REFORM ACTS: CHARTISM, SOCIAL AGENCY AND THE VICTORIAN Novel, 1832-1867 by Chris T. Vanden Bossche, Reviewed by Margery Sabin

By Chris T. Vanden Bossche
(Johns Hopkins, 2014) ix+254 pp.
Reviewed by Margery Sabin on 2014-07-03.

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This book is not another exercise in cultural unmasking. In asking "how the Victorians themselves thought about the nature of social improvement" (4), Chris Vanden Bossche avoids the strategy adopted by more theoretical studies, which is to expose in even the most seemingly progressive Victorian writers a hidden ideological complicity with the status quo. This strategy is exemplified by Carolyn Betensky's Feeling for the Poor: Bourgeois Compassion, Social Action and the Victorian Novel (2010). Reading many of the same novels Vanden Bossche examines, Betensky subordinates "the historically referential level of these texts" to what they mean for cultural theory, for the work of theorists such as Marx, Althusser, Foucault, and a number of psychoanalytic writers. "In like spirit," she writes, "I aim to read nineteenth-century novels not with the knowledge or outlook that a nineteenth-century reader might have had, but with the peculiar perspective of the twenty-first century reader I inescapably am" (Betensky 6). Betensky aims to "complement" rather than displace studies like this one, and Vanden Bossche does not single her out for criticism. Yet for all this welcome courtesy of tone, the resulting differences of interpretation are vast.

For Vanden Bossche, the political discourse of social reform was a substantial and dynamic reality, containing within itself hopes for significant changes in the relationship among social classes. For the Victorians--and for twenty-first readers also, Vanden Bossche implies--the very term "reform" is an active, assertive English alternative to the dreaded revolutionary impulses so conspicuous in the Gallic land across the Channel. While recognizing the contradictions, ambivalences, shifting alliances--and indeed, the failures-- of a whole sequence of Victorian ideas for reform, Vanden Bossche organizes this book to demonstrate the continuing pertinence of the overt as compared with the covert: with the "shadow politics"(Betensky 6) that other recent analysts have probed. Vanden Bossche confronts many of the same contradictions that theoretical criticism takes as symptomatic, but he declares: "rather than claim that I have discovered something that the text itself does not know (its subtexts), I ask how these contradictions arise from the novel's attempts to engage with existing discourses of agency"(4). Beginning with Chartism, then, this book honors the active work of the Victorian political novel in representing successive imaginings of social change.

The structure of this book displays Vanden Bossche's own ambivalence toward the centrality of reform politics in his interpretive scheme. At the opening, he affirms: "Chartism, as well as earlier nineteenth-century radicalism, operated on the assumption that change in the political domain would lead to change in the economic, not vice versa" (4). Yet dilemmas and schisms within the Chartist movement as well as its definitive political failure in 1848 presage the increasing withdrawal from politics reflected in the later work he chooses to probe. Part Three of the book begins: "Following the failure of the petition on April 10, 1848, Chartist discourse frequently signaled a shift of agency from the domain of the political to the social"(130). The further turn from collective to individual action and, notably in George Eliot, to "an 'inward revolution' that moves the individual beyond class" (190) reaches an endpoint far from the primacy given to political reform at the outset of the book.

An outline of the book's complex organization represents its progression better than does a summary of its argument. Its three parts identify a chronological sequence from 1832 to 1855, with a brief "Coda" leading up to the Second Reform Act of 1867. Each part begins with a narrative overview of significant contemporary events and themes that are explored with the aid of non-fictional documents, and two or three further sections show how individual novels represent these themes and situations. Part One (1838 to 1842) highlights Chartism, the radical and activist demand for further parliamentary action after the disappointingly limited expansion of the franchise legislated by the Reform Act of 1832. Part One's title, "Making Physical Force Moral: The Dilemma of Chartism," identifies the internal conundrum of the Chartist movement. By written petitions and orderly demonstrations, Chartists aimed to demonstrate the moral legitimacy of their demand for political enfranchisement of the so-called "lower orders." Yet without the threat of mass physical force, Chartist demands could easily be (and were) simply rejected. The threat of force, however, which could (and on occasion did) generate actual physical violence, only reinforced the argument that the protestors did not deserve political responsibility.

The novels examined in Part One represent the dilemmas of Chartism indirectly, through historical analogy to famous popular uprisings and plots from the British past: Pierce Egan's Wat Taylor (about the hero of the fourteenth-century Peasants' Revolt), Harrison Ainsworth's Guy Fawkes (about the leader of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot), and Charles Dickens's Barnaby Rudge, which, like Guy Fawkes, recasts class conflict as Catholic protest against Protestant oppression. Dickens, however, brings events closer to the present with a plot centering on the Gordon Riots of 1780. All three of these novels dramatize the impossibility of separating moral from physical force in popular uprisings.

Parts Two and Three turn away from these historical antecedents. Part Two, "The Land, the Land, The Land!: Land Ownership as Political Reform: 1842-1848," shows how the political status quo was indirectly challenged through land reform that would expand the political class within the legislated reforms of 1832. The non-fictional texts examined here explain the aims of the Young England movement and of Chartists who developed a "Land Plan" to increase the class of small landholders. Fictional reflections of their aims can be found in Disraeli's novels, Coningsby and Sybil, along with such lesser known works as Robert Smith's Hillindon Hall and Thomas Martin Wheeler's Sunshine and Shadow. But since the Chartists' land reform schemes were variously disappointed and deferred, Vanden Bossche turns further away from politics in Part Three, "The Social Turn: From Chartism to Cooperation and Trade Unionism, 1848-1855." Following the definitive failure of the 1848 Chartist petition, the non-fictional documents examined here feature Christian socialism and related economic cooperative associations. Among them was the newborn trade union movement, which also reflects a shift to forms of negotiation and other social rather than political strategies. These developments are fictionally treated, Vanden Bossche shows, in Charles Kingsley's Yeast and Alton Locke, and most notably in Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton and North and South. George Eliot appears only in the "Coda" of this book, where Vanden Bossche observes that in Felix Holt: The Radical, the Reform Act of 1832 figures in a plot which "locates culture, and with it social agency, outside of the political domain entirely" (190). As Vanden Bossche notes, Eliot's timing was remarkably ironic. Appearing in 1866, on the very eve of a Bill (the Second Reform Act of 1867) that would double the country's electorate, one of Eliot's most political novels rejects the very idea of political action as a means to accomplish significant social change: "Rejecting political reform as the action of a self-interested class," writes Vanden Bossche, "she constructs agency as self-culture, an 'inward revolution' that moves the individual beyond class" (190). Perhaps, Vanden Bossche suggests, the Bill of 1867 passed with relatively little opposition because by the 1860s Eliot's political cynicism had become widespread.

Like many twenty-first century literary critics (myself included) who aspire to break free from late twentieth-century ideological theory and jargon, Vanden Bossche struggles to establish a terminology adequate to his independent line of thought. At the outset he wants to reclaim the term "political" from its expanded usage in feminist and other oppositional rhetoric in favor of its narrower older meaning: of or pertaining to matters of government and law. "Unlike other studies dealing with the working classes and reform," he announces, "this one focuses on the political rather than the social and economic" (4). Chartism was unambiguously "political" in its address to Parliament for redress to existing laws. But the turn away from parliamentary politics after 1848, as Vanden Bossche himself presents it, leaves nineteen of the thirty-five years of the book's time span outside the framework of "the political" -- in the realm of social history.

"Social agency" rather than "politics" is Vanden Bossche's operative term through most of the book, but it presents equal if different problems for his argument. Victorians did not think of society in terms of "agency" in the revolutionary sense, as Vanden Bossche acknowledges in a somewhat strained effort to detach his usage from its provenance in literary and social theory. "Literary criticism," he writes, "has taken up questions of agency in response to theories depicting individuals as subjected to ideological or discursive structures that dictate the possibilities for action....Seen in this way, acting within social structures is not acting at all, for acting requires overturning the structures, at least conceptually; it requires, in other words, revolution" (3, and Notes, 3,4[201].

The term "agency," then, presents an obvious problem for a book favoring reform over revolution and bent on showing "how the Victorians themselves thought." In addition, Vanden Bossche is explicitly concerned with collective rather than individual action: "I distinguish social agency from individual agency and questions of free will" (3). At stake in debates about reforming the franchise, he explains, was a constitution-based vision of a society that could transcend the self-interest of individuals, and even separate social classes, not by abolishing class distinctions but by better ordering class relationships "disinterestedly" (10). In Vanden Bossche's telling, debates and visions of social change after 1832 continued to center on the capacity of groups or alliances between groups (or political parties) to promote and maintain "the interests of the nation as a whole"(10). Implicitly, the whole book asks us not to discard such vision and language out of hand as merely rhetorical cover for a reactionary "shadow politics." For Vanden Bossche, transcendence of mere "self-interest" is the continuing (if continually disappointed) goal of progressive social thought in the Victorian period, and even now. At the end of the book, Vanden Bossche reaffirms his own commitment to the Victorian efforts because, for all their flaws, "[t] he 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" (199).

In part, this book subordinates the individualist connotations of "agency" by focusing almost exclusively on novels about classes: novels whose characters are not so much individuals as emblems of social class positions. In such novels marital choice expresses chiefly one's social class. As Vanden Bossche explains, the historical novels of the Chartist period revise elements of Walter Scott's model, "transforming it from a narrative of conflict and resolution between nations and cultures into a narrative of conflict and resolution between classes" (13). In the marriage plots of these and later novels that Vanden Bossche considers, the "companionate marriage," featuring love and greater equality between man and woman, is set against the reactionary "kinship marriage," wherein family and class loyalties prevail, along with the domination of male over female. (Vanden Bossche draws this typology from Lawrence Stone's The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 [1977]). Interesting variations on and complications of this marriage plot recur in virtually all the novels Vanden Bossche treats. In Disraeli's Coningsby, for example, the hero represents a "new generation" of aristocrats. In reforming himself out of his inherited class privileges and prejudices, he not only pursues and wins the love of an industrialist's daughter for "a companionate marriage," but equally if not more significantly, he forges a political bond with her brother in a "Young England-like coterie" (88-89). Since Coningsby or, The New Generation (1844) and Sybil, or The Two Nations (1845) played explicit parts in Disraeli's own budding political career, Vanden Bossche rightly reads them in political terms, though the politics here is as much marital as parliamentary, which once again problematizes the meaning of "political." Vanden Bossche's commentary on Coningsby also includes one of his few critiques of novelistic writing: while Edith Millbank, the bride of the "companionate marriage " in the book, ought to win love and respect by showing signs of personal distinction, she "rarely utters a word and never establishes any kind of presence in the narrative"(89). Vanden Bossche explains this failure, however, mainly by following Mary Poovey's earlier critical suggestion that Disraeli cared more about Coningsby's homosocial bond with Edith's brother (89 and Notes 3 and 4 [217]).

Vanden Bosch is ingenious and suggestive in drawing correspondences between a great variety of marriage plots and a succession of social visions in the Victorian period. Because so many of these novels have ceased to circulate beyond the readership of academic specialists, their reduction to narrative structures is probably is not an important limitation. By following Vanden Bossche's lively accounts of their plots, the general reader can see how Victorian fiction offered writers, social activists, and aspiring politicians indirect ways of exploring resolutions to some of their society's recalcitrant social problems.

Different values arise, however, in relation to novels that are still alive for us. Why do we still read Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot, but not Robert Smith, Thomas Martin, or even Disraeli? Surely the effective development of individualized character enters any answer to that question. Although the union between the clergyman's daughter Margaret Hale and the Manchester millowner Thornton in Gaskell's North and South may be classified as a "companionate marriage" across class divisions, that novel still holds us now by features other than narrative structure. Indeed its plot resolution is weak: as Thornton is somewhat feebly reconciled with the millworker, Higgins, Margaret gets a sudden bequest from her father's friend. The strength of the novel--what may even be the sign of Gaskell's "agency" as a novelist--springs from her invention of a heroine with such highly individualized (and not conventionally female) capacities for inwardness of thought and feeling: confused sexual energy drives her initial antagonism to Thornton and many later scenes of her inward struggles.

Many of the lesser-known novels discussed in this book gain interest only when placed within Vanden Bossche's categories of narrative structure. By contrast, the novels of Gaskell and Eliot re-introduce the disturbing question of individuality: are not individual powers of thought and expression (on the part of both authors and the characters they create) the most enduring accomplishment of the best Victorian novels? This is not to say that plot does not inflect their affirmation of individual inwardness. The sudden arrival of financial resources seems necessary to underwrite "companionate marriage" in many of even the most famous Victorian novels-- Jane Eyre, Bleak House, and Middlemarch, as well as North and South--as if without ample cash from somewhere, no amount of love, individual distinction, and mutual respect could make it substitute for kinship marriage. In "The Protestant Ethic and the 'Spirit' of Money" (Oxford Handbook of the Victorian Novel [2013]), George Levine has noted that the Victorian novel consistently tries "to reconcile romance and moral value with money" (Levine 379): money in the plot represents the material constraint on individual character in society. The impossibility of separating money from a reformist ideal of social relationships circles back to the dilemma analyzed in Part 1: the vexed relationship between moral and physical force in Chartism. The tension between reformist vision and hardheaded realism in even the best of Victorian novels gives us one more reason to heed Vanden Bossche's argument: that Victorian ways of thinking about reform -- with all their confusions and contradictions-- remain pertinent to the twenty-first century reader and critic.

Margery Sabin is Lorraine Chiu Wang Professor of English Literature at Wellesley College.

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