The Dignity of Chartism, by Dorothy Thompson, edited by Stephen Roberts

Kathryn Gleadle on an admiring and useful tribute to the life and work of a leading social historian

July 23, 2015
Book review: The Dignity of Chartism, by Dorothy Thompson, edited by Stephen Roberts

One of the Chartists’ most influential champions in late 20th-century scholarship was Dorothy Thompson, who combined an encyclopedic knowledge of the movement with an impassioned political vision of its significance. She used to quip of William Lovett, the exemplar of “moral force” and moderate “education” Chartism, that he “couldn’t run a whelk stall”. It was a put-down in keeping with her wit, verve and capacity for acerbic critique, but more importantly it was testament to Thompson’s entwining of historical investigation with left-wing activism. The Chartist leader she most celebrated was instead that passionate, charismatic “lion of freedom” Feargus O’Connor, who she believed helped to propel Chartism into a national movement of the working class.

This book presents a range of Thompson’s writing, including a richly expansive, co-authored article on Halifax Chartism. Although the contents pages do not make this apparent, it draws substantially on reprints of Thompson’s book reviews. Given the wide consensus that Thompson’s importance outweighed her published output in books or articles, this approach offers a pithy route to Thompson’s self-positioning as a Chartist historian.

Chartism, Thompson insisted, was a manifestation of Britain’s working class, a class forged in the social and economic conditions of emergent industrial capitalism. She tended to be critical of accounts that brought middle-class radicalism into the fold. Alex Tyrrell’s fine 1987 study of the Quaker reformer Joseph Sturge and the “moral radical party”, for example, was criticised for being too short (at 255 pages) and for being “remorselessly confined to the viewpoint of its subject”. It was the linguistic turn that most provoked her ire, however, and she bitterly contested academic strategies that threatened to detach discourse from the intricacies of lived experience and circumstance. She long entertained, as she later admitted to this volume’s editor, Stephen Roberts, an “absurd prejudice” against purchasing Patrick Joyce’s 1991 book Visions of the People.

A short (and unfortunately undated) piece, “Women Chartists”, gestures towards Thompson’s hugely significant excavation of female politics. Some of the complexities of that contribution are less apparent here, though. She could be surprisingly conservative in her broader analysis of gender, concurring with a dichotomous model of “separate spheres” in her work on Queen Victoria. Interestingly, when asked to choose five favourite Chartists to appear on greeting cards, reports Roberts, she selected only men.

More widely, Thompson has left a complex legacy for female scholars to digest. It is hard to think of any other historian whose career has been so relentlessly analysed or packaged with reference to that of their spouse. This was a process to which Thompson herself often contributed, if sometimes a little defensively. She projected her life and work as part of a collective operation of radical engagement with her husband, Edward. Within this she claimed to be content for her own career goals to be subsumed. She asserted in her 1993 edited collection of essays, Outsiders, that she would not have had the “emotional energy” to combine a full-time job with childcare responsibilities. Roberts’ introduction reworks much of this territory, offering a personal, highly sympathetic testimony to Thompson’s brand of lifestyle politics.

In all, this volume is an admiring and useful – if sometimes uncritical – tribute to the life and work of an extraordinary historian.

Kathryn Gleadle is tutor and fellow in modern history, University of Oxford.

The Dignity of Chartism
By Dorothy Thompson, edited by Stephen Roberts
Verso, 240pp, £60.00 and £14.99
ISBN 9781781688489, 8496 and 8519 (e-book)
Published 2 June 2015

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