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Reform Acts

Chartism, Social Agency, and the Victorian Novel, 1832–1867

Chris R. Vanden Bossche

Publication Year: 2013

Reform Acts offers a new approach to prominent questions raised in recent studies of the novel. By examining social agency from a historical rather than theoretical perspective, Chris R. Vanden Bossche investigates how particular assumptions involving agency came into being. Through readings of both canonical and noncanonical Victorian literature, he demonstrates that the Victorian tension between reform and revolution framed conceptions of agency in ways that persist in our own time. Vanden Bossche argues that Victorian novels sought to imagine new forms of social agency evolving from Chartism, the dominant working-class movement of the time. Novelists envisioned alternative forms of social agency by employing contemporary discourses from Chartism's focus on suffrage as well as the means through which it sought to obtain it, such as moral versus physical force, land reform, and the cooperative movement. Each of the three parts of Reform Acts begins with a chapter that analyzes contemporary conversations and debates about social agency in the press and in political debate. Succeeding chapters examine how novels envision ways of effecting social change, for example, class alliance in Barnaby Rudge; landed estates as well as finely graded hierarchy and politicians in Coningsby and Sybil; and reforming trade unionism in Mary Barton and North and South. By including novels written from a range of political perspectives, Vanden Bossche discovers patterns in Victorian thinking that are easily recognized in today’s assumptions about social hierarchy.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

I want to express my gratitude to the many interlocutors in dialogue with whom I have written this book. These include the students in my undergraduate and graduate courses in which I posed, and we vigorously discussed, the questions explored in this study. My colleagues and thesis and dissertation students at Notre Dame contributed in many ways, in particular in discussion of portions of this...

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1. Social Agency: The Franchise, Class Discourse, and National Narratives

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pp. 1-18

The title of this study refers to the Reform Acts of 1832 and 1867, which expanded the electoral franchise and altered the system of parliamentary representation in Great Britain. The First Reform Act raised the number of eligible voters in England and Wales from 366,000 to 653,000, an increase from 11 percent to 18 percent of the adult male population (figures for Scotland and Ireland were...

Part I. Making Physical Force Moral: The Dilemma of Chartism, 1838–1842

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2. Social Agency in the Chartist and Parliamentary Press

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pp. 21-36

In 1839, during the lead-up to the first Chartist convention, the Northern Liberator published The Political Pilgrim’s Progress, which retold Bunyan’s popular allegory as the story of how Radical flees the City of Plunder and journeys to the City of Reform, passing along the way through Vanity Fair, in which newspapers touting their “independence” and claiming to “labour . . . only for the happiness...

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3. Egalitarian Chivalry and Popular Agency in Wat Tyler

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pp. 37-49

Toward the end of 1840, just a little over a year after the first large demonstrations on behalf of the Charter and the presentation of the first Chartist petition, Pierce Egan’s “historical romance” Wat Tyler began serial publication, with complete book publication following in 1841.1 The novel was popular enough to be reprinted several times over the next decade, its publication and popularity coinciding...

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4. Unconsummated Marriage and the “Uncommitted” Gunpowder Plot in Guy Fawkes

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pp. 50-59

In January of 1840, about half a year before Wat Tyler began its serial run, Harrison Ainsworth’s Guy Fawkes began serial publication in Bentley’s Magazine, where it immediately followed his immensely popular Jack Sheppard.1 Like Wat Tyler, Ainsworth’s novel depicts a disenfranchised people—in this case Roman Catholics—employing moralized physical force in order to gain the franchise...

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5. Class Alliance and Self-Culture in Barnaby Rudge

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pp. 60-72

Barnaby Rudge joins both Wat Tyler and Guy Fawkes in depicting a popular uprising at the moment when the first phase of Chartism was coming to a close and the second phase was getting under way and, like the latter, adopts the Whig critique of the “intolerance” of the Tories’ “No Popery” campaigns (3).1 Barnaby Rudge differs from Wat Tyler and Guy Fawkes, however, in that it does not depict...

Part II. “The Land! The Land! The Land!”: Land Ownership as Political Reform, 1842–1848

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6. Agricultural Reform, Young England’s Allotments, and the Chartist Land Plan

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pp. 75-84

On October 19, 1844, the Northern Star reprinted without comment a report from the Times under the title “Young England in Yorkshire! The Land-Allotment System” (7; see Times 14 Oct. 1844: 3). Why would the leading Chartist newspaper show interest in the activities of the group of romantic Tories that had recently been denominated Young England? The answer lies in the fact that...

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7. The Landed Estate, Finely Graded Hierarchy, and the Member of Parliament in Coningsby and Sybil

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pp. 85-101

Disraeli’s Coningsby; or, The New Generation (1844) and Sybil; or, The Two Nations (1845) resemble novels like Barnaby Rudge that ascribe social problems to a self-interested aristocracy, but they differ from them in the way they conceive social reform. Whereas Dickens’s novel employs middle-class discourse that treats self-interest as intrinsic to an inherited-landowning class, Disraeli’s novels ascribe...

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8. Agricultural Improvement and the Squirearchy in Hillingdon Hall

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pp. 102-112

In February 1843, a little over a year before Coningsby appeared, Robert Smith Surtees commenced serial publication in the New Sporting Magazine of Hillingdon Hall, or the Cockney Squire: A Tale of Country Life, his third novel featuring the Cockney grocer and foxhunting enthusiast John Jorrocks. Serialization ended abruptly with the June 1844 installment, and when the complete novel, with an...

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9. The Land Plan, Class Dichotomy, and Working-Class Agency in Sunshine and Shadow

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pp. 113-126

Four years after the appearance of Sybil, Thomas Martin Wheeler’s Sunshine and Shadow: A Tale of the Nineteenth Century began serial publication in the Northern Star.1 Wheeler, a longtime Chartist activist, had been awarded one of the Land Plan allotments at O’Connorville, and it was there that he wrote Sunshine and Shadow. While Disraeli appeared on the title pages of his novels...

Part III. The Social Turn: From Chartism to Cooperation and Trade Unionism, 1848–1855

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10. Christian Socialism and Cooperative Association

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pp. 129-141

Following the failure of the petition presented on April 10, 1848, Chartist discourse frequently signaled a shift of agency from the domain of the political to the social. As we have seen, the Land Plan had already introduced this possibility insofar as it not only sought to pursue the political goal of obtaining the franchise but also aimed to establish an alternative economic, or social, domain. Not...

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11. Clergy and Working-Class Cooperation in Yeast and Alton Locke

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pp. 142-163

Charles Kingsley’s writings, in particular Alton Locke, borrow Disraeli’s national narrative of the fall into class division, but rather than imagining the resolution of class conflict through the reform of the aristocracy, he depicts its achievement through the reform of the clergy. Furthermore, rather than depicting a shift from a conflictual dichotomous model of class to a finely graded hierarchy in...

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12. Reforming Trade Unionism in Mary Barton and North and South

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pp. 164-188

Whereas Kingsley’s novels construct national narratives uniting the working classes with the clergy, Elizabeth Gaskell’s national narratives imagine the union of the working classes with industrial entrepreneurs. Mary Barton, which probably influenced the conception of agency in Alton Locke, depicts reform as the religious conversion of entrepreneurs and workingmen that replaces dichotomous...

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Coda: Rethinking Reform in the Era of the Second Reform Act, 1860–1867

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pp. 189-200

The project I have undertaken here, of examining how the Victorians understood social agency, was anticipated by William Howitt and George Eliot when, during the era in which the Second Reform Act, of 1867, was under discussion, they wrote historical novels that look back to the beginning of the era of reform and the campaign for the franchise. Just as their predecessors constructed historical...


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pp. 201-232

Works Cited

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pp. 233-244


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pp. 245-254

E-ISBN-13: 9781421412092
E-ISBN-10: 1421412098
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421412085
Print-ISBN-10: 142141208X

Page Count: 264
Publication Year: 2013

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • English fiction -- 19th century -- History and criticism.
  • Social classes in literature.
  • Chartism in literature.
  • Literature and society -- Great Britain -- History -- 19th century.
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