James Burnley: A Victorian for Today

By Wade, Stephen | Contemporary Review, August 1997 | Go to article overview

James Burnley: A Victorian for Today


Wade, Stephen, Contemporary Review


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 reflection on current life and morals. These are still to be found in second-hand bookshops, perhaps the most successful being John Hartley's Clock Almanac which went on into the early years of this century. Burnley joined this rising genre, starting his own, the Saunterer's Satchel.

In his later years, as one memoirist puts it, he resided in London 'and made a host of friends among the leading literati of the metropolis'. In other words, here we have a writer who was one of a class who succeeded in the wake of the huge ocean liner that was dominating the literature of the age: the tugs and supply-boats of the scene. Why should we take an interest in James Burnley then?

Clearly, we live in an age in which nostalgia has become an industry: the regional version is now with us in the form of theme-parks, hands-on museums and experiential learning experience. We may go down a mine, handle a weaving frame, hear the dialect of, say, Sheffield in c. 1870. Oral history has had a boom period. We have steadily, since the thirties, cultivated a sense of artificial history - perhaps through a sense of guilt that power groups have taken so much of this regional awareness away.

In 1938 for instance, Selfridges had a Scottish Exhibition in which an artificial Scottish village was created: one which related only to the persistent cultural myth of Scotland as being where one found the Laird, the ghillie and tweed. The North of England has been similarly represented in popular television culture, from Coronation Street to the hugely successful stage Yorkshiremen of Last of the Summer Wine.

But in the mid-Victorian period, a curious fusion of interests and identities took place in the context of regional writing. On the one hand, the folk tradition of ballads, lampoons and satirical songs played a part in the formation of dialect writing; on the other, the new middle classes saw the burgeoning of working class awareness, together with the self-help philosophy of Samuel Smiles and the appearance of the mechanics' institutes, as a cultural assertion of philanthropy. …

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