Sunday, 3 May 2015

Book Review: The Dignity of Chartism

Book Review from LSHG Newsletter #55 (Summer 2015)

The Dignity of Chartism
Dorothy Thompson 
Verso 2015 
Paperback ISBN 9781781688496 
Hardback ISBN 9781781688489

 It is reasonably well known that the key reason E.P. Thompson wrote on the English working class in the first and third quarters of the nineteenth century but said very little about the second quarter was that his long time partner Dorothy Thompson was working on the Chartists. She published a series of well regarded and in some cases definitive volumes on Chartism. Yet until now there has been no collection of Dorothy Thompson’s writings in the area beyond the books.

Verso and the book’s editor, Chartist historian Stephen Roberts, have done a considerable service in bringing some at least of Dorothy Thompson’s lesser known work on Chartism together in a new book, The Dignity of Chartism. It is a book which deserves to be read at the very least by the considerable worldwide group of those who work in the traditions of E.P. Thompson. It demonstrates some of the ways that the two historians worked together, sharing ideas and sources, which may have been previously less than clear.  Roberts in a useful introduction, for example, notes that Edward Thompson mined Dorothy Thompson’s research notes for some parts of The Making of the English Working Class.

The book contains a number of hard to find pieces by Dorothy Thompson which will nevertheless probably be familiar to some historians and researchers. However the longest piece here is an unpublished essay written jointly by Dorothy and Edward Thompson on Halifax Chartism. It was commissioned for Asa Briggs’ 1959 volume Chartist Studies but was never published. There is also an interesting web published piece on women and Chartism where Dorothy Thompson while taking a feminist perspective defends Chartism as a class based movement and the way in which women were active in it. The final piece in the book Reflections on Marxist Teleology reflects a speech Dorothy Thompson gave at the launch of the memoirs of John Saville and reviews what in her view is relevant and not relevant in the relationship between Marxism and historical research.

If there is one criticism it is that it would have been useful to have had a bibliography of Dorothy Thompson’s published work. I didn’t know for example that Dorothy Thompson wrote some reviews for the Times Literary Supplement. Some extracts are included here but I’m not clear if there are others.

 However the key point remains. The Dignity of Chartism reminds us of Dorothy Thompson’s place as a major post-1945 socialist and feminist historian. It also provides some fascinating insights into her collaboration with EP Thompson and suggests that her reputation should be regarded in the same perspective as his.

Keith Flett

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