The Peterloo Massacre and its Bicentenary on 16 August 2019

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On 16  August 2019, it will be the bicentenary of the infamous Peterloo Massacre of 1819.

In this dismal episode in British history, the part time militia of the Manchester Yeomanry Cavalry charged  a peaceful crowd of 60,000. This gathering was in fact  a large part of the then population of Lancashire,  many of whom were impoverished cotton workers  who had come to St Peter’s Field to hear reformers, led by the notorious Henry Hunt, talk on the issue of parliamentary reform. Through this means,they hoped to improve their living conditions.

Such were the vagaries and injustices of the electoral system  in Britain at the time, that not only were the majority of the working population  not allowed to vote , but there was not even an MP in Manchester.

On seeing such a massive crowd gathering, the local magistrates, watching from a nearby building, panicked. The normal procedure for dispersing a supposedly disorderly crowd was to have the Riot Act read, and if they crowd had not dispersed in an hour, to send in troops.

Professional mounted troops would move slowly into a crowd, using their horses and the flats of their swords to part them. However, on St Peter’s Fields on that day, the local militias charged into the crowd, using the sabres to cut down men, woman and children alike. Women holding babies were sabred, and the horrors of the day were vividly  reported by the before then unsympathetic journalist from The Times, who was standing on the platform as the massacre began, and who was mistaken for a radical and arrested.

It may astonish people to read that the official death toll was only 15, with about 700 people who either were reported as injured. However, it has to be remembered that many of those injured, however severely, would not have dared to report it. After the massacre the victims, and not the aggressors, were treated as criminals, and feared discrimination by their employers.  Lord Livepool’s government supported the local magistrate’s foolhardly decision to send in the inexperienced (and possibly drunken) local militias.We only have the figures of those injured from the numbers of those incapacited who applied for funds for relief from a charitable fund set up by sympathizers.

No doubt many of those injured subsequently died as a result  of their injuries some weeks or even months later. In those days of primitive medical care and lack of welfare provison, a serious injury was often a death sentence, and for a wage earner in the family to be incapacitated equalled the threat of starvation for a family. Many handloom weavers and spinners at this time were living in a state of semi starvation already.

One of those who later died of injuries received on the day was 21 year old  John  Lees, a spinner and Waterloo veteran from Oldham, whose father had disapproved of his attending the meeting, and who did not at first realise the serious nature of his son’s  injuries. When John Lees died on 7 September, his father demanded an inquest. The jury was  ready to return a verdict of wilful murder against the militia, when the coroner took advantage of a legal loophole to dissolve the whole proceedings.

Subsequently, the repressive Six Acts were rushed through parliament, which effectively muzzled radical newspapers, political meetings, marching and any form of dissent.

Henry Hunt, Samuel Bamford and the other radical leaders were arrested for treason. This capital offence was latter commuted to a a lesser one, and they served prison sentences of severaql yesrs.

This was the outrage which inspired the poet Shelley to write his famous  ‘Masque of Anarchy’ (so subversive that it wasn’t in fact published until 1831, a couple of years after his own death).

‘Rise like lions after slumber;

Rise in unvanquishable number,

Cast your chains to earth like dew,

Which in your sleep hath fallen on  you,

Ye are many;  they are few.’

It is a grim enough episode in British history. However, I felt that I ought to write a story based about the Peterloo Massacre.  I didn’t actually know at the time when I began work on my novel, that there is in fact an epic feature film coming out about it, and I thought that the occasion of the bi-centenary should not slip by without someone writing of the appalling suffering of the Lancashire cotton workers at this time, and particularly, the injustices meted out on that day.

With luck there will now be many articles, books, blog posts and television posts over the next year on the bi-centenary of this shameful episode, which shows the neglected dark side of Regency history, and the repressive nature of the state.

 

 

 

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Germinal: Émile Zola’s Masterpiece

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Germinal is Émile Zola’s masterpiece, and I am fairly typical in thinking (and I have only read it in translation) that it contains his most brilliant writing, with exceptionally evocative passages of lyrical strength, and brilliant word pictures. It depicts a miner’s strike – with unsparing realism and remarkable sympathy.

When  my daughter asked me to recommend some of the most strongly written books that I had read, this was one.

I wrote in my last post that Zola had a fear of the untrammelled power of the working people. In this novel, however, his sympathies are entirely with them.  With unsparing honesty, he depicts the starvation, despair, and resulting violence that follows from the miners’ attempts to gain a living wage.

Zola was always meticulous in carrying out research. For this novel he went to northern France in 1884, where he witnessed a miners’ strike in Anzin, while at Denain he went underground to view working conditions. He always defended his depiction as realistic, aganinst the attacks by indignant critics, who accused him of exaggerating the horrors of the pit workers’ conditions for dramatic effect.

Incredibly, the novel was written in only eight months. The title, incidentally, is taken from the eighth month of the revolutionary calendar, and is meant to evoke an image of germination, of budding new growth, and of hope for the future. This is, in fact, the note on which the book ends. For all the distressing scenes that are depicted, the story ends in the spring, on a note of regeneration.

Over to Wickipedia for an excellent concise summary of the plot: –

The novel’s central character is Étienne Lantier, previously seen in L’Assommoir (1877), and originally to have been the central character in Zola’s “murder on the trains” thriller La Bête humaine (1890) before the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Germinal persuaded him otherwise. The young migrant worker arrives at the forbidding coal mining town of Montsou in the bleak area of the far north of France to earn a living as a miner. Sacked from his previous job on the railways for assaulting a superior, Étienne befriends the veteran miner Maheu, who finds him somewhere to stay and gets him a job pushing the carts down the pit.

Étienne is portrayed as a hard-working idealist but also a naïve youth; Zola’s genetic theories come into play as Étienne is presumed to have inherited his Macquart ancestors’ traits of hotheaded impulsiveness and an addictive personality capable of exploding into rage under the influence of drink or strong passions. Zola keeps his theorizing in the background and Étienne’s motivations are much more natural as a result. He embraces socialist principles, reading large amounts of working class movement literature and fraternizing with Souvarine, a Russian anarchist and political émigré who has also come to Montsou to seek a living in the pits. Étienne’s simplistic understanding of socialist politics and their rousing effect on him are very reminiscent of the rebel Silvère in the first novel in the cycle, La Fortune des Rougon (1871).

While this is going on, Étienne also falls for Maheu’s daughter Catherine, also employed pushing carts in the mines, and he is drawn into the relationship between her and her brutish lover Chaval, a prototype for the character of Buteau in Zola’s later novel La Terre (1887). The complex tangle of the miners’ lives is played out against a backdrop of severe poverty and oppression, as their working and living conditions continue to worsen throughout the novel; eventually, pushed to breaking point, the miners decide to strike and Étienne, now a respected member of the community and recognized as a political idealist, becomes the leader of the movement. While the anarchist Souvarine preaches violent action, the miners and their families hold back, their poverty becoming ever more disastrous, until they are sparked into a ferocious riot, the violence of which is described in explicit terms by Zola, as well as providing some of the novelist’s best and most evocative crowd scenes. The rioters are eventually confronted by police and the army that repress the revolt in a violent and unforgettable episode. Disillusioned, the miners go back to work, blaming Étienne for the failure of the strike; then, Souvarine sabotages the entrance shaft of one of the Montsou pits, trapping Étienne, Catherine and Chaval at the bottom. The ensuing drama and the long wait for rescue are among some of Zola’s best scenes, and the novel draws to a dramatic close. Étienne is eventually rescued and fired but he goes on to live in Paris with Pluchart.

MV5BNzdiYjhjOGMtNjQ1Zi00NGViLThlN2UtOTllYjk3NDY2MTAzXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMzk4OTI2MjM@._V1_There are many vivid characters in this novel, and perhaps the one who overshadows them all is inanimate: Le Voreux, the dread consumer of huaman flesh, the pit  in which the local miners and cart pushers labour for their lives.

Perhaps the most  horrific scene – and one of the most grotesque in all of Zola’s novels, which include a great deal in the way of horror and of the grotesque – is depicted in the scene where the rioting and starving locals attack the local grocer’s shop. The grocer falls to his death trying to escape via the roof, and the women, whom he has sexually abused in exchange for credit, enact a terrible revenge on his corpse: –

‘And then, with her old, withered hands, La Brúlé parted his naked thighs and seized hold of his now defunct manhood. She grabbed the whole thing in one hand and pulled, her bony spine tense with the effort, her long arms cracking. When the flabby skin refused to give, she had to pull even harder, but finally it came away, a lump of bleeding, hairy flesh, which she proceeded to brandish in triumph…’

By contrast, one of the most moving – indeed, near transcedent – moments in the novel is  when the cynical engineer Paul Négrel, the nephew of the owner of the mine, who is quite happy to deceive his uncle by carrying on an affair with his aunt by marriage,  who has been the bitter enemy of the militant Étienne, comes together with him in huamnity. After the collapse of the pit, he labours tirelessly and devotedly, night and day to ensure that Étienne, Chaval and Catherine are rescued from their underground prison.

When at last he is rewarded by finding them: –

‘These two men who despised each other, the rebellious worker and the sceptical boss, threw their arms around each other and sobbed their hearts out, both of them shaken to the very core of their humanity. ..’

As I said in my last post, while readers generally may not be attracted to reading the twenty novels in the series of Les Rougon-Macquart  , to neglect reading Germinal is to miss out on a true work of genius.

I have to say that I found Étienne’s love interest Catherine, insipid. While it might be argued that this was after all typical of a Victorian novel, and that her background is such that it is impossible for her to have developed much independence of thought or as an older daughter who had both to work in the pit and to labour in the house, had the leisure even to have much individuality, she still comes across as dull compared to Zola’s other female characters from humble and hard working bacgrounds, ie, the heroine of La Terre.  

This does seem to me a weakness in the structure of the novel. I certainly take the point that Cahterine is intended to be a victim, seduced by Chaval before her delayed puberty has come about. But Étienne’s  fascination with her is unconvincing, and so the desperate hatred between himself and Chaval is too.

Compared to all the admirable features in this book, though, this, and a certain tendency at times, ever present in Zola, to overdramaticise, are hardly very important. Catherine, with her passive surrender to abuse from a man she does not really love in Chaval, is not a female lead that a modern female reader can find appealling., however truly pathetic she might find her.  But in such characters as Catherine’s own mother and  the independent minded Mochette,  there is a good deal of feminine indpendence depicted throughout the story.

Zola was rightly proud of  his achievement.  It caused a senasation on its appearance and remains widely read to this day, having inspired several films, and being regarded as one of the most signicicant of all French novels.