Published online by Cambridge University Press: 22 September 2009
New developments in English culture in the first half of the nineteenth century demanded new ways of thinking about speech and voice. During the 1840s, as a consequence of working-class literacy and political action, the English language became charged with new political meanings as a site of class conflict. This chapter investigates three interrelated narratives of the era of Chartism and industrial fiction: a celebrated memoir by Samuel Bamford, a veteran of working-class politics of two decades earlier, and two middle-class novels by Elizabeth Gaskell and Benjamin Disraeli that draw on or allude to Bamford. These three texts reveal how early Victorian culture transformed previous assumptions that public speech necessarily emerged from and addressed itself to an educated readership defined by print culture. In the 1830s and 1840s new categories for imagining speech and voice emerged, categories that granted the speaking voice autonomy from norms of written English. An emerging national movement for universal workers' suffrage developed new modes of political language. Print culture found itself besieged by voices that could no longer be successfully contained by those modes of expression permitted by written English; in response, the imagined figure of an authentic speaker, whose wise words serve as a balm for the wounds of modernity, emerged as a sublation of these discordant, uncontrollable voices.
The function of voice and speech in English political and literary culture has been persistently undertheorized in part because critics so routinely reduce voice to a metaphor for writing.