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The Tichborne Claimant: A Victorian Sensation.

The Tichborne Claimant: A Victorian Sensation. By Rohan McWilliam (London & New York: Hambledon Continuum, 2007. xii plus 363 pp. $49.95).

Inside every fat man, so they say, there's a thin man waiting to get out. In this case the fat man was a butcher from Wagga Wagga in Australia who ballooned to nearly thirty stone in the course of his long campaign to prove himself Sir Roger Tichborne, a slim dandyish aristocrat and heir to the Tichborne estate, presumed to have died at sea many years previous to the Claimant's appearance on the public stage in 1865. The gross physical discrepancy and other counter evidence to his claim were met by a plausible list of truths that sustained the Claimant and his army of supporters through two of the longest trials in English legal history, provoking one of the largest and lengthiest popular agitations between the collapse of Chartism in 1848 and the rise of socialism in the 1880s. Though there have been serious treatments of the case before, the Claimant has mostly been refused any major political or cultural significance, relegated to a bizarre and grotesque sidebar of history, not without some embarrassment to the more purist academic champions of the popular cause.

In the fullest reconstruction of the case yet, Rohan McWilliam pursues the Butcher's Tale, as it might well be called, with Chaucerian relish and scholarly assiduity, guiding us through the courts, the press, the streets, pubs and music halls, onto the hustings and into Parliament, with a detour into the bedroom as any truly sensational scandal cum cause celebre requires. Following the collapse of his civil action against the family in 1872, and an ensuing charge of perjury, the Claimant stumped the country, reasserting the validity of his claim and protesting the gross inequities of the justice system. Workingmen in particular responded fiercely and numerously, holding demonstrations and raising funds for his defence and rehabilitation. A second protracted trial found him guilty, sentencing him to fourteen years hard labor and giving prominence to the ne plus ultra champion of his cause, Edward Keneally, whose aggressive conduct as defence counsel got him disbarred from the legal profession.

Casting himself as a fellow martyr at the hands of an oppressive establishment, Keneally converted the Tichborne agitation into a more formalized if still wondrously bizarre radical social movement. "It was a carnival of cranks," declares McWilliam, "that touched a popular constituency that did not feel represented by the main political parties" (114). Largely ignored or disdained by the middle classes and the more respectable press, the Tichbornites under Keneally were incorporated into quasi-party form in the Magna Charta Association, served by the Englishman, Keneally's own weekly newspaper. This was the platform that propelled the defrocked lawyer to a bye-election victory in Stoke and celebrity enwaxment in Madame Tussaud's next to his controversial client. In the Commons, Keneally's intemperance condemned him to virtual ostracism and electoral defeat shortly before his death in 1880. Released from prison, the Claimant resumed his tour of the music halls, seeking to capitalize further on his notoriety but virtually disowning the larger Tichborne movement. Both now sank into obscurity.

Tichbornemania, maintains McWilliam, was truly an important historical phenomenon, richly instructive for the study of popular politics and popular culture. He relates these two fields less as text and context (the more conventional treatment) than as an organic whole, however many headed and contradictory this larger entity undoubtedly was. This is not the world of the heroic working class activists of E.P.Thompson's sample from earlier decades, in what he identified as "the most distinguished popular culture England has known." But neither is it the booby prize of the 'culture of consolation' identified by Gareth Stedman Jones as the compensation for subsequent political impotence among the late century London working class. The Tichborne agitation is represented here as an unruly social movement, but a social movement nonetheless, a radical compound of beliefs and demands, championing the rights of the freeborn Englishman, protesting the inequities of the justice system, an entrenched hierarchy, and the oppressive partiality of the state. The Magna Charta was to be more fully realized in a new democratic order facilitated by the 1867 Reform Act and extended, no less, to the rights of women, as voters and free citizens, though its style and rhetoric were overwhelmingly masculinist in the breast-beating patriotic mode. In all of this it was informed and inflected by the tropes and values of the wider culture, as McWilliam demonstrates in sensitive and masterly fashion through an examination of melodrama and the popular stage, the fraternity of the pub, the iconography of Tichborne memorabilia and the vital role of performance in popular politics.

The received political history of the period following the passage of the 1867 Act has been undergoing reassessment from a handful of historians (including McWilliam) who challenge the idea that mass suffrage produced a modernization of politics dominated by the imperatives of party and nationally defined issues. The Tichborne Claimant argues for the lively persistence of a traditionally founded radicalism as volatile, hybridized and promiscuous as the popular imaginary in which it was embedded. The book's stress on continuity finds plausible precedent in the popular support for Queen Caroline in the 1820s but is less sure in charting the radical dynamic subsequent to Tichborne, suggesting its increasing anachronism. Yet if this English poujadism was to enjoy no more than a few residual spasms, the political deployment of popular culture that is central to the book's argument was far from exhausted, to judge from other work in what is emerging as a newly conceived history of political cultures. Thus the Free Trade movement of the early twentieth century, mainstream rather than marginal, deployed a battery of ritualized tropes and devices that worked off the fears and fantasies of the crowd. In this important book, Rohan McWilliam has provided an exemplary model of how such synergies operate.

Peter Bailey

University of Manitoba/Indiana University
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Author:Bailey, Peter
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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