Friday, 14 September 2007

Revisiting Chartist historiography: On Sources

It is always necessary for historians to return to the primary sources they use to construct their interpretations of the past[1]. This is especially the case with autobiographies of ordinary people, an essential source for Chartism. This is a relatively new area of enquiry despite the use made, for example of Lovett’s autobiography in constructing the ‘moral-force’ version of Chartism. When Richard Altick wrote The Common English Reader, a pioneering work in the field in the mid-1950s, historians knew few such memoirs. By 1981, David Vincent had assembled 142 memoirs by early nineteenth century British workers and, in Bread, Knowledge and Freedom, showed how they could be used to reconstruct diverse working class experiences. In 1989, Vincent, together with John Burnett and David Mayall, completed The Autobiography of the Working Class, a bibliography listing nearly two thousand documents, published and unpublished from nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain[2].

Like any other historical source, autobiographies contain certain inherent distortions and biases. They are almost always written towards the end of the life of the author at some distance from the events described and often to provide some money for old age. Like all autobiographies, they are in part concerned with establishing the place of the author in history or at least how the author wished posterity to view him or her. Their authors are not entirely representative of their class, whatever that class may be, if only because they are unusually articulate. This was especially the case with the working class. Every stratum within the working classes produced autobiographies, but skilled workers wrote a disproportionate number. Women accounted for only about five per cent of the authors born before 1870. Some autobiographical manuscripts were edited or rejected by middle class publishers though this is less of a problem than one would suppose. The majority of surviving memoirs were unpublished or were self-publicised or were published by local or radical presses. Agitators usually managed to record their lives in some form with the result that the Vincent bibliography is skewed to the political left.

How valuable are autobiographies to historians? One author suggested that the autobiographer, “may helplessly, perhaps even thoughtlessly; but more probably designedly, select, omit, minimize, exaggerate, in fact lie as wholeheartedly” as the novelist[3]. This does not disqualify the memoir as a historical document: after all, similar uncertainties are built into everything historians find in archives and published records. Historians can minimise these uncertainties if they use sources with an awareness of their limitations and can check them against other kinds of documents but they cannot eliminate them. Joel Wiener has subjected William Lovett’s Life and Struggles, published in 1876 (though at the end of the preface Lovett stated that “it was begun in 1840, and has been added to from time to time up to the year 1874”) to this kind of verification[4]. He concludes, “His narrative is generally persuasive, although it is at times inconsistent and self-congratulatory…the earlier and later phases of his life are more difficult to reconstruct and even the Chartist years contain shadows and inconsistencies, a problem accentuated by Lovett’s tendency to omit or ‘reinterpret’…material unfavourable to him.”

What do Chartist autobiographies tell the historian about the world in which their authors lived and the experiences they had?[5] Some of the Chartist newspapers that flourished in the late 1830s and 1840s explicitly subordinated literature to politics. The Labourer proclaimed that it “had one great goal before our eyes – the redemption of the Working Class from their thraldom – and to this object we have made the purpose of each article subservient…We have placed poetry and romance side by side with politics and history.” However, this resistance to imaginative literature was beginning to weaken and Chartist fiction played at important role in informing, raising political consciousness and entertaining working class radicals[6]. Radical journalists increasingly saw the novel as a legitimate art form and as a means for raising important political questions in accessible and entertaining ways. There was a growing sense within the Chartist movement that literature was compatible with and necessary for political liberation. The propaganda of Robert Owen alone did not convert the printer Thomas Frost (born 1821) to socialism[7]: “The poetry of Coleridge and Shelley was stirring within me and making me ‘a Chartist’ and something more.” He expressed his sense of liberation in the following way,[8] “I was beginning to assert for myself freedom of thought, and to rebel against custom and convention; and there was naturally much in common between the writer and the reader.” Books played a central part in the lives of many of the leading Chartists[9] and they commented on it, often at length in their autobiographies. Access to literature[10] played an important part in the development of the campaign against the stamped press in the 1820s and 1830s and a belief in the need for educational improvement was inherent in the ideas of the ‘Knowledge’ Chartists in the 1840s. The result is that radical biographies often have a dual function: to inform but also to educate. This may influence the ways in which historians should view them.


[1] This has been particularly the case with visual images: Stephen Roberts and Dorothy Thomson Images of Chartism, Merlin Press, 1998 and more generally Francis Haskell History and its Images, Yale University Press, 1993 and Peter Burke Eyewitnessing: The Use of Images as Historical Evidence, Reaktion Books, 2001

[2] John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds.) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography, three volumes, Harvester, 1984-89. For historians who want to investigate the upper and middle class, the potential sample is even larger. William Matthews (ed.) British Autobiographies, Archon Press, 1968 lists more than six thousand.

[3] A. E. Coppard It’s Me, O Lord, Methuen, 1957, page 9.

[4] Joel Wiener William Lovett, Manchester University Press, 1989, pages 2-4.

[5] Jonathan Rose The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class, Yale University Press, 2001 is a pioneering work on the role of ‘audience’ in working class culture.

[6] Ian Haywood (ed.) The Literature of Struggle: An Anthology of Chartist Fiction, Ashgate, 1995 and the two subsequent volumes both entitled Chartist Fiction, Ashgate, 1999, 2000 that print works by Thomas Doubleday, Thomas Martin Wheeler and Ernest Jones are valuable. Stephen Roberts Radical Politicians and Poets in Early Victorian Britain, Lampeter, 1993 looks at the relationship between politics and poetry.

[7] Thomas Frost Forty Years’ Recollections: Literary and Political, London, 1889, pages 14-15, 38-39.

[8] Thomas Frost Reminiscences of a Country Journalist, London, 1886, pages 225-226.

[9] This can especially be seen in the life of Ernest Jones who combined literary and political activities in an almost seamless manner: see Miles Taylor Ernest Jones, Chartism and the Romance of Politics 1819-1869, Oxford University Press, 2003.

[10] Margaret Hambrick A Chartist’s Library, New York, 1986 is a valuable listing of the diverse 1,634 titles in George Julian Harney’s library. It provides a valuable insight into what at least one Chartist read.

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