The march from misery

The Duty of Discontent

April 19, 1996

The essays in this volume are a worthy tribute to Dorothy Thompson whose contribution to the study of labour history and of Chartism in particular has been substantial and distinctive; and if there is a transatlantic flavour to a few of the essays this is because both Edward and Dorothy Thompson have attracted young American as well as young British scholars to the study of "history from below". Their influence jointly and separately is apparent not only in the choice of subjects for doctoral theses or essays like these but in a whole library of books produced at different times and in different places.

Mercifully most of the essays in this volume are free from a jargon that separates writers both from their readers and, as seriously, from the people of the past. Model essays in this respect are Angela John's "Radical reflections? Elizabeth Robins: the making of Suffragette history and the representation of working-class women" and Stephen Roberts's "Who wrote to the Northern Star". Feminism and communication have produced more jargon than most topics. John and Roberts reach back into the past. Elizabeth Robins, who just before her 85th birthday heard Aneurin Bevan speak with customary eloquence at the Miners' Gala in Morpeth, herself set a good example: as a Suffragette she knew how to tell tales as well as to expound principles. As for Roberts's piece, the readers of the Northern Star would have enjoyed it. So, too, would the correspondents he quotes. Their contributions to this pre-eminent working-class newspaper, not least their poems, and a significant proportion of the correspondence, have now been rescued for posterity, like the correspondents themselves.

Such rescue has always been a purpose of the Thompsons, and in a cogent, well-footnoted essay by John Belchem on the Liverpool Irish of the 19th century we can linger in consequence on the words inscribed on the statue of Father Nugent who is described as "Apostle of Temperance, Protector of the Orphan Child, Consoler of the Prisoner, Reformer of the Criminal, Saviour of Fallen Womenhood, Friend of All in Poverty and Affliction, an Eye to the Blind, a Foot to the Lame, the Father of the Poor". Could any tribute to the role of the Thompsons be more emphatic?

It is disappointing, however, that the editors of this volume, having unearthed its title from a lecture given by the Chartist poet Thomas Cooper in 1853, have not included at least one essay on "discontent". Thomas Carlyle, mentioned only once, discerned discontent, which has also had attached to it the paramount adjective "divine", at the very core of Chartism. Is discontent a duty? Why was it expressed more fiercely in words and deeds at some times in the 19th century (and since) than in others? Is it a "key word"? How much of it is "inarticulate"?

Many of the essays in this volume deal with Chartism and some with its historiography. Dorothy Thompson's contribution to research on the Chartists is demonstrated in her books. The essayists dwell as much, however, on her teaching of Chartism as a university "special subject". She used it, Neville Kirk suggests, as a "school for expert, disciplined and exacting instruction in the 'mysteries of the craft' [of a historian]." Kirk calls her approach to learning "traditional" - "wrestling with the evidence, developing the capacity for independent thought and study under expert guidance and publishing considered research findings". It is, indeed, traditional in that it resists what Kirk calls "current fads". In my own seminars on Chartism, which encouraged my pupils to write as well as to think, I both shared the approach and confirmed Kirk's conclusions about its value. Historiography changed in consequence.

Whatever the state of historiography, Chartism in Britain has usually had a good press in the 20th century. Sympathies remain strong. Yet the subject forces the student to ask difficult questions about principles and strategy, leaders and rank-and-file, and success and failure. Few other special subjects are so challenging. I found that one of its few successful competitors, "politics in the age of Peel", was, in fact, complementary. It forced the student to consider "history from above" in relation to "history from below" and it introduced different elements into the main historical equations. Chartism, however, had a further appeal. Because "below" meant localities as well as people Chartism demanded a consideration of the relationship between geography and economics and between local and national history. Examining the local meant rebuilding national history from below, not illustrating national history from local examples. Obviously the study of Chartism, like labour history as a whole, thrives best within the context of social and cultural history, but the economics can never be left out, least of all in interpreting the politics.

One essay in the volume that raises quite different issues, L. D. Smith's "'Levelled to the same common standard?' Social class in the lunatic asylum, 1780-1860", further stretches the boundaries of social history without imposing a conceptual straitjacket, the right metaphor, on a disturbing subject. Medical history has become social and cultural also. And there are links with urban history also. The volume ends with an essay on "Italians in Birmingham, c1821-1919" by Carl Chinn, who has done much to bring neglected aspects of social history to life. Having begun the volume with bread and butter we end it with ice cream.

Asa Briggs, the editor of Chartist Studies, is a former provost of Worcester College, Oxford, and chancellor, the Open University.

The Duty of Discontent: Essays for Dorothy Thompson

Editor - Owen Ashton, Robert Fyson and Stephen Roberts
ISBN - 0 7201 2201 5
Publisher - Mansell
Price - £50.00
Pages - 6

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