Sunshine and Shadow – Chartist Novel

Thomas Martin Wheeler's Chartist novel Sunshine and Shadow (1849-50) represents a dramatic alternative to the mainstream social problem novel and thus has an important claim on the attention of literary scholars. (1) Among its more overlooked qualities are the book's revolutionary politics, yet to miss Wheeler's political innovation entails an incomplete understanding of his fictional innovation. The novel's form and interests, plot devices, and authorial choices derived from a conscious desire to use fiction as a medium for debating the issues at stake in deciding the future path of the workers' movement. (2) For Wheeler, the desirability of revolution is the point of departure--not a regrettable illusion to be corrected by the hero's acquisition of wisdom--for a plot which then goes on to a frontal assault on the problem of how. The novel is not simply a retrospective of a dead movement, but a fictional interpretation of history for the purpose of advancing a living movement that must seek out new theories and methods of organizing on the basis of working-class independence and a centralized leadership. Here is a working-class man reaching conclusions similar to those of his contemporary Marx, independently of the philosopher and at least fifty years in advance of Lenin, with whom the notion of a democratic and centralized party is chiefly associated. Marx and Lenin elaborated their later ideas much more thoroughly and systematically than did Wheeler, but they were not writing fiction or trying to balance the demands of narrative with political theory. In this respect his novel is truly original, and from this it derives its energy and urgency.

Unlike fictional portrayals of industrial Britain by Benjamin Disraeli, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Kingsley, Charles Dickens, and George Eliot, Sunshine and Shadow does not gloss over the real dilemmas facing England's employed classes by offering the salvation of emigration, heaven, sudden revelations of aristocratic birth or inherited fortune, or an all-conquering goodwill. Such endings betray fear of working-class agency and pessimism about the immediate prospects of significant change. They evade the central debates the characters face, thus distancing readers from the reflective workers the novels portray and preventing a serious examination of the problems facing the movements in which they participate. Even the barest recollection of the working-class protagonists in Mary Barton (1848), Felix Holt (1866), Alton Locke (1850), and Hard Times (1854), for example, reveals a pattern of antiheroes. John Barton is dominated by bitterness and despair, resulting in his guilty assassination of an employers son and his banishment from the plot; both Felix Holt and Alton Locke become involved in frightful mob violence as if that must be the result of active, reform-minded agitation; and Stephen Blackpool's patient, passive, fog-headed suffering ("it's aw a muddle") poses what we are to regard as a positive alternative to the collective efforts of his coworkers to better their conditions through their union.

Sunshine and Shadow directly confronts the debates and problems which so centrally occupy the mind of its worker hero. Its outlook is ever hopeful of the efficacy of workers' collective activity, examining various conflicts and modes of organizing with an expectant, rather than a frightened, eye. The book does not assume that revolutionary change in the 1840s is impossible and ill advised, and therefore its tone vis-a-vis the failure of revolution is tragic rather than congratulatory. We are presented with a character who identifies with the great struggles of the nineteenth century, who does hope for a dramatic reconstitution of society, and who consequently proceeds from those premises to a grappling with the organizational "machinery" necessary to achieve it. Unique not only among social-problem novels, Wheeler's serialized tale stands alone among midcentury working-class fiction in confronting from within Chartism, based on current events and conditions, the possibility of an imminent English revolution.

In 1853 Wheeler joined an old, ailing building society, the 'Friend-in-Need' (run by another Chartist), and transformed it into an insurance society that operated beyond the local sphere and provided sick, accident, fire and death insurance, on the principles that 'working men and tradesmen long connected with the workings of Benefit and Burial Societies, were competent to manage the affairs of an Assurance Society', and that 'working men and women should attend to their own business. If they could not, no one else could do it for them.'

Its object is to meet the wants of the working classes by enabling its members to insure for any amount, large or small, against sickness, death, fire or other accidents. The large offices do not care to transact this kind of business, although well aware of its safety. They act like merchants who will not condescend to the retail system, but the Friend-in-Need meets the wants of all.' With Wheeler as general manager and secretary it grew rapidly to become a national concern, open to men and women, one of the biggest of its kind, with an agent in nearly every town, and an income in 1861-2 of £45,800. It was staffed almost entirely by Chartists, and on Wheeler's death in 1861 he was succeeded by his Chartist brother, George, who was also chief clerk of the United Patriots. Wheeler saw the United Patriots and Friend-in-Need as bringing the principle of self-government into every-day affairs.

Thomas Martin Wheeler was a staunch supporter of William Cuffay who was also an important figure in Chartist insurance matters.