Ushashi Dasgupta, The Roaring Streets: Voices From Below in Literary Studies

Ushashi Dasgupta is a DPhil student at St John’s College, Oxford. She is researching the significance of tenancy and rented spaces – lodgings, boarding-houses, hotels, taverns – in the literary imagination, with a particular focus on Dickens and his circle. Ushashi Dasgupta can be contacted via email at

Eliza Cook by William Etty, c.1845 (Wikimedia Commons)

The inaugural BAVS Talks were held in May, at the Oxford Centre for Research in the Humanities. During these talks, Helen Rogers spoke about the manner in which interest is turning, once again, to people’s history. The Revival of History from Below in Victorian Studies’ (slides viewable here) is about the importance of working-class autobiography, oral histories and storytelling, and how these forms create a sense of individual expression and agency within institutions. ‘History from below’, or the study of ‘voices from below’, came to prominence in the 1970s and is developing in exciting new directions thanks to digitisation – Rogers makes reference to a number of blogs, open archives and online projects, from Workhouse Tales to Victorian Ragged Schools. Academics, students and members of the community are coming together, she says, to explore the potential of this field, which takes marginalised figures as its focus. ‘History from below’ is not by any means limited to nineteenth-century scholarship. It is a global project – some of the most influential work is to be found in subaltern studies. And it’s intrinsically, inevitably linked to activism: the international History From Below network emphasises its natural home outside academia and its grounding in radical history.


What follows here are some initial thoughts about how ‘history from below’, or ‘voices from below’, might apply to literature. As we continue to celebrate the porousness of the humanities and the many intersections between historical and literary studies, it’s worth asking what English departments can add to the conversation. We can certainly tap into the intriguing stories discovered by historians, sifting through these resources for new contexts, allowing them to enrich our understanding of the fiction we thought we knew. When Alice Marwood returns from the colonies in Dombey and Son (1846-8), for instance, she recounts the story of her transportation as if it were a perverse fairy-tale:

‘There was a child called Alice Marwood […] born among poverty and neglect, and nursed in it. […] There was a girl called Alice Marwood. She was handsome. She was taught too late, and taught all wrong […] There was a criminal called Alice Marwood – a girl still, but deserted and an outcast. And she was tried, and she was sentenced. And lord, how the gentlemen in the court talked about it! and how grave the judge was, on her duty [….] So Alice Marwood was transported, Mother […] and was sent to learn her duty, where there was twenty times less duty, and more wickedness, and wrong, and infamy, than here. And Alice Marwood is come back a woman.’

She refuses to go further. ‘There! I have done, Mother,’ she tells Mrs Brown. ‘I have said enough […] You and I needn’t make a show of our history, like the gentlemen in Court. We know all about it, well enough.’[1] But we – we, the readers – don’t know all about it. If we want to begin to fill in these gaps and look for credible historical counterparts, we can read about the ‘fallen women’ at Urania Cottage in Jenny Hartley’s 2008 book or turn to something like the Old Bailey Online. There’s much to be said about the ways fiction and history brush past one another.

But how can we participate in the revival of ‘history from below’ more actively? Critics have engaged with this question from at least the 1980s and continue to do so today. 1986 saw the publication of Bruce Robbins’s The Servant’s Hand: English Fiction from Below. Chapters include reflections on servants as narrators, servants in dialogue, and servants as instruments of plot, with readings of Pamela (1740), Caleb Williams (1794), Wuthering Heights (1847) and The Turn of the Screw (1898). ‘Nearly every English novelist read today was raised by servants’, Robbins writes, using Mary Weller, Dickens’s nurse, as an example.[2] This statement about what we read today no longer really holds true; our discipline has changed drastically and the canon has expanded in the intervening years. Nevertheless, Robbins’s work constitutes an important touchstone for those interested in ‘voices from below’. As recently as last year, Anne Schwan’s Convict Voices took women in prisons as its subject. Schwan looks at Hetty Sorrel in Adam Bede (1859) and Rosanna Spearman in The Moonstone (1868), at broadsides, diaries and memoirs, and at the textures of such writing. Modern novelists, too, have taken up the gauntlet, revisiting the charged silences in nineteenth-century texts to great effect: Jean Rhys’sWide Sargasso Sea (1966), Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs (1997) and Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White (2002) perform vital political work by exposing the pressure points we are only too aware of.

Unsurprisingly, the Victorians were eager to capture, amplify and preserve ‘voices from below’ themselves. The curators of voices were not impartial in their acts of preservation; they were driven by their own agendas, assumptions, fascinations and prejudices, and we must read their transcriptions critically. Bearing all of this in mind, literature still can be a good place to look for ‘voices from below’. Condition of England novels zoom in on the most abject of individuals, though they may, like Bleak House (1852-3), end on a whimper. The proliferating urban genres of the period, including Dickens’s sketches and Mayhew’s interviews, animate everyone from cab-drivers to costermongers. Some of the most recognisable voices in Victorian fiction are those that come from below. (There is, of course, a central tension here between rendering voices accurately and appropriating them, between bringing the middle-class reader closer to the speaker and pushing the speaker further away.) Authors are audio engineers. They are also ventriloquists.

A body of fascinating criticism revolves around this Victorian receptivity and sensitivity to voice. If we tune into the same airwaves, we’ll be in a position to make new arguments about narration, person and perspective in literature. Jan-Melissa Schramm explores the intersections between law, literature and theology and finds that ‘the provision of testimony in nineteenth-century narrative is frequently represented as the voice of the oppressed or persecuted’.[3] John M. Picker describes the nineteenth century as ‘a period of unprecedented amplification, unheard-of loudness’, an age of ‘close listening’ and ‘auscultation’. He introduces a captivating world, ‘alive with the screech and roar of the railway and the clang of industry, with the babble, bustle, and music of city streets, and with the crackle and squawk of acoustic vibrations on wires and wax – yet alive as well with the performances of the literary figures who [struggle] to hear and be heard above or through all of this’.[4] Ivan Kreilkamp, meanwhile, considers the centrality of speech in nineteenth-century fiction and addresses the complexities of Victorian ‘vocal culture’ – a culture that embraced everything from phonography to governesses’ folktales.[5] These studies centre around some recognisable figures – Charlotte Brontë, Browning, Carlyle, Conrad, Dickens and Eliot, to name a handful – and tease out quirky medical, technological, and political contexts. They contribute to long-standing debates about orality and literacy, speech and print. Keeping our ears to the ground, we realise that ‘voices from below’ can be approached from the angle of literary style.

In essence, the study of ‘voices from below’ is also about re-establishing the primacy of character. If a Victorian novel is a ‘loose baggy monster’, a crowd of characters all chiming in to create a cacophony, what happens when we increase the gain on the most tinny voices? Drawing attention to the minor characters in familiar texts is something critics often do automatically. The idea has been put into practice in creative ways by digital Dickensians; The Drood Inquiry includes profiles for some of Dickens’s more neglected characters, and a series entitled ‘The Best Charles Dickens Characters’, which appeared in the press to mark his bicentenary, yielded interesting results. Philip Womack’s choice, for example, was Bazzard, the clerk with visions of theatrical success. When we listen out for the voices of such characters – characters who are rarely remembered after an initial reading – novels will speak in new ways.

Perhaps it’s as easy as looking beyond the canon. We can keep exploring nineteenth-century popular culture and acknowledging the networks of obscure authors that surrounded our Inimitables and our Poet Laureates. We can keep discussing authors who are emblems of the gradual democratisation of literature, thanks to their provenance. (Christopher Hilliard’s To Exercise Our Talents: The Democratization of Writing in Britain, 2006, which focuses on the twentieth century, is a self-declared project in ‘literary history from below’). Recent anthologies have brought these authors to light. Nineteenth-Century English Labouring-Class Poets 1800-1900 (2006), edited by John Goodridge, Bridget Keegan, Kaye Kossick and Scott McEathron, extends across three extraordinary volumes. In its recovery of forgotten writers, the anthology captures the development of distinct regional cultures and political movements during the period. Labouring-Class Poets Online, led by Goodridge at Nottingham Trent University, brings this information to a wide audience; the project blog is available here. Florence S. Boos’s Working-Class Women Poets in Victorian Britain (2008) brings together a rich collection of texts, including Eliza Cook’s reflective, reflexive meditation on the nightingale:



I’ll wish he had to write his song beneath a midnight taper;

On pittance that would scarcely pay for goose-quill, ink, and paper;

And then, to crown his misery, and break his heart in splinters;

I’ll wish he had to see his proofs, his publishers, and printers.

(Eliza Cook, ‘Lines Suggested by the Song of a Nightingale’, Poetical Works, 1870)


Cook was not only a poet, but also the editor of Eliza Cook’s Journal. The bulk of working-class women’s writing, Boos finds, was published between 1850 and 1880 and featured a multitude of genres, from ballad forms and elegy to new forms altogether. It’s interesting to hear that the dramatic monologue was rare, especially relative to its popularity among middle-class women poets – though Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, Augusta Webster did find counterparts in Elizabeth Campbell, Ellen Johnston and Fanny Forrester. The anthology features Janet Hamilton as an anchor of sorts and makes thought-provoking use of the Royal Literary Fund archives. The impression we get, Boos says, is one of diversity – delicate shifts between tradition and experimentation, between different political and proto-feminist statements.

Recovery projects are generating stimulating pieces of literary criticism that consider both the aesthetics of such poetry and the many methodological issues at hand. The material Boos deals with is ephemeral, and much has, presumably, been lost. A 2013 essay collection, edited by Kirstie Blair and Mina Gorji, offers several insights along similar lines. Blair’s introduction to Class and the Canon: Constructing Labouring-Class Poetry and Poetics highlights the ‘self-consciousness’ of these writers, their middle-class champions, and the contributors to the periodical press, all of whom played a role in ‘construct[ing] a labouring-class “canon”’. The category of the ‘labouring-class poet’, then, was partly defined during the nineteenth century itself. We can consider these poets ‘sui generis’ and ‘compare [them] to each other, highlighting the existence of connections and a sense of community within this specific tradition’. Alternatively, Blair suggests, we can trace ‘the relationships between labouring-class poets and more established writers, their appropriations of form and language, their allusiveness’. And we can survey their impact upon the literary landscape: ‘Did the poetry of working-class women’, Boos asks, ‘have any influence on writers beyond their time?’. Answering these questions would shift the emphasis away from biographical readings and the social and political contexts of individual writers.

As the criticism shows, it is important to note that the ‘labouring-class poet’ is itself an ambiguous concept. The very process of creating anthologies involves making choices. Mike Sanders’s The Poetry of Chartism: Aesthetics, Politics, History (2009) uses a very particular kind of writing as its starting-point. It is counterproductive to make generalisations about ‘working-class’ or ‘labouring-class’ poets because of the sheer number of regions and professions represented: ‘Rubrics such as “working-class poetry”’, Boos argues, ‘derive from assimilations that may have effaced real differences’. Some of these writers moved up and down the social ladder during their careers, often as a direct result of their poetic output; in other cases, middle-class poets chose to write in an identifiably labouring-class style. The patrons, editors and publishers who backed and paid these poets were, most frequently, middle-class. Reading audiences were mixed.[6] This points to a fundamental challenge: the term ‘voices from below’ has a sort of static crackling behind it, preventing total clarity. How do class, gender and race intersect? Whose voices? Where’s below?

The study of ‘voices from below’ is informing conversations in conference halls and classrooms. Recent successful conferences and symposia have been held on ‘Lesser Victorians’, co-hosted by Trinity College Dublin and Liverpool Hope University, and on Margaret Harkness, at Birkbeck. Weaving these strands together – returning to the archives, thinking about particular elements of literary style, bringing minor characters to centre stage, redressing the canon – are a few possible ways of opening up the issue across the humanities. When Amy and Arthur go ‘quietly down into the roaring streets’ in the closing pages of Little Dorrit (1855-7), newly married, we are told that ‘the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the froward and the vain, fretted, and chafed, and made their usual uproar’.[7] But maybe this noise, this clamour of voices, does not signal the end. It is the beginning.

[1] Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son, ed. Andrew Sanders (London: Penguin, 2002), pp.530-532.

[2] Bruce Robbins, The Servant’s Hand: English Fiction From Below (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), p.106.

[3] Jan-Melissa Schramm, Testimony and Advocacy in Victorian Law, Literature and Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p.5.

[4] John M. Picker, Victorian Soundscapes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003) p.4, 6.

[5] Ivan Kreilkamp, Voice and the Victorian Storyteller (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p.29.

[6] Quotations are drawn from Kirstie Blair’s introduction to Class and the Canon: Constructing Labouring-Class Poetry and Poetics, 1750-1900, ed. Blair and Mina Gorji (Houndmills and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), pp.1-15, and Florence S. Boos’s introduction to Working-Class Women Poets in Victorian Britain: An Anthology (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2008), pp.13-45.

[7] Dickens, Little Dorrit, ed. Stephen Wall and Helen Small (London: Penguin, 2003), pp.859-860.


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