- Mary Hutton and the Development of a Working-Class Women’s Political Poetics
“It is impossible for the truly generous mind to understand the small envyings that surround the daily path of an author, particularly a female one.”Mary Hutton, Preface to Cottage Tales and Poems (1836)
What do we know about the working-class women who wrote poetry in the Victorian period? As so often happens in the study of noncanonical writers, their biographies exist in fragments, a miscellany of facts with very little cohesion. We may know that a writer was a “factory girl” or a “domestic servant”; however, we often know little of the circumstances in which she wrote, her family history, or the particularities of her work. It seems that the lack of extant working-class women’s poetry lies in the historical (de)valuations surrounding their lives; the difficulties in recovering their texts is, in part, linked to the unavailability of biographical information. Perhaps deemed too unimportant by the establishment for a record of their lives to be kept, nineteenth-century working-class women poets all but disappeared from historical record, and we are only now in the process of rediscovering them. While male working-class poets have enjoyed a rebirth with the work of Michael Sanders, Ian Haywood, and Roy Vickers,1 the study of working-class women writers is still in its nascent stages.
Mary Hutton is one such writer who has been neglected until now in scholarship on working-class poetry. Hutton’s rediscovery was first recorded in Ian Haywood’s The Literature of Struggle: An Anthology of Chartist Fiction, in which Haywood names Hutton the only “woman author of Chartist Fiction.” 2 Recently, John Goodridge’s Nineteenth-Century English Labouring-Class Poets: 1800–19003 collected five of Hutton’s poems, and Patricia Johnson gives a passing nod to Hutton in her study of the development of Ethel Carnie’s “Feminist Vision.”4 Florence Boos, whose work has reinvigorated the study of working-class verse, mentions Hutton in “Class and Victorian Poetics” and [End Page 127] has done much to illuminate the possibilities within working-class women’s writing. In her study of the “political resonances” of working-class women writers, she works to “belie critical assumptions that Victorian women’s preoccupations with religion vitiated their verse.”5
Following the recuperative momentum of Boos’s paper, I argue for Hutton’s important role in the formation of a working-class political discourse in Victorian poetry. This study of Hutton’s poetical negotiations of politics and class seeks to enrich the present initial discussion of a new discourse of poetic politics: that of the working-class woman of the 1830s and 1840s. In order to understand the politics underpinning Mary Hutton’s poetry, we must attend to the ways in which her poems enter into the political discourses of the early 1830s—namely, issues surrounding the New Poor Law, poverty, and slavery. Boos has pointed out that “most Victorian working-class women poets had little direct access to the Chartist movement and its cultural institutions” (Boos, “‘Nurs’d Up,’” p. 153). Despite this fact, Hutton’s poems on the Poor Law and poverty are strikingly aligned with the poetry of the Chartist movement in both her appropriations of images of slavery and her use of discourses on human rights and freedom.6 In this paper I wish to show how Hutton engages with nineteenth-century class politics and how her use of simple diction and her engagement with themes that resonate with Chartist poetry earns her a place as a de facto Chartist poet in the canon of nineteenth-century working-class literature.
What little we know of Hutton’s life and work, we learn from two contemporary middle-class male sources. The first is William Cartright Newsam’s The Poets of Yorkshire: Comprising Sketches of the Lives, and Specimens of the Writings of those ‘Children of Song’ who have been Natives of, or otherwise connected with the County of York (1845), and the second is the preface to Hutton’s first work, Sheffield Manor and Other Poems (1831), written by John Holland. Apart from these, the only written...