Real mis­ery and anger res­onated in fic­tion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Europe of the late 18th and early 19th cen­turies was ablaze with war and rev­o­lu­tion. Suc­ces­sive waves of refuge-seek­ing ‘‘for­eign­ers’’ flee­ing the trou­bles of the con­ti­nent, washed up on Bri­tain’s shores. Closer to home, in the English coun­try­side, the Scot­tish High­lands and, most dev­as­tat­ingly, Ire­land, hun­dreds of thou­sands of starv­ing poor were on the move, mi­grat­ing to find food and work and de­mand­ing a say in their fu­ture.

Lesa Scholl’s Hunger Move­ments tells the story of these bleak times through the lens of early Vic­to­rian writ­ers and the pre-em­i­nent po­lit­i­cal, so­cial and eco­nomic thinkers of the age. Our mod­ern world of ex­cess seems far re­moved from the star­va­tion caused by the potato blight and the cat­a­strophic dis­rup­tions of the Industrial Rev­o­lu­tion, but many of the hu­man re­sponses and emo­tions still res­onate.

The key au­thors ex­am­ined — Charles Dick­ens, El­iz­a­beth Gaskell, Ge­orge Eliot, Char­lotte Bronte, Har­riet Martineau and Henry May­hew — can­vas a wide spec­trum of hungers and tastes, both phys­i­cal and so­cial, and their im­pact on in­di­vid­u­als and com­mu­ni­ties.

Scholl says the writ­ers were “each con­cerned with eco­nomic nar­ra­tives and so­cial jus­tice, and each, most im­por­tantly, sought to give voice to char­ac­ters in fic­tion who, in ‘real’ life, would not have that level of po­lit­i­cal space.” She adds that “cries for so­cial re­form emerged from the des­per­ate hunger of those dis­missed by eco­nomic sta­tis­tics”. Those who see his­tory and lit­er­a­ture op­er­at­ing in the par­al­lel uni­verses of fact and fic­tion may be sur­prised by the his­tor­i­cal in­sights of these Vic­to­rian nov­els. Some, in­clud­ing Dick­ens’s A Tale of Two Cities and David Cop­per­field, Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss and Bronte’s Jane Eyre are gen­er­ally known to mod­ern read­ers of Vic­to­rian lit­er­a­ture, though oth­ers, such as Dick­ens’s Barn­aby Rudge, are less widely read to­day.

In their pages the daily strug­gles of fic­tional lives nes­tle un­com­fort­ably within the his­tor­i­cal, eco­nomic and so­cial rev­o­lu­tions of the time. Scholl, a Bris­bane-based aca­demic, tills a fer­tile field and iden­ti­fies a range of so­cial, hu­man and po­lit­i­cal re­sponses to hunger and want. The book is “loosely po­si­tioned be­tween the 1832 and 1867 Re­form Acts in or­der to em­pha­sise the cen­tral the­sis that the need to have a po­lit­i­cal voice and a sense of be­long­ing is in­trin­si­cally con­nected to sea­sons of food scarcity, and in­di­vid­ual and com­mu­nal hunger”.

Now, as then, economies grow and wither, pol­i­tics ebb and flow and new tech­nolo­gies re­place old. Surely mod­ern, post-industrial democ­ra­cies such as Bri­tain and Aus­tralia have learned to ad­just to rapid shifts and changes in ways ear­lier so­ci­eties could not? Or have we?

Take the con­cept of ‘‘those dis­missed by eco­nomic sta­tis­tics’’. It has a fa­mil­iar tone. Sim­i­lar words have been used re­cently to de­scribe the po­lit­i­cal ap­peal of Don­ald Trump, the Brexit vote, or even the ‘‘pox on both your houses’’ protest vote in the re­cent Aus­tralian elec­tions.

Of course one mustn’t stretch such com­par­isons too far. The three con­tem­po­rary po­lit­i­cal cir­cum­stances men­tioned are ex­er­cises in rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy — peo­ple hav­ing their say — whereas the work­ing class Chartists march­ing, protest­ing, and ri­ot­ing in the 19th cen­tury were cam­paign­ing for ba­sic po­lit­i­cal rights. Nor does the wide­spread star­va­tion in Bri­tain and Ire­land in the 19th cen­tury have a gen­uine par­al­lel in con­tem­po­rary Bri­tain, though tragic cir­cum­stances else­where con­tinue to have an im­pact on Bri­tish life.

The early-19th-cen­tury waves of Euro­pean and Ir­ish refugees have been re­placed by waves of refugees flee­ing trou­bles in North Africa and the Mid­dle East or work­ers seek­ing re­prieve from Europe’s eco­nomic fail­ings. The re­sponse of Vic­to­rian Eng­land to ‘‘for­eign­ers’’ is chill­ingly fa­mil­iar, with ‘‘con­cerns of be­ing over­whelmed by im­pov­er­ished for­eign­ers strain­ing the al­ready be­lea­guered labour mar­ket’’.

While Hunger Move­ments is set and em­bed­ded in the Vic­to­rian era, the au­thor does make oc­ca­sional for­ays into the present to show how “dis­af­fec­tion among the dis­en­fran­chised poor per­sists as a so­cial nar­ra­tive into the 21st cen­tury”. She com­pares the seem­ingly ran­dom vi­o­lence of per­haps 15,000 trou­ble­mak­ers in the 2011 Black­Berry ri­ots in Lon­don with some of the great civic up­ris­ings of ear­lier times: the 40,000-60,000 strong mob at the Gordon ri­ots of 1780 and the es­ti­mated 120,000 who marched and later ri­oted in protest against the House of Lords’ re­jec­tion of the Re­form Bill in 1831. There

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