On July 9, 2012, Professor Gail Turley Houston gave a plenary address at “The Other Dickens Conference,” sponsored by the University of Portsmouth in Portsmouth, England, where Dickens was born 200 years ago. Professor Houston spoke about her research on how the Victorian radical press viewed Dickens. Houston’s research on radical newspapers suggests that literature was as important to the radical movement as were political texts.
Her research on newspapers like The Northern Star, The Champion and Weekly Herald, and The Charter suggests that the radical press viewed Dickens as one of a handful of writers who brought a revolution to writing: a.) in terms of literally revolting against the contemporary writing style and b.) in terms of the content of the writing, which was considered politically revolutionary. Part of that revolution was to put the lower and lower middle-class at the center of the novel. As one radical journalist wrote, Dickens’s novels had made it possible to
“enlarg[e]” the “public sympathies” and to picture the “neglected bastard,” the “penniless poor,” and the “thin-dieted asylums,” cheap schools, prisons, and union workhouses.
The Northern Star points out a major historical shift because just “a few years ago the reading world was held captive by the magic pen” of Sir Walter Scott who limned the “chivalric doings and unmerited misfortunes or fictitious sorrows of gallant knights and ladies fair.” But “All this is changed” because “Charles Dickens and others like him have effected a revolution in novel writing.” As the journalist notes, “It is the many, not the few, who now form the materials from which are quarried the heroes and heroines of fiction” (“Reviews” The Northern Star and National Trades’ Journal 11 Jan 1845 issue 374).. To whom do the people “owe” a “deep debt of gratitude” for this change? Says the Northern Star, “to the William Howitt’s [and] . . . the Charles Dickens’ . . . of the ‘glorious republic of letters.’”
In 1846 The Northern Star describes Chartist T. Cooper’s response to the statement that, “The men of intellect and heart—Charles Dickens, Douglas Jerrold, Eugene Sue, Thomas Cooper, and others” have given “free utterance to the aspirations and the thoughts that vibrate in the minds of the many” regarding the “sufferings endured by their fellow men.” Reiterating the idea that a new kind of writer made political change possible in England, Cooper comments, “There was now a literature that made the people think for themselves.” In conclusion and as a sign of that literature, Cooper testifies that though he himself was a “despised Chartist” when he “came from prison, Douglas Jerrold and C. Dickens were the first to take him by the hand.”