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An Underground History of Early Victorian Fiction
Chartism, Radical Print Culture, and the Social Problem Novel

Part of Cambridge Studies in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture

  • Date Published: February 2019
  • availability: Available
  • format: Paperback
  • isbn: 9781316647912


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About the Authors
  • How does the literature and culture of early Victorian Britain look different if viewed from below? Exploring the interplay between canonical social problem novels and the journalism and fiction appearing in the periodical press associated with working-class protest movements, Gregory Vargo challenges long-held assumptions about the cultural separation between the 'two nations' of rich and poor in the Victorian era. The flourishing radical press was home to daring literary experiments that embraced themes including empire and economic inequality, helping to shape mainstream literature. Reconstructing social and institutional networks that connected middle-class writers to the world of working-class politics, this book reveals for the first time acknowledged and unacknowledged debts to the radical canon in the work of such authors as Charles Dickens, Thomas Carlyle, Harriet Martineau and Elizabeth Gaskell. What emerges is a new vision of Victorian social life, in which fierce debates and surprising exchanges spanned the class divide.

    • Sheds new light on the connections between mainstream Victorian writers and working-class literature and politics
    • Shows the influence on mainstream Victorian literature of the journalism and fiction which appeared in the working-class periodical press
    • Highlights how print culture and radical studies are engaged in broader literary and historical scholarly debates
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    Reviews & endorsements

    'Comparing revolutionary bloodshed with the gradual violence of famine in Ireland, Vargo notes, '[the Star] asks why one merits sensational prose little notice' … In thus stressing the Chartists' desire to make melodramatic language applicable to daily oppression as well as to outbursts of violence, Vargo instantly reminded me of Zola and other natural polemicists. Altogether, he sheds important light on the almost subvocalized conversations that precede those very public debates of the fin de siècle.' John Plotz, Review 19 (

    '… a gentle but persuasive challenge to some of the critical commonplaces surrounding Victorian social problem writing.' Juliette Atkinson, The Times Literary Supplement

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    Product details

    • Date Published: February 2019
    • format: Paperback
    • isbn: 9781316647912
    • dimensions: 228 x 150 x 15 mm
    • weight: 0.45kg
    • availability: Available
  • Table of Contents

    Introduction: can a social problem speak?
    1. Social inheritance in the New Poor Law debate: William Cobbett, Harriet Martineau, and the Royal Commission of Inquiry
    2. Books of (social) murder: melodrama and the slow violence of the market in anti-New Poor Law satire, fiction, and journalism
    3. A life in fragments: Thomas Cooper's Chartist Bildungsroman
    4. Questions from workers who read: education and self-formation in Chartist print culture and Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton
    5. Revenge in the age of insurance: villainy in theatrical melodrama and Ernest Jones's fiction
    6. 'Outworks of the citadel of corruption': the Chartist Press reports the empire
    7. Two nations revisited: the refugee question in the People's Paper, Household Words and Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities.

  • Author

    Gregory Vargo, New York University
    Gregory Vargo is Assistant Professor at New York University. His published essays have appeared in Victorian Studies and Victorian Literature and Culture. He has held fellowships from the Fulbright program, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Mrs Giles Whiting Foundation. With Rob Breton, he is the creator of Chartist Fiction, a bibliographic database of over 1000 reviews and stories that appeared in over twenty-five Chartist periodicals.

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