The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

XI. The Political and Social Novel

§ 7. Alton Locke

Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet, was published in 1850, in the midst of great social unrest, and a strong strain upon its author due to his exertions towards meeting some of the causes of this widespread popular perturbation. Carlyle, to whose goodwill there lay a strong appeal in the convinced impetuosity of the book, relieved, in the character of Saunders Mackaye, by a humour which his brother Scot pronounced “nearly perfect,” nevertheless judged in “definable as crude,” and averred that the impression made by it upon him was that of “a fervid creation still left half chaotic”; yet, though Alton Locke ends in dreamland as Yeast dissolved itself into a Utopia, it has attracted two generations of readers as a true picture of the travails of a fellow-man. The hero is a poet as well as a tailor, but a poet who, instead of wandering about like Contarini Fleming (or, for that matter, Elsley Vavasour) in search of themes and experiences worthy of his powers, finds them in daily life and common things—a democratic poet, if you will, who suffers severely when, after recognising that he has genius but has been left without its rights, he swerves from the straight line prescribed to him by his task in life. The direct bearing of the attack upon the abuses of a typical town trade, from a picture of whose conditions the narrative starts, was attested by its effects, more especially in the partial adoption of the system of association—on behalf of which, as Kingsley emphasised in 1854, working men themselves failed to take sufficient trouble. The story, throughout, exhibits a direct reference to facts: the dependence of working men on the charter, the dubious ways of demagogy in the matter of journalism and at meetings and so forth. On the other hand, the picture of Cambridge—even of Cambridge as it might strike a working-tailor on a casual visit—seemed, to the novelist, at a subsequent date, to call for revision. Apart from those touches in Saunders Mackaye which came home to Carlyle, there is little humour in the book; for this, the writer was too fully absorbed in his theme and incensed by the grimness and cruelty of some of its aspects. Conceived, as it was, in a white heat, it was met, on both sides, with an unmitigated condemnation, showing that its earnestness of purpose was wholly misunderstood; and it remains, of all its author’s books, that which shares with Mrs. Gaskell’s Mary Barton the credit of having come straight from the heart of a witness of the conflict who could not, when the fire blazed, remain a bystander.