Victorian Poetry 39.2 (2001) 189-204
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"In louring Hindostan":
Chartism and Empire in Ernest Jones's The New World, A Democratic Poem
The fiction and poetry written by the Chartists continue to exert a powerful ideological pull on both historians and literary critics concerned with the Victorian period, not only because the reform movement was itself politically unique--"the first working men's party which the world ever produced," as Friedrich Engels described it 1 --but also because the creation of an alternative literary culture was seen from the very beginning by its members as an integral part of the struggle for political emancipation. Chartist writers, Martha Vicinus states, "sought to create a class-based literature, written by and for the people." 2 Thus, the novels, stories, and poems published regularly in Chartist newspapers such as the Northern Star represent a pioneering attempt to bridge the aesthetic gap between working-class politics and literature in Britain.
At the same time as Chartism sought to give voice to a radical working-class viewpoint in the predominantly middle-class debate about the Condition-of-England Question at home, some of its leading activists also began to articulate a growing critical concern about the abuses of mid-Victorian imperialism abroad. It is this anti-colonial consciousness which the present essay seeks to explore, in particular as it is expressed in Ernest Jones's long epic, The New World, A Democratic Poem, which first appeared in the opening number of Jones's own Chartist journal, Notes to the People, in May 1851. In an article written a few years earlier, Jones had himself made bold claims about the international significance of poetry produced by writers who placed their art at the service of the people:
Chartism is marching into the fields of literature with rapid strides. . . . Its poetry is, indeed, the freshest and most stirring of the age; as in England, thus in France, America, Ireland, and Germany, the poetic spirit has struck the chords of liberty. . . . The people mould a poet, but a poet directs a people. . . . We say to the great minds of the day, come among the people, write for the people, and your fame will live for ever. 3 [End Page 189]
An appeal such as the above was by no means meant as a mere rhetorical flourish, but, as the Chartist press continued to show, reflected a genuine desire on the part of the Chartists to break through the cultural silence of working people and promote popular, democratic forms of poetry and fiction. In this effort, Jones, himself one of the most prominent and poetically talented leaders within the movement, played a key role.
The literature of Chartism has of course also provided a rich store of ideas for historians and critics who seek to tease out the ideological contradictions of the Chartists themselves. The critical debate in recent years has for example concerned the question of Chartism's reproduction of an earlier popular radicalism, rather than creation of a completely new proletarian language of class protest. 4 While pointing out the problematic nature in this context of raiding fictional texts simply for their ideological content, Jutta Schwarzkopf nevertheless goes on to admit that much of her own study of the role of women within Chartism relies "on results gained from an analysis of Chartist novels" because they "afford important insights into Chartist thinking about women." 5 Thus, it has often been praxis to view Chartist fiction primarily as an historical source which documents the mixed expressions of both working-class and middle-class ideology within the movement, the political and gender implications of which continue to be explored. 6 Indeed, even among those scholars who have concentrated specifically on Chartist poetry, a genre which as Brian Maidment comments "has been of much more interest to historians than to literary critics," the emphasis has nevertheless more often than not been on questions of class and class consciousness. 7
In all of this the figure of Ernest Jones (1819-69) sits...