Increasingly, literary historians are finding forgotten writers from the Victorian era who appear to represent very contemporary concerns. The massive biographies of the great nineteenth century novelists and social critics repeatedly bring to light other, secondary figures on the literary scene who have a profound interest to us now.
Surely, one of these has to be the social critic, journalist and poet, James Burnley. In an age when new enquiries into our sense of region and belonging are being made at an accelerating rate, we should look into his life and achievement. In an anthology published in 1891, he was celebrated as 'The Saunterer', and in Bradford history, that is his famous nom de plume. He was a friend of Dickens, contributing to All the Year Round; a local historian; a journalist with a vibrant style and a poet of the entrepreneur. His most successful book was The Romance of Modern Industry, (1889), in which he talks of 'wealth in rubbish' and 'men who have risen'.
Burnley was born in Shipley, near Leeds, in 1842 and began his long publishing career in 1869 with a volume of poems, Idonia. But his talents also extended to the composition of plays, pantomimes, sketches and serious poetry. He became well-known in the West Riding when he began to write as the Saunterer for the Bradford Observer, covering such topics as folklore, eccentrics, scandals, superstitions and of course, literary and cultural matters. He also wrote for the Leeds Mercury and after a series of books celebrating the 'romance' of Britain's industrial achievements, wrote a History of Wool and Wool-Combing.
Perhaps his importance to literary history, however, is more notably defined in his connection with the dialect literature which gave a powerful channel to the new working-class regional writing of late Victorian Britain. It was an age of dialect almanacs, anthologies of humour, sketches, poems, advertisements and journalistic …