Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

Charles Dickens and Fictions of the Crowd

Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

Charles Dickens and Fictions of the Crowd

Article excerpt

In 1838, four years after the Tolpuddle Martyrs were deported for forming a trade union, and four years after the Poor Law Amendment Act, the People's Charter was published in London. The working classes, engendered as a class-conscious body by the 1832 Reform Bill which enfranchised the propertied bourgeoisie but left un-propertied working people without access to parliamentary representation, found in Chartism a platform for protest and debate. Chartism was the movement organized around the Charter that was drafted in 1837 by the London Working Men's Association to demand the political enfranchisement of working-class men. Lenin was to call the Chartists the "first broad and politically organised proletarian-revolutionary movement of the masses" (Briggs 7).

If the demands of the Charter themselves did not strike fear into the hearts of the establishment, then the tactics of the Chartists did, with their mass platform tradition, and the underlying threat of confrontational physical violence. As Asa Briggs notes: "Even Chartists who were repelled by the language of physical force believed in the slogan 'Peacefully if we may, forcibly if we must'" (Briggs 13). The debate concerning the justification of "physical force" protest would be at the center of many of the representations of Chartism.

The early days of radical activity following the writing of The Charter were reported in the establishment press, but without Chartism itself carrying the name of the cause. On 18 September 1838, The Times reported on a "Meeting of the Working Classes in Palace-Yard," a London gathering. The report describes the gathering as though it were a new phenomena:

   Yesterday was a sort of field-day with a class of persons who style
   themselves 'the working classes' ... The announcement of the meeting
   assumed the title of 'The Great Metropolitan Demonstration of the
   Working Classes' ... upon no occasion has it fallen to our lot to
   witness a more complete failure, for at no time throughout the day
   could there have been more than 4,000 or 5,000 persons present. (18
   Sept 1838, p.6, c. 1-6)

The report belittles the potency of the gathering, with a bemused, patrician tone. The term "working classes" is still a new expression; it is a new label of political identity for those left without representation after the 1832 Reform Bill. The term "Chartism" is yet to be adopted by the movement or by the press. A more substantial gathering, this time held in Manchester under the title of "The Manchester Demonstration in favour of Ultra-Radicalism," was covered eight days later (The Times, 26 September 1838, p.5, c 4-6). Some three hundred thousand people were reported to have attended. The meeting had a celebratory, carnivalesque color, with a formal procession, "two trumpeteers on horseback," the "Manchester concert band" and banners promoting such diverse collectives as the "Ladies Shoemakers," "Spinners" and "Marble Masons." The report retains the air of dismissal, with the label of "facetious" for the National Petition, and the term "idlers" used to describe the crowd, suggesting those who would not work. The celebratory nature of the event, the mood of leisure and entertainment along side the radical agenda is recorded. The recently engendered "working classes" were apparently at play and enjoying their collective self-expression.

In "Folk Humour and Carnival Laughter," Mikhial Bakhtin says this of "the carnival:"

   Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and
   everyone participates because its very idea embraces all the people.
   While carnival lasts, there is no other life outside it. During
   carnival time life is subject only to its laws, that is, the laws of
   its own freedom. It has a universal spirit; it is a special
   condition of the entire world, of the world's revival and renewal,
   in which all take part. Such is the essence of carnival, vividly
   felt by all its participants. … 
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