Charles Kingsley, Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet (first published 1850, 1852 rev. edition)
Are there aspects of Kingsley’s personal life which are reflected in the subject matter of Alton Locke? (had witnessed Chartist movement; concerned with sanitary reform)
What is distinctive about Kingsley’s choice of subject? (first attempt to permit specifically working-class speaker to narrate his own story) With what other Victorian autobiographical fictions might it be contrasted? (e. g., David Copperfield)
What were some new developments in Victorian literature which lie beyond an “autobiography” of a working-class poet? Were there many such at the time, and had they received much public notice? (he mentions John Critchley Prince and Thomas Cooper)
What seems the purpose of Kingsley’s preface? Which aspects of his hero’s ambitions does he specifically decry, and on what grounds? (belief in efficacy of the Charter; more education is needed)
Which aspects of his novel has he rewritten for this new edition, and why? (has softened his critique of Cambridge University; is now Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge) What do you make of the frequent reminders that Alton’s bitterness over his circumstances was unreasonable and has since subsided?
What are some implications or allusions embedded in his title? (allusion to “clothes-philosophy” of Sartor Resartus--also textile industry was Britain’s largest)
What are some of the many ways religion is featured and debated in the novel? In the opening chapters, what forms of religion are decried? (extreme Calvinism, as embodied in the Baptists)
What doctrines are especially abhorrent to the young Alton? (condemnation of reading; extreme predestinarianism) Might Kingsley’s portrayal be somewhat exaggerated? [Could refer to Primitive Baptists? His mother’s views are more extreme than those of any known sect.]
What environments does Alton find unsanitary or unhealthy? Are his descriptions consistent with the concerns of contemporary sanitation reformers?
How are Alton’s illnesses explained? How does he describe his physical self? (small, unattractive)
What forms of help are provided by Sandy Mackaye? (father figure, mentor) What do we learn about his past and his views of life?
Reputedly the figure of Sandy Mackaye was based on that of Carlyle. What Carlylean traits or interests does Kingsley ascribe to his Scottish bookseller?
What are some books which are important in Alton’s self-education? What does he find important in his readings in Roman history?
What conception of the working-class poet’s mission does he represent? What does Alton learn from accompanying Sandy to an extremely poor district?
How is the figure of the prostitute treated? Does Kingsley’s portrayal differ from that of other novelists of the period? (Gaskell, Dickens)
Does Alton adhere to Sandy’s view of the proper mission for a poet? (tries to please his Cambridge patrons instead)
Which aspects of the novel reflect Kingsley’s interest in Christian socialism?
What account is given of Alton’s conversion to Chartism? Which friend is responsible for encouraging his views?
What happens at the Chartist meetings which he attends? Are the purposes of Chartism clearly described?
What encounters does he have with medical students? (they rescue him from a night on the street)
Are there gendered aspects to the novel’s ideal of artistry and ambition? Could one be a working-class seamstress and poet?
What important effect does the appreciation of art have on the hero’s development? Can you think of other Victorian novels in which a response to paintings in an art gallery is significant? (Villette) What role did attendance at art exhibitions play in Victorian culture? (leisure classes attended these as social events)
How are Alton’s romantic emotions integrated into the plot? What do we learn about Lillian’s tastes and personality? How does she respond to Alton’s attentions?
How are slang and dialect used throughout the novel? (tailor’s slang is offensive; rural farmer’s speech is homely and somewhat charming)
What do we learn about the social hierarchies of the countryside as Alton passes through it en route to Cambridge? (strict rules against poaching)
How does Alton respond to the sight of the upper-class fisherman? To the scene of Cambridge rowers? (very excited and vicariously proud)
In this 1852 version, how is Alton treated during his visit to Cambridge? (with a mixture of kindness and condescension) In what way does Lord Lyndale employ him?
What forms of corruption does Alton note at Cambridge? (use of emoluments for the wealthy rather than the poor, as directed in the original statues; lack of instruction; excessive attention to expensive leisure activities; exclusion of all but wealthy)
In what ways does the Dean wish to direct him? What conditions are attached to his patronage? (must remove political poems from his volume; should study mathematics or science)
Are there instances in which a working-class poet received courteous patronage at a university? May this be a romantized portrayal of upper-class patronage?
What remarks does Alton make on the comparative wealth of the upper clergy as contrasted with the deep distress of England’s poor? How have the clergy gained their large incomes? (from tithes of poor)
What examples of exemplary clergymen are given by contrast? (some tend to their parishioners from their own funds)
What evinces of the use of alcohol and opium does Alton witness? What seems to be Kingsley’s views of the use of such substances? (his hero refrains)
What are some forms of censorship which occur in the novel? Whose points of view are shown as silenced or forgotten?
What role is played by the dream sequence Alton experiences after his release from prison? What are some aspects of his life and aspirations which appear to him in allegorical form?
What relationship does the hero maintain with Lady Ellerton? Since she is widowed, what prevents this from becoming a romance? (class differences)
What "solutions" to the social problem does his new mentor prescribe? Does her gender affect whether these seem acceptable? (women are expected to be more idealistic and less practical)
What book known to every British schoolboy ends with a tribute to a female mentor and wisdom-figure? (Plato's Symposium)
What enables the hero to travel to America? What seems to be the significance of his failure to prosper there? (belongs to England, no solution for his problems) His death as he resolves to return home?
What solutions, if any, does the author provide to the problems he raises? Does the absence of clear solutions limit the novel's effectivenesss, or alternatively, add to it? (forces the audience to reflect on many different problems)
If you have read Thomas Cooper's biography or are familiar with his life, can you see parallels between his life and that of Kingsley's hero? (Kingsley knew Cooper and claimed to have based this novel on his life.)
Why do you think this novel was so appealing to serious young men of its time?