Saturday, 13 September 2014

Book review--Chartism: Rise and Demise

Chartism: Rise and Demise, Richard Brown, Authoring History, paperback, 2014, ISBN 9781495390340

Chartism, the mass petitioning movement for universal male suffrage, conveniently punctuated with intense bursts of activity around its three national petitions of 1839, 1842 and 1848, appears deceptively familiar to many students. These three fairly distinctive phases of the movement, have readily promoted analytical narrative approaches from R.G. Gammage, via Mark Hovell, J.T. Ward and Malcolm Chase, which have been supplemented by more thematic explorations of other aspects of the movement by a host of prominent historians who have focused on the roles of the government and public order (F.C. Mather); women and the family (David Jones and Dorothy Thompson) and individuals like Feargus O’Connor (Donald Read, Eric Glasgow and James Epstein) and Ernest Jones (Miles Taylor). Richard Brown, in a richly nuanced approach, deftly weaves into his narrative, which broadly follows the conventionally phased structure, discussion of these and many other themes. He explains, for example, how cultural dimensions of the movement though often divisive helped to sustain its momentum in the late 1830s and 1840s and indeed beyond. He also provides a more explicitly historiographical perspective than Malcolm Chase, which students will find particularly helpful, and takes a generally more sympathetic view of O’Connor than some other recent writers, recognising the Chartist leader’s failings, but attributing the successful development of the mass platform which underpinned the movement largely to his abilities as a platform speaker.

Brown’s three-volume review of Chartism, of which this is the second volume, is based predominantly but not exclusively on the undiminishing secondary literature of the movement, supplemented by some pertinent references to contemporary newspapers and archival evidence where appropriate to offer fresh insights into the movement. Brown readily acknowledges his debt to previous writers in the field commenting that Chartism has been exceptionally rewarded by ‘so many good historians who have taken up the Chartist mantle and whose innovative thinking has made the subject so popular’. Succinctly encapsulated within the title Chartism: Rise and Demise Brown’s aim is to give ‘greater attention to the radical context in which Chartism developed’ explaining why it emerged as a widespread political movement in the late 1830s and how it peaked reaching ‘a high water mark of active local and popular support’ in the strikes of 1842, which he suggests have been effectively airbrushed from the narrative of Chartism by some historians. He considers other hitherto neglected aspects of the final phase of the movement such as the Land Plan, commending the subscription lists as an invaluable source for the later history of the movement; the significance of the events of 1848 offering a revisionist view of so-called ‘fiasco’ interpretations; and exploring the movement’s links with socialism and its global impact. One of the most distinctive features of the book is Brown’s facility for drawing apt comparisons with international parallels, for example, he locates the depression that affected Britain after 1837 within ‘a broader crisis within North American and European economies’; notices parallels between tithings in Wales and hunters’ lodges in Canada in 1838-39 and makes comparisons between the Newport rising with the attack on Harper’s Ferry, twenty years later during the anti-slavery campaign in the United States.

Brown’s revised synthesis now constitutes the most up-to-date, detailed and wide-ranging of any overview of the movement produced for the general reader and will be an invaluable aid to students in tertiary and higher education engaging initially with Chartist history in all its complexity. No prior knowledge is assumed and Brown includes lucid explanations of such basic features of the movement as the origins and terms of the People’s Charter. Chartism remains one of the most stimulating and rigorously probed areas of historical enquiry, as enticing now as when I was first introduced to research into the movement under the guidance of the late Professor F.C. Mather many of whose informed, judicious assessments of the movement emerge from Brown’s analysis with continuing plausibility. Indeed, Brown concludes that Chartism was ultimately defeated not only by its own inner weaknesses but also by effective government control with the authorities in 1848 inflicting ‘a most damaging psychological defeat on the most significant, populist, radical movement of the century bankrupting the long tradition of the mass platform’.

John A. Hargreaves

No comments: