19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, No 18 (2014)

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Spoken Word and Printed Page: G. W. M. Reynolds and ‘The Charing-Cross Revolution’, 1848

Mary L. Shannon


In March 1848, the radical writer and editor G. W. M. Reynolds came face-to-face with some of the very people he hoped were his readers, when he took a step out of the editor’s office and onto the speaker’s platform. Reynolds stood up in front of a protest meeting in Trafalgar Square, and turned the issue of the day away from taxation and towards revolution. In that critical year of Europe-wide revolutions, Reynolds praised the recent French uprising and declared solidarity with the French republicans. Reynolds’s actions on that spring afternoon earned him immediate prominence in the Chartist movement, a place on the platform at the ‘monster meeting’ at Kennington Common on 10 April, the status of a radical celebrity, and a government file. The disorder after the meeting continued on and off over several days. This article considers Reynolds’s accounts of his own speech as printed in the pages of his best-selling serial narrative, The Mysteries of London (1844–48). Reynolds’s sprawling tale mixed melodrama with radical polemics in the belief that fiction was a legitimate means of promoting radical politics. This article argues that the insertions of his 1848 speeches attempted to connect imagined readers of urban fiction to real protestors on London’s streets, by linking the printed page of urban fiction to oratory within urban space. Reynolds’s speech-making on that March afternoon projected his outbursts in his London fiction out onto the London streets; he hoped that the combined work of both would push forward his political agenda. His experience of writing The Mysteries of London gave melodramatic wings to his oratory on the platform. Setting Reynolds’s speech within the context of his debt to popular melodrama and its roots in oral culture, and the oral effects within The Mysteries of London as a whole, this article argues that Reynolds’s actions declared printed matter to be indelibly linked with the street theatre of political demonstrations. Trafalgar Square offered Reynolds the possibility that urban space could present the continuation and implementation of radical demands made in print, and could bring radical print vocally to life.

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