Novel Possibilities: Fiction and the Formation of Early Victorian Culture

By Joseph W. Childers | Go to book overview

8
Alton Locke and the Religion of Chartism

Charles Kingsley Alton Locke is not a "typical" industrial novel.1 In it tailors' sweatshops are depicted with some attention to detail and accuracy, but the novel contains no unsettling descriptions of factories -- inside or out. The novel's action takes place primarily in London, not in one of the great manufacturing towns of the north. Alton is not a factory operative like John Barton, or Helen Fleetwood, or Stephen Blackpool; he is apprenticed to a tailor. Nor, like other characters in industrial novels, is Alton forced to rely on the factory system as his means of subsistence. When his shop is taken over by a "sweater," Alton quits, preferring not to become a slave to his trade. A man of literary aspirations and skill, if not outright talent, he is self-taught and able to use his pen to pay his way. Despite such differences, however, Alton Locke -- like the other social-problem novels of this period -- finds the "system" of industrialization with its doctrines of individualism and competition to be the culprit in the demoralization and degradation of the underclasses. And like these other novels, the solutions Alton Locke offers to the problems of the lower classes are informed by middle-class notions of moral rectitude, civic prudence, and social respectability, even while it attempts to criticize those notions.

Alton Locke's life story is written in the first person as a sort of autobiography and seeks to present itself as the true account of the life of a "redeemed" Chartist. In its first two editions the novel was even published anonymously. Of course, few were fooled into believing that the Latin- reading, well-spoken Alton was a real person. The technique of a firstperson, autobiographical account was common to many Victorian novels, and in this work, that technique attempts to create the illusion of a truly working-class perspective. The opening pages of Alton Locke, however, subvert that perspective by Alton's distancing himself from the class of which he is a part, and they illustrate the difficulty so many middle-class novelists of the nineteenth century had in reconstructing a working-class point of

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