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.

Jones began indeed as a writer, under the name not of Ernest Jones but of ‘Karl’. He was taken up by Lady Stepney, an elderly novelist of society, whose husband had held a place at the perpetual whist-playing, dog-and-monkey-cluttered but amiable court of the Duke of York. Through her, he found a publisher for his first novel, The Wood Sprite, in which a former Hohenstaufen knight fights the local bad abbot on behalf of the persecuted peasants and drives back the encroaching sea by building a granite wall. The happy ending is secured when the peasantry joins with the nobility to invoke the Christian decencies.

Jones published this at 21 and it was well received. He became a close friend of Bulwer-Lytton, and introduced the spirit and style of German Romantic poetry to a London audience in his own verse. He also engaged in the favourite Victorian recreation of religious disputation – from a Lutheran point of view, which was slightly exotic though accepted as perfectly sound by mainstream Anglicans. A thoroughly respectable place as a man of letters was open to him. The trouble was money. The Joneses had never had much, and the probable suicide – an ‘accident’ cleaning his pistols only months after a laudanum overdose – of Major Jones, followed by the insurance company’s refusal to pay up, left Ernest, his mother and his young wife very much worse off. They had to let the house and trade down.

Jones now completed his law studies and was called to the Bar. Having no capital, he tried to raise it by the purchase of an estate, Kearsney Abbey in Kent, parts of which were to be immediately sublet or sold off, thus realising income and an immediate cash profit of £2000. This meant borrowing, but the lender sensed the precariousness of Jones’s position and withdrew. There was nothing improper or inherently ruinous about this venture except that it failed – one more blow on top of all the others. And it was compounded by his useless pursuit of his father’s old obsession, family money supposedly appropriated by an uncle.

This run of defeats would have demoralised many, but it found Jones, as at every point in his life, fighting back. This was the period when private railway bills were taking up many hours of Parliamentary time, when to ease the passage of legislation at the high point of the mania, 155 Members of Parliament were taking consultancy fees from the railway companies. For a few months, Jones worked as Parliamentary draughtsman for the Leek and Mansfield Company, which sought to carry passengers, against the grain of British transport practice, from east to west: in this case from Boston in Lincolnshire to Holyhead.

The Company failed soon enough and Jones returned to writing, publishing two sub-Walter Scott epic poems, Corayda and Lord Lindsay, and most ambitiously, My Life, a verse novel cum autobiography which Taylor sees as having affinities with Tennyson’s ‘Locksley Hall’. The main character is Jones’s idealised version of himself as the aristocrat beset by misfortunes who turns to the people, who give him the love he craves.

From My Life to the writing of Chartist poems was a shorter step than it may seem. In his search for employment, Jones had approached the Anti-Corn Law League. He had also been keeping political company and made his first public speech at an Anti-Corn Law debate in Willis’s Rooms late in 1845: he was about to become Ernest Jones, leading Chartist. The slot was waiting to be filled. The Chartist leader, Feargus O’Connor, had fallen out with his court minstrel, Thomas Cooper, who kept asking embarrassing questions about the alleged mismanagement of funds, when Jones’s Chartist Songs and Fugitive Pieces appeared late in 1846. Some of these, for all their dramatic gestures, had real force.

On the lealands slept the cattle,

Slumber through the forest ran,

While, in Mammon’s mighty battle

Man was immolating man!

Like Cobbett, and like O’Connor himself, Jones mourned for a now lost rural world, from which people had been driven into the factories and slums. He invokes religion against the change:

Over all the solemn heaven

Arches, like a God’s reproof

As the offerings man has driven

To Hell’s altars, loom and woof!

Nobody in a cotton mill ever called it anything but ‘weft’, but still, the poems were a major success among the movement’s readership, with their strong rhythm and lingering nostalgia for a country existence which still existed in most urban workers’ memory. A pungent way with the ‘Lords of Trade’ – ‘They are trampling on the lowly/ They are spurning at the high’ (a One Nation/Young England sentiment) – sounded well in the ears of a confused working class that had gone from one social command structure to another, rawer one.

Jones, happy in his audience, now moved fully into the political struggle. The non-practising barrister found that he was an immensely effective popular speaker. He made his first outdoor speech at Blackstone Edge, high in the Pennines – English radical movements have always been keen on meetings held in the open air. His Lutheran/Low Church affiliations helped him to develop a style of oratory which was often compared with that of the great 18th-century revivalist preachers. He appeared at most major Chartist gatherings and busied himself in the journalism of the movement. He wrote verse and quantities of prose for the Northern Star, and also gave unpaid and conscientious legal advice: a one-man law centre, he pleaded in court in politically combustible cases, appearing for the family of a man killed by the police during an election riot at Sleaford, for example. He became a full-time political activist or, as the authorities would have put it, an ‘agitator’, and was present on Kennington Common in 1848, before the great petition was taken across the bridge, to be mocked in Parliament.

This was the revolution which was never going to succeed. Chartism, rather like Jones, had over-dramatised itself. All its official objectives, bar annual Parliaments, would eventually be gained, but in the middle-class, legislative way. Chartism talked utopia, however, and established society was correspondingly florid in its fears. When the time came for examples to be made, Jones, who had said too much in the presence of a shorthand-writing spy, was prominent among them, convicted on a handy recent law of sedition. He served two years in Tothill Fields, a couple of stones’ throws from the House of Commons that he had hoped to enter.

Two years’ imprisonment in a new, unpleasantly efficient Victorian jail might have broken him, but Jones plunged back into Chartism, both as a travelling speaker and through the press. He was astute enough to carry some popular material in the newspapers he now founded, but refused to ‘degrade the literature of democracy to the level of the streetwalker’. (Streetwalking papers have always done rather well.) He would also learn over nearly a decade, and six newspapers and magazines of varying shortness of life, that labour without capital can’t succeed. Notes to the People, his first venture, was also a vehicle for his own prose, the novel De Brassier and a clutch of shorter stories and verse: ‘Every whispering leaf’s a preacher/Every daisy a teacher/Writing on the unsullied soul/Revelation straight from God.’ The People’s Paper lasted six years, but no one with Jones’s record could get the working capital to carry even a well-received paper through its early costs. Ironically, he needed a cover price higher than the one penny of his competitors to keep going and that meant he could never expand.

At the same time as his newspaper ventures, Jones was effectively leading what was left of the Chartist movement and making a little money for himself and his family “on the lecture circuit. His financial rectitude did not spare him from malicious whispers, especially because by now he was shifting his own and the movement’s politics in pragmatic directions. The main attack came from a successful radical press man, George Reynolds, whose Reynolds’s Newspaper survived into recent times thanks to its Co-op connection. Reynolds made charges of impropriety over subscriptions and the organisation of a conference in 1858. Jones, fortunately, was not so much the romantic as to throw away invoices; he assembled all the papers, went to court in a libel action and took on the eminent Sergeant Shee, to such effect that the judge stopped the trial, awarding him costs and a retraction of the libel.

Jones emerged with his character intact, but with his newspaper career near its end. Late in 1859 he went bankrupt, with debts of £1900. He was 40, broke, his wife was dead and Chartism finished, but the old resilience reasserted itself. Hitherto he had been only a sporadic advocate, largely in cases that had a political connection. He now made his home in Manchester, joined the Northern Circuit and enjoyed something close to conventional success. He had a criminal practice, defending those accused of stealing ‘earrings, lead, linen, watches, trousers, jewels, tobacco, coal, Venetian blinds, slippers’, and ‘prostitutes, bigamists and brothel keepers . . . a bailiff, a former mayor, a town councillor, some priests and several bankrupts’. He saved one man from the gallows and was junior counsel in the Manchester Martyrs case – a Fenian attempt to rescue a prisoner which ended in a fatal shooting. He fought a major case on behalf of Yorkshire miners, and defended some of those caught up in the rioting which was then known as the Sheffield Outrages. A busy time in the courts brought a modest prosperity, a house in the suburbs and a partner, Elizabeth Darbyshire, whom he later married.

Politics never lost its appeal, however. Radical movements were split over the degree of accommodation that should be reached with the progressive end of the mainstream. Jones favoured reconciliation with the John Bright wing of Liberalism, and in January 1869 won a US-style primary for the Manchester seat over Thomas Milner Gibson, a former MP, by 7282 votes to 4133. It was a promising seat, he was 49 years old and the vanguard of the Lib-Labism or Lib-Radism by which the Left would advance in British politics. At which point, he contracted pneumonia, and on 26 January, the day after his 50th birthday, he died. There was a vast turn-out at his funeral. Jones had won a great personal following, and even the Times had looked forward to hearing his voice in the Commons. Yet, just as he had had no triumph in life, his name slipped away.

Miles Taylor has done outstanding work as a sifter of documentation, and in most respects this is an excellent book. At times, however, he seems to have taken against his subject. Jones’s florid style, his vanity and aristocratic fantasies get on his biographer’s nerves. The honesty, the resilience, the courage, the identification with working people in the North are conceded, but no more than that. Did Jones toil round the North enthusing a working-class public? Perhaps, but he returned home to dinner parties and a house in Bayswater. Did he make the standard grumbles of the period about Jews running sweatshops and finance houses? Aha, an anti-semite! Did he write a comic song for a legal dinner on the Northern Circuit about a man in love with a black lady? Jones is a racist. As Taylor knows well, this was a time when Froude was talking about eliminating the Irish and Trollope could look forward cheerfully to the killing-off of the Aborigines. Brave, rash, resourceful, always fighting wretched odds, Ernest Jones deserves, not a better book, but a warmer one.