- Defining the Victorian Nation: Class, Race, Gender and the Reform Act of 1867
Historians looking for a new political interpretation of the passing of Disraeli’s 1867 Reform Act will be disappointed with Defining the Victorian Nation. The authors, Catherine Hall, Keith McClelland and Jane Rendall, spend relatively little time discussing the complicated events of the Act’s formation and passing. For that readers are instructed to refer to the classic accounts by F. B. Smith and Maurice Cowling. The aim of this new book is to not to displace these earlier interpretations, but rather to put them in a wider context: to demonstrate how the idea of the nation was understood by various constituencies in the mid-Victorian period, and to explore the various cultural and social contexts—gendered and racialized, as well as class specific—in which ideas of the nation were deployed in the politics of the 1860s. This is a far more ambitious project than a re-narrating of the passing of the 1867 Act, and this book is an excellent introduction to this larger project.
The book is comprised of three chapters each written by one author, prefaced by an introduction written by all three contributors. The introduction sets out the historiography of the 1867 Act itself, and discusses recent developments in British political historiography generally, including an appraisal of the historical sociology of politics pioneered by John Vincent and others, as well as the contribution of Marxist social history. The authors suggest that the recent historiographical attention to high politics needs to be tempered with an understanding of the wider social and cultural context. A discussion of cultural approaches to the study of 19th century politics follows, outlining the recent debates about the importance of political language, along with a precis of recent work on gender and politics, and insightful commentary on recent work on national and racial identities. This 70-page introduction wraps up with a preliminary discussion of the meaning of citizenship in the context of 1860s Britain, by focusing on the liberalism of John Stuart Mill—a figure discussed in each of the substantive chapters. As a whole the introduction draws together several diverse bodies of scholarly activity—from high-political narrative to post-colonial theory—and provides an intelligent explication of each. However, this careful elaboration of context leads to heightened expectations that the substantive chapters will fully [End Page 227] incorporate the broad range of perspectives summarized, expectations which are not fully met.
The three chapters, all extensions of previously published articles, tackle differing, though overlapping, constituencies and perspectives. Keith McClelland looks at the group which ultimately benefited most from the actual reform, working-class men, by examining the views of reformers both within and outside of this group. He demonstrates how, after the demise of Chartism, both English middle- and working-class activists framed an argument for the enfranchisement of the ‘independent’ man at work. This gendered construction of the respectable working-class citizen drew on a number of radical traditions, but ultimately McClelland argues, lead to a ‘masculinisation’ of popular politics, wherein working-class citizenship was defined increasingly in terms of those men who could act as free agents within the economy and market.
Jane Rendall’s essay explores how middle-class women figured in, and helped shape, the debates about citizenship and enfranchisement, and how they responded to their exclusion from the national franchise in the late 1860s while paradoxically gaining municipal franchise rights by 1870. Middle-class feminists used the same radical and liberal traditions that in the hands of middle- and working-class men had turned the right to citizenship into an exclusively male preserve, but came to strikingly different conclusions. Rendall’s account highlights how vigorous both the intellectual and organizational sides of the women’s suffrage movement were in the 1860s (while acknowledging the need for more research on this period), and corrects any lingering whiggish perceptions that the development of Victorian...