Burning ambition went up in flames

Ernest Jones, Chartism, and the Romance of Politics 1819-1869
December 5, 2003

Chartism was a movement whose members, supporters and most of its leaders were working men. A few were shopkeepers, innkeepers or marginal members of the lesser professions. Such people rarely leave family archives, so that almost all we know about them comes from the press, prison records or published reminiscence. An exception to this is Ernest Jones, who left behind many personal papers including a diary, a large number of letters and copious notes of his financial affairs and of his work as an editor, speaker and later a barrister on the Northern Circuit.

It is therefore surprising that Miles Taylor's is the first full biography of Jones, the more so since he is the best-remembered of the Chartist leaders, among the pioneers of the modern Labour movement and was a friend of both Marx and Engels.

The legend that survived Jones after his early death in 1869 was of a poet who, as a young man, had cast aside comfort and wealth to take part in the movement of the working people. He had been arrested in the year of revolutions, 1848, and had served two years in prison, where he had been refused paper and books and had written inspiring poems in his own blood. On his release he had fought desperately to keep the ailing Chartist movement alive, and had finally made his peace with radical liberalism. He died on the eve of his election to the House of Commons. At least, this was the story passed on by men such as Ben Turner and Charles Glyde and by G.

D. H. Cole in his Chartist Portraits (1940). The biographical introduction to a selection of Jones' writing edited by John Saville in 1953 did not significantly alter the legend.

A closer examination of the material, however, shows that the Jones legend was largely his own invention. He did come from a minor gentry family but not one from which he had serious hopes of inheriting wealth. His desire for a career as a man of letters was not matched by his ability as an editor, or as a writer of verse or prose. He came into the Chartist movement with some romantic enthusiasm at a time when it was already in decline or spreading into more limited movements such as trade unionism or cooperation. His story is not one of radical political success but of an unsuccessful search for a career in politics and letters. As such, it is of great interest to anyone wanting to understand some of the realities of life in the mid-Victorian period.

Taylor has written an immensely readable account, putting straight the record about some of Jones' romantic claims without debunking or ridiculing the man himself. Jones did put in years of work for radical causes and earned the loyalty and respect of many Chartists. If he also quarrelled with many of his colleagues and was always unreliable in matters of money, he did not become rich at the movement's expense. A few of his verses were remembered and sold as street ballads. His Gothic prose fiction is best forgotten.

Taylor's book does not add much to our knowledge of Chartism and its leaders. But this story of the efforts, ambitions and family life of an unsuccessful seeker after a literary career, helps to fill out our knowledge of the age.

Dorothy Thompson is fellow of the Institute for Advanced Research in the Arts and Social Sciences, University of Birmingham.

Ernest Jones, Chartism, and the Romance of Politics 1819-1869

Author - Miles Taylor
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 7
Price - £45.00
ISBN - 0 19 820729 8

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