The Revolution in Popular Literature: Print, Politics and the People, 1790-1860 is Ian Haywood’s rich and compelling investigation into the hitherto neglected history of the evolution and value of “cheap” radical print in Britain from the period of the French Revolution through to the decade following the Chartist revival of 1848. In this text, Haywood examines the fundamental nature of radical popular literature to the progression of English society and politics through a meticulous assessment of primary sources, including periodicals that were readily available to the common reader. Following the development of radical ideologies in the form of societies and popular revolts, Haywood maps a direct correlation between the struggle for plebeian rights and the advancement in cheap radical literature. His assertions are further strengthened and legitimized by his equally thorough recognition and appraisal of a calculated response to the counter-culture of cheap radical print and culture in the form of cheap literature from reactionary, anti-Jacobin societies and government entities. As a testament to the proliferation of British radical print culture, and its rival loyalist publications, The Revolution in Popular Literature is a particularly salient study of the evolution of a most important segment of late eighteenth-, early nineteenth-century British society and literature.
One of this study’s strengths is Haywood’s incorporation of various popular literary genres, including the periodical, the pamphlet, the miscellany, the popular didactic tale, Chartist literature, and the “pig’s meat” anthology. Because of his inclusion of and reliance upon genres which comprised the bulk of the plebeian radical reading culture, Haywood brings to the forefront of current critical discussion the primordial nature of many once neglected cheap literary genres that were essential in the development of radical thought and culture in Britain at the time. This emphasis upon the literariness of the plebeian counter-sphere is at the heart of another of this text’s strong suits, namely, the recognition of “the people’s enlightenment.” Beginning with questions of enfranchisement and the people’s rights, which naturally ensued the revolution on the Continent, Haywood approaches each of his chapters with what he unapologetically acknowledges is a metanarrative, albeit one that he owns is neither homogeneous nor monolithic (4). Instead, it provides his discussion with a driving impetus to demonstrate the reality of the inevitable intersection and intertwining of popular enlightenment, popular political agency, and popular literary enjoyment.
Haywood’s juxtaposition of contemporaneous radical and anti-radical cheap publications provides a balanced portrayal of what the people were actually reading and renders the political and social impact of radical literature all the more compelling for all the opposition it faced from rival ideologies which also espoused the cheap publication format as a way into the plebeian reading universe. Beginning with the revolutionary fervor spurring the common reader of the 1790s, reason and the diffusion of knowledge ready the people to enter the public sphere with a literature of their own. Cheap pamphlets become a tool for radicals in the diffusion of knowledge (16). Radical authors and their work, like Thomas Paine and his Rights of Man (1791-92), became accessible in cheap format to the common reader, spreading notions of the people as a rational, politically-conscious group, countering the loyalist equation of radicalism with violence. Haywood then traces the emergence of the “cheap miscellany-cum-anthology” as “the most conspicuous plebeian literature to emerge in the 1790s” (27). Writers such as John Thelwall, who “radicalized Godwin’s thought” (33) coincided with radical meetings and mass gatherings, further consolidating the people, to the increasing alarm of loyalists. In a brief discussion, Haywood notes how some Romantics such as Coleridge rejected the notion of “virtuous” radicalism existing in any but “the more gentlemanly leaders” in “the upper echelons of the democratic movement” (43).
In a compelling re-evaluation of the role of women writers in radical/anti-radical dialogue and the impact of the loyalist counter-effort, Haywood continues with a reappraisal of Hannah More’s title of “radical” writer. Arguing against the critical supposition that More is a “liberal” thinker, Haywood looks to her Cheap Repository tract series (1795-98) as an example of literature depicting female agency but also reaffirming the existing conservative ideals. More’s reactionary advice to common readers under the guise of bettering their lives is further bolstered by growing loyalist associations and, more importantly, government censorship such as anti-radical laws and regulations in the form of the Two Acts of 1795—which suppressed free speech—and stamp duties.
Haywood then moves on to developments in the postwar era, as cheap radical weeklies become mainstream and visual aids such as woodcuts become widely used. Fiction gains ground in the popular imagination and there is a subsequent shift from the purely political to tales and stories of fiction from both the radical and loyalist camps. Furthermore, growing concern from anti-radicals is evident in the anti-revolutionary popular tales of Maria Edgeworth as well as the anti-Cobbettite stories of More. Haywood also focuses upon the “unstamped” wars of the 1830s during which the radical press embraces “a new hybrid genre of the newspaper-cum-broadsheet” (130). Haywood links radical publications’ movement toward more sensational fiction at this time to the rise of Chartist literature in the 1840s, which favours such genres as satire and melodrama, but which, nevertheless, retains its radical ideology. Recognizing the continued influence of female-authored tales in the Victorian period, Haywood examines stories about needlewomen, published in both radical and middle-class periodicals, to compare the varying treatment of working women and their concerns. This study then progresses through the political and social upheavals of 1848 and the Chartist revival to consider further anti-radical propaganda in magazines which attacked their rivals but could not stifle the radical will.
The Revolution in Popular Literature is a truly excellent reference work into not only the origins and development of cheap radical publications in late-eighteenth- to mid-nineteenth-century Britain but also the radical ideals, both political and social, behind the literature, as well as the corresponding anti-radical backlash. Ian Haywood’s approach to the material is engaging and thorough, making every aspect of this work interesting and relevant thanks to a methodical analysis of primary texts buoyed by the author’s keen insight into the environment which fostered the growth and proliferation of this literature. This book provides a lucid and fascinating account into a vital era in British political, cultural, and literary history.