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hortly after the passage of the Reform Bill of 1867, Benjamin Disraeli declared in a speech he delivered in Edinburgh: “In a progressive country change is constant; and the great question is not whether you should resist change which is inevitable, but whether that change should be carried out in deference to the manners, the customs, the laws and the traditions of a people, or whether it should be carried out in deference to abstract principles, and arbitrary and general doctrines” (St. John 110). Reform Acts. Chartism, Social Agency, and the Victorian Novel, 1832-1867, a perceptive and engaging study, investigates how the Victorians envisioned such change. After first elucidating the concept of social agency and then discussing the two major fields of political discourse in the post-Reform Bill era — parliamentary and Chartist — the book focuses on the competing national narratives of reform that found expression in a number of canonical and noncanonical Victorian novels.

The author argues convincingly that a number of Victorian writers, who were concerned with social agency — that is, with actions performed not by individuals but by social groups or social classes — developed different responses to such actions. The book's overarching premise is that “the most widely circulated conception of social agency in the first half of the nineteenth century was not revolution but reform of society through possession of the franchise and the power to legislate” (3). The conception of social agency, which was revived in the early- and mid Victorian periods, brought new perspectives to the empowerment of the middle and working classes.

The book is divided into three parts and an introductory chapter. Each part begins with a chapter devoted to historical issues, while the succeeding ones offer analyses of individual novels. In the introductory Chapter One, titled “Social Agency. The Franchise, Class, and National Narratives,” Vanden Bossche sets out to investigate what Victorians thought about agency — “the capacity to act — as reform.” He begins by pointing out that

reform in what has been called “the age of reform” is most closely identified with the franchise — there were many proposals for reform but only those dealing with the franchise were known as reform bills — reflects the constitutionalist discourse that in the early nineteenth century defined social agency in terms of parliamentary representation. [6]

The Reform Act of 1832 modestly extended voting rights thereby providing social agency to the previously disfranchised middle class, but it left the rising working classes without parliamentary representation. Chartism, which was the “first (and arguably the greatest) mass political movement in industrial Britain” (2), called for more comprehensive reform: universal male suffrage, annual Parliaments, equal electoral districts, abolition of property qualifications for members of Parliament, and payment of members. However, it never succeeded in persuading Parliament to accept the National Petition, which was regarded by the majority of MPs as subversive and revolutionary. After the rejections of the Petition in 1839 and 1842, the Chartist movement gradually lost its momentum, and its leaders began to emphasise the shift of agency from political to social reforms. Some (Feargus O'Connor and Thomas Spence) advocated the Land Plan, others, after the rejection of the third Petition in 1848, were attracted by Christian Socialism, co-operative associations and trade unionism. However, although Chartism did not achieve a direct political victory, it altered “public discourse about the right of political representation, and many former Chartists took part in the campaign leading to passage of the Reform Act of 1867, which was widely regarded as the first step toward enacting universal male suffrage and fulfilling the aims of Chartism” (2).

Part One (“Making Physical Force Moral: The Dilemma of Chartism, 1838-1843”) concerns the first phase of Chartism, providing a historical background devoted to theories of social agency in the Chartist and parliamentary press. Chapter Two (“Social Agency in the Chartist and Parliamentary Press”) argues that both Chartist and parliamentary discourses sought to envision social agency in terms of the moral versus physical force. The Chartists, who aimed at obtaining universal suffrage by legal means, they also used, without success, “ulterior measures” in order to pressure Parliament to enact the Charter. These “measures” included mass demonstrations, strikes, and boycotts. The establishment, or “elite” press, like the Tory Times and the Morning Post as well as the Whig organ, the Morning Chronicle, accused the Chartists of resorting to revolutionary changes “that would destroy the British constitution” (31). In turn, the Chartist press, such as the Northern Star, assured readers that the Chartists were “the true defenders of the constitution” (34).

Chartist discourse expressed a willingness to employ physical force but at the same time postponed it to the future, hence the slogan “peacefully if we can, and forcibly if we must” [Northern Star (April 6, 1839):6) [34]

Chapters Three to Five contain readings of three novels: Wat Tyler, Guy Fawkes, and Barnaby Rudge, of which only the last one is still read and taught today. Wat Tyler (1841), a historical romance written by Pierce Egan the Younger (1814-80), one of the pioneers of serialised cheap fiction and a contributor to Reynolds’s Miscellany and the London Journal, bears a message akin to Chartist discourse. Thanks to Robert Southey's dramatic poem Wat Tyler (1817), the leader of 1381 Peasants' Revolt became an icon of Victorian radical discourse and his “great moral revolution” (Egan 476) was “an important historical precedent for Chartist tactics” (38). Vanden Bossche asserts that “(a)lthough it never explicitly mentions the Chartists, Wat Tyler certainly deserves a place in the canon of Chartist fiction” (38). Like the Chartists, who called for six reforms in the People's Charter, Egan's Tyler draws six demands of the people.

Consequently, the novel depicts the Peasant Rebellion as an attempt not to gain but to restore the constitutional rights of the people, who have been disenfranchised in the interval between 1341 and 1381. The novel moralizes physical force by depicting Tyler as chivalrously defending his family and fellow citizens and aiming, as he says, to effect a “moral revolution” (3.11.817). However, it depicts his followers as irrational and lacking the social agency to proceed after his death. The conclusion tentatively answers the question of how moralized physical force might be a form of agency — the same question confronted by the Chartists after the failures of 1839 — by suggesting that the people must recognize themselves as social agents with the power to effect social change. [40]

Vanden Bossche concludes the chapter writing about Fergus O'Connor's contention that

“there would be no change for the better until the masses were set in motion — till they were made acquainted with their own strength” (Northern Star 11 Aug. 1838: 6; emphasis added). The fact that O'Connor makes this assertion in the context of his contention that if moral force fails, they must resort to physical force makes clear that what he means by becoming acquainted with their strength is the recognition by all of the people that if they join the Chartist movement, they will overwhelmingly outnumber the ruling elite and their physical force will be so irresistible that, paradoxically, it would not be necessary to employ it in order to enforce their demands. [48-49]

Chapter Four is devoted to the analysis of William Harrison Ainsworth's Guy Fawkes (1841), a novel about the disenfranchised people — English Roman Catholics — who tried “to employ moralized physical force in order to gain the franchise and full citizenship” (50). Contrary to Egan, who employed Chartist discourse in his novel, Ainsworth turns to the rhetoric of parliamentary discourse. Ainsworth’s novel was written in a period where England’s intolerance towards the country’s Catholics began to wane, and Guy Fawkes' rebellion was seen by some as a form of unrest which went beyond religious rivalry. Ainsworth depicts Catholics in his novel as oppressed citizens, who nevertheless, apart from a small, isolated group, “remained constant in their fidelity to the crown.” (52) Ainsworth’s novel, which therefore presents English Catholics in a positive light, shifts the responsibility for the Gunpowder Plot from the Catholic Church and Catholics themselves towards a small group of desperate conspirators who rebelled against King James because he exploited the recusancy laws for his own profit. The novel's conclusion is, according to Vanden Bossche, that Ainsworth, who supported the Whig discourse about social agency, believed that “privileging the agency of the middle class — making it the governing party — will unite not only Catholics and Protestants but also upper and lower classes” (59).

Chapter Five analyses one Charles Dickens's less popular novels, Barnaby Rudge (1841). As is known, Dickens, like his mentor Thomas Carlyle, did not treat the working class as an agent of social change, and as Michael Sanders claims, he was openly hostile towards both Chartism and trade unionism. (Ledger and Fourneaux 240) Vanden Bossche argues persuasively that

Dickens chose the topic of the Gordon Riots nearly two years before the emergence of Chartism, almost certainly in response to the revival of in 1835 of the Protestant Association (in its earlier incarnation the fomenter of the Gordon Riots) and the 'No Popery' campaigns through which the Tories sought to regain control of Parliament, but when he wrote the novel in 1841, the similarities between 1780 and 1839 — notably thousands of protesters marching through London to present a petition to Parliament and then subsequently rioting — would have been unmistakable. However, this does not mean that Dickens sought to represent the Chartists in his depiction of the rioters. Rather, he portrayed the rioters in terms of Whig discourse by depicting a Tory aristocracy that foments anti-Catholic feeling among the lower classes in order to promote its own interests. [60]

Dickens's choice of the topic of social revolt for Barnaby Rudge reflected his anxiety about radical fervour and mob violence in his own time. Although Dickens shared many social ideas of Carlyle, he did not endorse his mentor's conception that aristocracy can lead the working classes through the process of social reform. He rather shared Whig discourse, which said that “the lower classes should abandon their alliance with the aristocracy” (69), and instead they “should join with the middle classes” (70).

In Part Two (“'The Land! The Land! The Land': Land Ownership as Political Reform, 1842-1848”) the author discusses various land reform plans in the years 1842-1848. He concentrates on the Chartist Land Plan, which aimed to resettle industrial workers on smallholdings potentially qualifying them for the franchise, and he provides critical analyses of Disraeli's Coningsby and Sybil, Robert Smith Surtees' Hillingdon Hall, and Thomas Martin Wheeler's political romance, Sunshine and Shadow; A Tale of the Nineteenth Century.

Chapter Six asserts that “projects for land reform both reinforced the conception of social agency in terms of the franchise and posed alternatives to it” (76). Ownership of land was a prerequisite of the franchise. The Victorian debate about the franchise was essentially a debate about social agency. The Chartist Land Plan, which was announced by O'Connor at Chartist conventions, aimed at obtaining social agency for the working classes. However, legal barriers and poor financing led to the scheme's failure by the early 1850s.

Disraeli's Coningsby (1844) and Sybil (1845), unlike Dickens's Barnaby Rudge, insist that the working classes should be led by an enlightened and benevolent aristocracy. Coningsby, or The New Generation is a political-romantic novel which paints a bleak picture of post-Reform England. Disraeli, who described himself as a progressive Tory, believed that an alliance between the old aristocracy and the working class might create a new and effective form social agency. Like Carlyle, he wrote about a revival of the medieval social concord based on hierarchy, strong paternalism, benevolence, and mutual confidence.

Vanden Bossche asserts that “Coningsby seeks to reframe the debate about whether the aristocracy or middle class can best govern the people and therefore should control Parliament,” and Sybil contests the Chartist claim that the people can act for themselves. Like Coningsby, nonetheless, it locates agency in the aristocracy” (90). Disraeli, who wanted to recreate medieval social relations based on hierarchy and paternalism, envisions a reformed aristocrat who can become a disinterested leader of the people whereas Chartist leaders, in his opinion, prove to be incapable of taking popular leadership. In addition, Disraeli does not conceal a viable option that a single man who can become “the nation's principal social agent” is he himself as the future prime minister. (101)

Vanden Bossche devotes Chapter Eight to Hillington Hall, or the Cockney Squire (1845), a novel by R. S. Surtees (1803-64), one of the most popular writers of his time who created the Cockney grocer, Jorrocks, one of the great comic characters of English literature. Like Disraeli, “Surtees envisions social agency in terms of landed property and a finely graded hierarchy that displaces the agency of the Whig oligarchy, but he differs in his depiction both of the land itself and of the nature of the hierarchy” (103). Surtees's views social agency “not as a matter of whether the Whigs or the Tories, or the aristocracy or the middle class, controls Parliament but rather as the agricultural reform undertaken by a traditional squire, yeoman farmers, and farm labor” (110).

Chapter Nine discusses a political melodrama, Sunshine and Shadow: A Tale of the Nineteenth Century (1849-50), written by Thomas Martin Wheeler (1811-62), an Owenite and Chartist. Wheeler, who held various important positions in the Chartist movement, was a London correspondent of the Northern Star, a Chartist lecturer, secretary of the Executive of the National Charter Association, and secretary of the Chartist Land Company. His novel attacks Disraeli's Condition-of-England novels, Coningsby and Sybil and depicts England when Chartism was in decline. Vanden Bossche points out, however, that

Writing at a moment when the future of Chartism was unclear, Wheeler depicts the Land Plan not as creating the promised land but as part of a historical process that will eventually lead to the promised land. Although the plan has failed, it has effected a “revolution in public opinion” that will ultimately lead to “Success.” [124]

In Part Three (“The Social Turn. From Chartism to Cooperation and Trade Unionism, 1848-1855”), the author outlines the decline of the Chartist movement and the emergence of Christian Socialism and Cooperative Association, and examines the novels of Charles Kingsley, Yeast and Alton Locke, and Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton and North and South as social agents.

Chapter Ten is devoted to the shift of agency from the political to the social. In 1850, when the Chartist movement waned, the first national trade union, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, was established. In the light of these new developments, “the Chartist consensus about the primacy of the franchise as a form of agency began to break down, leading to debates about whether priority should be given to 'political' or 'social' reform” (129). In fact, it was clear that by the early 1850s the prevailing and most successful form of working-class agency was trade unionism. Christian Socialists, who tried to popularise their ideas among Chartists, believed that “the working class in its current state cannot be accorded social agency because it does not have sufficient interest in the nation as a whole and does not have the education to act rationally” (133). Christian Socialists deeply believed that reform should include not only reform of public institutions but primarily the moral regeneration of individuals under the guidance of the committed clergy.

In Chapters Eleven and Twelve, the author examines how the conception of social agency is shown in the novels of Charles Kingsley and Elizabeth Gaskell. Kingsley, who was committed to Christian Socialism, wanted to achieve social agency through the action of the reformed clergy (Christian Socialists), who would guide the working classes to an egalitarian Christian brotherhood of men, whereas Gaskell envisaged social agency as the union of the working classes with industrial entrepreneurs.

Alton Locke refers to the days of 1848, when the Chartist movement had for the first time brought men of culture and Christianity into direct contact with the industrial problem and with real workingmen. At the end of the novel Kingsley suggests that the solution to all social troubles is to be found in Christianity. Thus Alton Locke is often read as a manifesto for Christian Socialism. As Professor Vanden Bossche points out, “Just as Alton becomes Kingsley, Chartism is reborn as Christian Socialism, a set of principles that more or less transform socialism into Christianity” (154).

Elizabeth Gaskell, like Kingsley, shows in her two novels, Mary Barton (1848) and North and South (1855), that Chartism lacks social agency. Gaskell had a lot of sympathy for the plight of the working-class families and was successful in making clear references to the two major contemporary social issues: trade unionism and Chartism, but, like Dickens, she was afraid of working-class radicalism. Hence, “ the novel treats trade unions not as a form of social agency but as an irrational, albeit understandable, response to dehumanization” (169) In turn, Chartism is portrayed by Gaskell as “an extremely limited and circumscribed form of agency.” (170)

North and South, often considered as Gaskell’s finest novel, juxtaposes the companionate marriage plot with social agency discourse. In its social agency discourse the novel “envisions a reformed relationship between entrepreneurs and working people” (184). It also reveals the cultural and social contrast between the industrial north and rural south of England. Unlike Mary Barton, North and South “portrays the union as primarily committed to moral force” (184), which is, however, “inevitably entangled, like moral-force Chartism, with physical force” (185). Finally, the author points out that North and South “attempts itself to be a social agent because it endeavours to engage the entrepreneurial class into dialogue with the labouring class, “thus initiating a process that will produce social reform” (188).

The book ends with a short chapter titled “Coda. Rethinking Reform in the Era of the Second Reform Act, 1860-1867.” The book's coda discusses two novels, The Man of the People (1860) by William Howitt and Felix Holt, the Radical (1860) by George Eliot.

William Howitt (1792-1879), a radical and Quaker, and his wife Mary (1799-1888), now both almost forgotten, were well-known writers and poets in the Victorian era. William was best known for his travel-writings, while his wife wrote mainly for children. They were acquainted with Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and William Thackeray. The Man of the People is, as we read in the contemporary review, “less a novel than a social history of England during the period which intervened between the peace of 1815 and the first inception of parliamentary reform; and it refers chiefly to the poorer classes, mainly those of the manufacturing districts — to their sufferings, to their feelings, and to their errors” (The Observer 8). It conveys a message in support of the future reform legislation of 1867. Vanden Bossche points out that both Howitt's novel and Eliot's Felix Holt employ parliamentary discourse “insisting that one must be educated in order to exercise the franchise responsibly” (195). Like Disraeli’s Coningsby and Sybil, as well as Kingsley’s Alton Locke, Eliot’s Felix Holt makes its contribution to the question of social agency, but “rather than treating education as the means of obtaining social agency, it instead substitutes education for the franchise, making it the only authentic form of agency” (195). For Eliot education means moral regeneration which can help people elevate above their class confines. Vanden Bossche ends his commendable survey of the history of social agency in the post Reform Bill period with a comforting assertion:

The history of the Victorian conception of social agency as reform offers us a way of thinking about social agency that can act in relation to present conditions, not merely in relation to a theoretical ideal toward which we might aspire. In this respect, reform can bridge the gap between culture and the uncultivated by accepting that particular actions are self-interested, limited, and flawed but can also serve as a way forward. [199]

This rigorously researched and well-argued book, is a valuable and highly readable study that enriches our knowledge and understanding of social agency in the Victorian era. Reform Acts: Chartism, Social Agency, and the Victorian Novel, 1832-1867 approaches directly the question of the relationship between social agency and the Victorian novel and casts new light on the conceptions of social agency which literary texts employed and produced. The book sets this theme in the historical context of the post-Reform Bill discourses about the franchise, class, and social agency, and shows how these discourses are presented in canonical and noncanonical novels of the period, some of which are now almost entirely absent from English literary studies despite recent attempts to recover forgotten discourses from the depths of Victorian fictions.

Professor Vanden Bossche's oustanding study of social agency in the Victorian novel in the post-Reform Bill period will be of interest to specialists in the field as well as to graduate students of Victorian political, social and literary history. It is an important contribution to the understanding of competing Victorian political discourses and conceptions of social agency. The book contains valuable notes to chapters, a useful index and an extensive list of works cited.

Related Material


Egan, Pierce. Wat Tyler. London: W. S. Johnson, 1851.

Ledger, Sally, Holly Fourneaux, eds. Charles Dickens in Context. Cambridge: New York, Cambridge University Press, 2011.

St. John, Ian. Disraeli and the Art of Victorian Politics. London: Anthem Press, 2010.

Observer, The. Sunday, February 26, 1860.

Vanden Bossche, Chris. Reform Acts: Chartism, Social Agency, and the Victorian Novel, 1832-1867. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2014.

Slosson, William Preston. The Decline of the Chartist Movement. New York, 1916.

Last modified 1 May 2014