Maybe that's why I was so surprised when I came across the following passage in the "Historical Note" of Mary Balogh's Longing, a romance novel set in early Victorian Wales, with an English Marquess for a hero and a Welsh miner as heroine:
I have taken two deliberate liberties with history.
Some women did attend the Chartist meetings and take out membership in the Chartist Association. For the sake of my plot I have made it seem as if women were forbidden to have anything to do with the movement. (403)
|From the Caledonian Mercury, 1842|
Longing opens with the widowed Marquess of Craille, Alexander Hyatt, walking the grounds of the Welsh estate he has recently inherited. During said walk, he stumbles upon a secret meeting of the men who work in the mine and ironworks he's also inherited, a meeting during which national and local political organizers urge the men of Cwmbran to sign the great Charter that was to be presented to Parliament, a list of six basic rights working class reformers demanded the government grant them: the right for every British male to vote; the holding of annual Parliaments; the secret ballot; no property qualification for members of Parliament; the paying of members of Parliament; and that each member of Parliament would represent the same number of voters. The majority of the men are eager to sign, and to join the Chartist Association, too.
Alexander is sympathetic to the Chartist's cause, even if he disagrees with the movement's tactics (strikes, mass meetings, and public protests all too often lead to violence, he feels). But the overseer who has been managing the mines and the works for years tells Alex that the workers are happy, and that Craille, a landowner, not a businessman, doesn't understand how modern industry works. Humble in the way of many a Balogh hero, and wary of his own ignorance, Alex agrees to hold off on making any management changes, even though he is "troubled at his own inability to act from personal conscience as he usually did" (67).
|A Chartist Member card, with both a man|
and a woman on it
Throughout the novel, Siân is presented as a curious, headstrong, courageous, and principled woman. But while she, like her fellow townspeople, deplores the pitiful wages and the poor working conditions of the miners, Siân herself isn't very interested in the Charter, or the large-scale protest her local suitor, Owen, is working to bring about in neighboring Newport. Even if she were, though, the novel presents the male Chartists as opposed to the involvement of women in their political movement, a ban that Balogh acknowledges is historically false. Why?
Because while on the level of plot, the novel is about class conflict, on the thematic level, it is far more interested in gender conflict. While Owen openly agitates for full male suffrage, he is far less progressive than many of the men in the actual Chartist movement when it comes to the rights of women. Though he loves Siân, and is eager to marry her, he believes wholeheartedly in the right of a husband to "control my own woman" (170). He chastises Siân for being too friendly to their natural opponent, the Marquess, and for encouraging their fellow townspeople to believe Siân is colluding with Craille. And he warns her that after their marriage, "You won't find me so easy to rule" as her first husband did (170). Needless to say, the strong-willed Siân finds Owen's opinions about the role of men and women in marriage more than a little worrisome.
"A wife?" He frowned. "I was talking about children. Unfortunately we need to discipline children because we have a responsibility to train them and they are never angels. I was not talking about a wife. A wife is a man's equal.
"But what if she does not tow the line?" she asked.
"What line?" he said. "Whose line? What if he does not toe it? Marriage is not an easy business. We have both experienced it. We both know that. It is something that has to be worked hard at every single day. If one partner refuses to make the effort, then they have a problem and an unhappy marriage. But violence would not solve anything." (176)
Thus, Siân's major plot conflicts come not from her growing feelings for aristocratic Alex, but from her unwillingness to bow down to the demands of the Chartists that she cease working for the enemy. During the course of the novel, Siân proves her own heroism several times over, making her a heroine well-worth a feminist's admiration. But because of Balogh's reimagining of history, Siân's heroism ends up pitting her against, rather than beside, her fellow workers. So, in many ways, Siân's gender triumph goes hand in hand with her town's class defeat, when the workers' planned march on Newport goes dreadfully awry—a piece of history Balogh does not change.
|The 2015 cover|
* (according to Goodreads; Balogh's "Dear Readers" note in the new edition lists 1995 as the original pub date)
"Meeting of Female Chartists": British Library
Chartist membership card: Tameside Metropolitan Borough