime, leisure, religion and so on. All that Brown has to say is thoroughly footnoted, ensuring the reader does not have to check library catalogues for further reading. Brown writes both authoritatively and clearly. With a detailed index, this is an easy book to use. I can pay it no greater tribute than by saying that I shall keep my copy within easy reach of my desk when I am writing.

Before Chartism offers a comprehensive examination of the radical movements and protests that came before the late 1830s. Chartism cannot be understood without knowing what immediately preceded it - the popular unrest that followed the end of the French wars in 1815, the great 'betrayal' of the 1832 Reform Act, the hated Poor Law of 1834, the agitation over the press in 1830s London and so on. I always thought that the introductory chapters of J.T. Ward's Chartism (1973) were useful, if not particularly sympathetic to the leaders of the people. But that book is long out-of-print and the reader seeking up-to-date and reflective writing on these themes needs to consult a range of different books. That is no longer the case. Brown provides, in a well-researched, sympathetic and readable volume, the stories of the campaigns that fed into Chartism. It is another valuable volume from the Brown writing factory.

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