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  • Reform Acts: Chartism, Social Agency, and the Victorian Novel 1832-1867 by Chris R. Vanden Bossche
  • Michael D. Lewis
VANDEN BOSSCHE, CHRIS R. Reform Acts: Chartism, Social Agency, and the Victorian Novel 1832-1867. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014. 264 pp. $49.95.

Scholars tend to characterize Chartism—the working-class movement that sought universal (male) suffrage in the 1840s—as a failure: failure to last longer than a decade, failure to secure a broader franchise, and, for Marxists, failure to foment revolutionary upheaval. Chris R. Vanden Bossche, however, urges us to see success accompanying [End Page 521] failure. Reinventing itself, its aims and methods, “Chartism did alter public discourse” (2) and did influence the subjects and styles of the Victorian novel.

The introduction defines the proletarian agency debated, sometimes deplored, by political parties and novelists. It is reformist rather than revolutionary, collective rather than individual, political rather than socioeconomic. Radicals set their sight on the franchise as the preeminent form of agency, aiming to gain entry into, not overturn, the social order. Lacking the franchise, Chartists pursued other kinds of agency: moral and physical force, land ownership, and cooperative associations. The book devotes a section to each action.

In the first part, Vanden Bossche analyzes how Tory and Whig papers agreed that any Chartist action, whether peaceful or violent, was revolutionary. The Chartist press responded that the threat of physical force was moral, serving the interests of constitutional reform. Novels enter this debate about political violence, as historical fictions discuss past protests in terms of contemporary political discourse. Depicting the 1381 Peasants’ Rebellion, the Gunpowder Plot, and the Gordon Riots, Pierce Egan, Harrison Ainsworth, and Charles Dickens consider whether a rioting mob is moral or irrational. The second part takes up debates about which class should control the land. Tories encouraged aristocrats to rent small portions of their estates to workers; Whigs wished to seize control by applying capitalist ideals to farming; the Chartist Land Plan moved workers from factories to farms, aiming to transform workers into voters by making them landowners. In Coningsby and Sybil, Benjamin Disraeli calls for the reform of aristocrats, so they can become worthy of leadership on estates and in Parliament. Rejecting this celebration of Tory aristocrats, Robert Smith Surtees, in Hillingdon Hall, depicts the upper and middle classes as unworthy of ownership, celebrating instead a traditional squire who undertakes agricultural reform. Chartist Thomas Martin Wheeler’s Sunshine and Shadow encourages radicals to focus on land ownership as a means to the franchise. The final section explores Christian Socialism and cooperative associations. Christian Socialists combined contradictory notions of an egalitarian Christian brotherhood and of a hierarchical relationship in which clerics guide workers. These contradictions emerge in Charles Kingsley’s Alton Locke: Lady Ellerton calls for a cooperative between workers and clergy but becomes Alton’s moral mentor. Rejecting this privileging of upper-class agency in Alton Locke and her own Mary Barton, Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South imagines a cooperative where owner Thornton and worker Higgins engage in direct discussion. The book ends with a coda on the theme of education in novels by William Howitt and George Eliot. Howitt suggests that workers in the 1860s are sufficiently educated to possess the vote, whereas Eliot substitutes education for the franchise as the most important form of agency.

Reform Acts paints an expansive picture of the Victorian novel. Vanden Bossche illustrates the interconnections between newspapers and novels, Tories and Whigs, parliamentarians and Chartists, canonical and now obscure authors. His method follows Bakhtin in highlighting how journalistic discourse emerges in novels. But these texts echo conflicting ideas, rarely casting a straight-party vote. Barnaby Rudge thus combines Whig arguments that Tories provoke popular discontent with Chartist calls for an alliance with the bourgeoisie. Covering an inordinately broad range of novels, the book does a good job of explicitly drawing connections. Chapters open by situating the new novel in terms of texts already analyzed. The analysis of Surtees highlights the similarities to and differences from Disraeli in terms of biography, style, and politics: both turned to fiction to earn money; Disraeli developed an earnest voice, Surtees an entertaining one; and Disraeli envisions a...


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