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The Merrie England Triptych: Robert Blatchford, Edward Fay and the Didactic Use of Clarion fiction

From: Victorian Periodicals Review
Volume 38, Number 1, Spring 2005
pp. 83-103 | 10.1353/vpr.2005.0009

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The Merrie England Triptych:
Robert Blatchford, Edward Fay and the Didactic Use of Clarion fiction

The proliferation of newspapers published by the new and often short-lived British socialist groups of the nineteenth-century fin-de-siécle was used as a powerful propaganda tool for disseminating socialist polemic. Many socialist periodicals of the era recognised the popularity of the New Journalism with working-class readers and, as Deian Hopkin notes, were 'deeply influenced by the general developments that occurred in the press in the last decade or so of the nineteenth century' (226). Socialist editors and proprietors embraced the layout and editorial style of the New Journalism, and they also grasped the power of what William T. Stead called 'government by journalism' (qtd. in Malone: 281). Thus, Henry Hyde Champion waged a successful investigative campaign through the Labour Elector between 1888 and 1889 against poor working conditions and long hours at the Brunner Mond chemical works in Cheshire, sending Tom Mann as an undercover reporter to pose as an employee. Keir Hardie's Labour Leader ran the 'White Slaves' series in 1899 exposing bad working conditions and long hours for Post Office employees, government and shop workers. Robert Blatchford's Clarion supported campaigns by the non-socialist Star and Daily Chronicle to protect the health and safety of female match and pottery workers. But Blatchford's most influential piece of propagandist journalism was Merrie England, an explanation of socialism described as '[h]orse-sense in tinker's English' (L. Thompson 97) which was addressed to the fictional everyman, 'John Smith, of Oldham, a hard-headed workman, fond of facts' (Clarion 4 March 1893, 8).

Merrie England has been declared the most influential text in nineteenth-century British socialism. It was written, as Blatchford claimed 'to teach Socialism, to get recruits for the Socialist Army' (L. Thompson 101). Originally published in the Clarion, between 4th March and 23rd September 1893, the shilling pamphlet sold some 20,000 copies, (Blatchford, My [End Page 83] Eighty Years 196), and the penny pamphlet sold three-quarters of a million copies in the first year (Vincent 257). The penny edition was also pirated in America and translated into Welsh, Russian, French, Spanish, Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish, and Hebrew (A. Thompson 101). The effect was phenomenal, and Laurence Thompson claimed that the 'Merrie England boom added 7,000 to the Clarion's circulation' (114). The responses it generated ranged across oppositional pamphlets, sermons preached both for and against it, reviews in national newspapers, and a debate in the Oxford Union (L. Thompson 100–101). Alex Thompson repeated in his autobiography the Manchester Guardian's statement that 'for every convert made by Das Kapital there were a hundred made by Merrie England' (101). As a sustained piece of socialist literature, Merrie England has been perceived to reach further into the working-class political consciousness than any previous text. However, I would argue that the pamphlet editions lost some of the intricacy of the serialised articles. This was due to the concurrent serialisations of fiction which, when read in conjunction with the political polemic, gave Merrie England a depth and breadth that was lost once the text was removed from its original context.

The serialisation of fiction in socialist periodicals had a dual function: to retain readers and to illustrate political theory. A reader's letter published in Justice in 1885 claimed the inclusion of a serialised novel would 'fix the attention of readers and also teach them some simple lessons' (10 January 6). Literature had long been used as a method of political propaganda: in Notes to the People, the Chartist Ernest Jones had proclaimed, 'Let the same moral be conveyed in a tale, and preached in a sermon, the former will make ten proselytes, when the latter will secure but one' (833). The appreciation of fiction as a didactic vehicle appears to have been understood by Blatchford, and David Vincent argues that Blatchford understood 'the synthesis between the popular and the political' (257). As editor, Blatchford overlapped the Merrie England articles with his own fiction: 'No. 66', published in the Clarion between 7th January and 1st April 1893, and...