Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Annie Besant (1847-1933) : la lutte et la quĂȘte

My appallingly bad yet typically English 'franglais' will never do justice to what is an elegantly written and much needed study of Annie Besant. Until now, we have had to rely on Anne Taylor's sound, if partial, biography published in 1991 but no longer. There is some irony in having what must now be regarded as the best available study of Besant's life written by a historian of British history in France. This reflects the lamentable ignorance of most students and many historians of the diversity of her long life and the central role that she played in developing notions of feminism between the 1870s and 1930s. Apart from her involvement in the Match Girls' strike in 1888, Annie barely figures in British consciousness. Yet, either as a direct participant or a dominating influence, she was a pervasive player in improving the status and opportunities for women through education, birth control, workers' rights, theosophy...I could go on. The Pankhursts were important and are justly feted but their role was, until 1918, largely limited to the suffrage question and geographically limited to Britain even though they travelled widely within Britain's Dominions. Annie's struggles to improve the inequalities of women was far broader and, you could argue, far more influential globally, especially in the cause of Indian independence.

Annie Besant

This is a book that needs to be read by those concerned with the development of feminism, radicalism and socialism, free thought and theosophy and anti-colonialism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It provides a nuanced study of a figure whose importance in British and global history--rather like that of Sylvia Pankhurst--has been under-estimated. Well, no more.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Review of Localities, Spaces and Places

Chartism: Localities, Spaces and Places, The Midlands and the South, Richard Brown, Authoring History, 2015, paperback, 403 pp., ISBN 9781501017247

This volume focusing upon the local and regional dimension of Chartism in the Midlands and the South, is Richard Brown’s sixth excursion into Chartism, which with a sequel print volume encompassing the North of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, will provide an extensive and unprecedented analytical survey by a single author of Chartism from a regional and local perspective. As Chartist historian Stephen Roberts has commented such ‘a comprehensive survey of the Chartist Movement, region by region, will be of immense value to all students of Chartism’ since the intended scope of the two volumes and unified Kindle version is ‘truly astonishing’. Not since the ground-breaking collection of essays edited by Asa Briggs in 1959, which E.P. Thompson observed brought us ‘closer to the local roots of Chartism than any previous study’ and which stimulated a myriad of further local studies, has there been a more considered, in-depth, attempt to re-visit this dimension of Chartism. Indeed, since the 1980s, influenced particularly by the controversial intervention of Gareth Stedman Jones in the historiographical debate, the focus of Chartist studies shifted priorities sharply towards considerations of Chartism as a national political movement. Brown’s contention is that both dimensions remain vital to understanding this extraordinary movement. ‘Is it better’, he asks, ‘to see Chartism as a network of semi-autonomous political organisations over which national control was limited rather than a unified political movement?’ His answer is emphatically, that ‘neither one nor the other’ approach will suffice and that a combination of both approaches is now necessary to understand the full impact of this momentous movement on the history of Britain at every level. Chartism, he concedes, ‘may have been a national, political movement but it was grounded in the experience of its local activists as much, and perhaps arguably more than through grandiloquent oratory and the organisational structures of its national leaders’.

Chartism Vol. 3

Brown engages elegantly and informatively with the historiography of local history in his opening chapter to explain how ‘local and regional considerations, linked to prevailing social and economic conditions played a major role in the ways in which the movement developed nationally’. For example, he argues that the strikes of 1842 arose ‘not from the decisions of national leaders but from the intensity of local anger and frustration at the inequities of local economic structures’. He also draws upon recent writers, notably Katrina Navickas, who have explored the significance of space and place in the development of grassroots radical politics, arguing that recognition of the centrality of space to human experience is ‘fundamental in understanding how and why Chartism developed and exchanged information and ideas within communities, localities, regional and national locations within Britain as a whole’.

Each exploration of regional and local dimensions in subsequent chapters is prefaced by an in-depth socio-economic profile of the locality presenting a rich tapestry focusing upon ‘how Chartism played out regionally and locally reinforcing the point that local priorities and political agendas did not always correspond with those put forward nationally and that, although the national leadership developed principles and policies, operational details were frequently left to local leaders and organisations’. This timely and illuminating study is a poignant and worthy tribute to the author’s wife who died shortly before this volume was completed. It will enrich understanding of Chartism as a national movement, whilst ‘drawing attention to the tensions between the aspirations of the Chartist national leadership and leadership at the local level’, thereby providing an indispensable overview to researchers seeking to understand how the Chartist movement played out in their own particular locality or region.

John A. Hargreaves