Spurning at the High

Edward Pearce

  • Ernest Jones, Chartism and the Romance of Politics 1819-69 by Miles Taylor
    Oxford, 290 pp, £45.00, January 2003, ISBN 0 19 820729 8

Will became an ardent public man, working well in those times when reforms were begun with a young hopefulness of immediate good which has been much checked in our days, and getting at last returned to Parliament by a constituency who paid his expenses.

Middlemarch

The ‘hopefulness’ being ‘much checked in our days’ speaks the caution of 1867 as against the enthusiasm of 1832. But Ernest Jones could have done with Will Ladislaw’s luck. If Ladislaw’s connections with a ‘good family’ had been hopelessly vitiated by a parentage involving foreign and thus dubious, blood, Jones was well connected and wholly English, although born and brought up abroad. Jones’s father served in the household of the Duke of Cumberland, Ernst Augustus, later King of Hanover, and he spent his youth near Hamburg and went to school in Lüneburg. In short he was, like Will, an exotic, and played to the fact. More important, he had been educated, to the limit of his father’s shabby genteel means, in the German Romantics. He was also, in youth, extremely handsome and could have slipped comfortably into any number of Victorian novels.

His experience of public life was altogether harder and more brutal than anything hinted at in Eliot’s envoi for Will Ladislaw. Miles Taylor has assembled the evidence of an unfashionable life with enormous care, and what emerges is not a character who could be played on television by Rufus Sewell, but someone closer to the world of Gissing, to Edwin Reardon sweating away at the next three-decker novel. Jones had romantic ideas and high aspirations, but when he threw in his lot with radicalism, or more precisely with Chartism, he achieved a public identity and a certain fugitive celebrity, while at the same time committing himself to a life of drudgery in which writing or lecturing had to subsidise his political life.

There was very little money in his family. His father, who had served at Coruña and Waterloo, was a half-pay captain and briefly acting-major. As Major Jones, he existed on very small commons, while striving long and unhopefully to return to full pay. He had married for money, but it never materialised. He was not only sick, but on poor terms with the Duke, his employer, himself an aspirant to the British Crown. Ernst might be the coming man in Hanover, but he was loathed in England, variously accused of murder and incest, involving respectively his valet and sister. The murder is generally accepted as an act of self-defence against a deranged servant, but according to Major Jones, who wrote down what he described as the Duke’s ‘confidence’, Ernst claimed that he had to ‘destroy’ his valet because he ‘threatened to propagate a report, and I had no alternative’. Whatever the truth, the event became a family legend, part of the romantic penumbra with which his son, vividly educated, imaginative and inheriting a clutch of family grievances, surrounded himself.

The young Jones, named for the Duke, was equipped by this background to see himself as an aristocrat denied his heritage by foul circumstance. The image of fallen nobility was reinforced by his early marriage to Jane Atherley, who was related to the Stanley family but, thanks to her father’s misfortunes, no richer than Ernest. Taylor is rather hard on Jones for the element of social fantasy in both his literary work and his politics, but such imaginings were the common coin of an age greatly given to looking backwards and upwards. Disraeli, the descendant of a Ferrara straw-hat manufacturer in excellent commercial standing, persuaded himself of a false family line stretching all the way back to pre-1492 Sephardic nobility. This was a time of much bad historical fiction and those who wrote it, as young Jones did, would readily apply it speculatively to their own backgrounds.

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