- Chartism: A New History, and: Chartism After 1848
In his 1999 survey of the preceding sixty years of Chartist historiography (published as the Foreword to O. Ashton, et al., eds., The Chartist Legacy), Professor Asa Briggs noted the 'remarkable volume of research' which had followed the publication of G. D. H. Cole's Chartist Portraits in 1941 (xi). Chartist history has also played an important disciplinary role, contributing to the development of 'history from below'. In addition, Chartist Studies (edited by Asa Briggs) pioneered the use of local studies, whilst The Chartist Experience (edited by Dorothy Thompson and James Epstein) helped initiate the so-called 'linguistic turn' within history. Anybody surveying the plethora of local studies, biographies of the movement's leaders, detailed accounts of the three Chartist crises (Newport, 1842 and 1848) as well as those studies focusing on particular aspects of the movement (the role of women, the Chartist press, Chartist literature), to say nothing of the numerous pocket histories of the movement, will be convinced by [End Page 157] Briggs's assessment. Yet, Briggs concludes his survey by observing that 'a full narrative' history of Chartism still remained to be written.
In part, the somewhat surprising absence of a narrative history of Chartism owes much to the long shadow cast by R. C. Gammage's History of the Chartist Movement, 1837–1854 – written by an active Chartist and published in 1854. Gammage's History effectively provides the template for most subsequent histories; dividing the movement between the proponents of 'moral' and 'physical force', seeing it as dominated by O'Connor's leadership (yet beset by internal disputes amongst its leaders), and offering a chronology organised around the three crises, in which Newport is seen as the most exciting, 1842 as the most challenging and 1848 as the most disappointing moment in the history of Chartism. In part, the absence of a narrative history owes something to the continuing ideological importance of Chartism (particularly to leftist historians) and its resistance to the metanarratives of the twentieth-century Labour movement. Chartism's inflammatory populist rhetoric and occasional attempts at insurrection, proved equally embarrassing (albeit for very different reasons) to reformist Social Democracy and revolutionary Marxism alike. Needless to say, the historical memory of a movement which believed in the capacity of the working classes to regulate their own affairs directly, stands as a permanent affront to the managerialism of New Labour.
If the difficulty of a task can be measured by the infrequency of its accomplishment, then a narrative history of Chartism (one in a century and a half) would appear to be a very difficult task one. But the long wait is over and the absence identified by Briggs finally filled by Malcolm Chase's Chartism: A New History. Indeed, we have rather more than this, for one of the achievements of Chase's volume lies in its combination of the strengths of micro-history with the broader sweep of narrative history.
Thus Chartism: A New History opens with a detailed account of the Glasgow Green meeting, held on Monday 21st May 1838. Chase uses this to establish the complexity and richness of the Chartist movement from the outset; the rituals of the public meeting, the flags and banners, the interchange between platform speakers and the audience, the demonstrators' sense of their own place within a particular historical tradition, are all revealed by what Chase calls the 'elaborate choreography' of such events (4). Such attentiveness to detail extends beyond the accounts of major public demonstrations to the panoply of Chartist activities and interests; the tea-parties, commemorative dinners, singing, music, poetry, and the involvement [End Page 158] in educational, retail co-operative, temperance and religious ventures, which filled the lives of Chartist activists who, in Chase's words, 'effectively inhabited Chartism' (148).
The evidential value of micro-histories is exemplified by the brief 'Chartist lives' sections with which Chase concludes each chapter...