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An Underground History of Early Victorian Fiction
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Book description

How does the literature and culture of early Victorian Britain look different if viewed from below? Exploring the interplay between canonical social problem novels and the journalism and fiction appearing in the periodical press associated with working-class protest movements, Gregory Vargo challenges long-held assumptions about the cultural separation between the 'two nations' of rich and poor in the Victorian era. The flourishing radical press was home to daring literary experiments that embraced themes including empire and economic inequality, helping to shape mainstream literature. Reconstructing social and institutional networks that connected middle-class writers to the world of working-class politics, this book reveals for the first time acknowledged and unacknowledged debts to the radical canon in the work of such authors as Charles Dickens, Thomas Carlyle, Harriet Martineau and Elizabeth Gaskell. What emerges is a new vision of Victorian social life, in which fierce debates and surprising exchanges spanned the class divide.


'Comparing revolutionary bloodshed with the gradual violence of famine in Ireland, Vargo notes, '[the Star] asks why one merits sensational prose little notice' … In thus stressing the Chartists' desire to make melodramatic language applicable to daily oppression as well as to outbursts of violence, Vargo instantly reminded me of Zola and other natural polemicists. Altogether, he sheds important light on the almost subvocalized conversations that precede those very public debates of the fin de siècle.'

John Plotz Source: Review 19 (

'… a gentle but persuasive challenge to some of the critical commonplaces surrounding Victorian social problem writing.'

Juliette Atkinson Source: The Times Literary Supplement

'[An Underground History of Early Victorian Fiction] successfully demonstrates the utility of the notion of ‘generative exchange’ as a way of thinking about cross-class cultural relations.'

Mike Sanders Source: Labour History Review

'Vargo’s book enlarges our understanding of the topics addressed in Chartist discourse while also describing the self-consciousness and self-presentation of Chartist print culture, its ways of designating itself within the public sphere. In this regard, it does for the Victorian radical press specifically what Kevin Gilmartin did for the radical press of the early nineteenth century in his Print Politics (1986).'

Catherine Gallagher Source: Modern Philology

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