With the exception of Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood and Little John, or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest (1838-40), Robin Hood penny dreadfuls have generated very little critical attention. Usually they are not even read but merely cited. I have shown in a previous post, and in an essay for Leeds Working Papers in Victorian Studies (2016), (1) how Egan’s text should be read as a radical text. That particular essay has been adapted into an article which has recently been accepted by the journal English. But here I would like to draw attention to a less prominent, though no less radical Robin Hood story entitled Little John and Will Scarlet (1865). The novel was not merely an insignificant piece of trashy literature, but rather a thought-provoking story that was intended as a commentary upon nineteenth-century British society. In this post I shall show how the novel made direct references to contemporary debates regarding the extension of the vote to working-class men, and similarly highlight how the anonymous author employs radical discourse in the novel.
Radicalism in the Mid-Nineteenth Century
By the mid-Victorian period the great radical movements of the early nineteenth century had all but disappeared. Chartism had effectively failed in 1848, and while a few attempts were made to revive the movement after this date, it is clear that many previous radicals lent their support to reform movements which advocated a series of more gradual reforms in British politics:
The campaign for ‘the Charter and something more’ ended with the sacrifice of the [Chartists’ demands and] abandoned in favour of ‘respectable’ and rational gradualism, moderation, and expediency.(2)
Yet demands for working-class suffrage did not disappear after the failure of Chartism. Two factors contributed to the emergence of a national debate about the extension of the vote to working-class males. Firstly, the Prime Minister Lord Palmerston died in 1865. Palmerston had previously blocked any attempt at political reform. Secondly, the American Civil War made some of the elites in this country fearful that Britain would witness the resurgence of a popular radical movement.(3) Debate about the subject of working-class votes was a hot topic in the press during the mid-1860s, and it is in such a political landscape that Little John and Will Scarlet began its publication.
“Old Corruption” was a term used by radicals during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to draw attention to corruption endemic in the British political system. At its most basic, it highlighted how the propertied elites abused the law to oppress the rights and trample upon the sovereignty of the people. Yet it had practically disappeared from political discourse by the 1860s, as W. D. Rubinstein argues.(4)
Yet Little John and Will Scarlet is unusual in that it still uses the discourse of Old Corruption in its description of both twelfth- and, indirectly, nineteenth-century British society. The aristocracy are:
England in the medieval period is ‘falsely called merrie’ according to the author for ‘miserable and wretched was man’s condition’.(6) This is because the people were ruled by a corrupt aristocracy:
The aristocracy was uniformly composed of marauders, tyrants, and sycophants – the usual characteristics of aristocrats – whose occupation was pillage, murder, and the ravishment of maidens.(7)
Moreover, these members of the aristocratic classes, or the legalised banditti use every device of cruelty and wickedness to oppress the good people of England. The result is that
Under these circumstances the people of England suffered deeply for the present, and had yet more dreadful cause for fear for the future. They always in the end bore the burden, and have from time immemorial to the present day.(8)
Both the twelfth- and the nineteenth-century aristocracy are to blame for the dire poverty that the common people of England face.
It was not enough simply to whinge about the present, however, for if one wishes to effect radical change then one must also present a vision of a better society. For society to change for the better, then society must become democratic. This is why Sherwood Forest’s outlaw society is presented as one which elects its leaders: Robin must be elected by his fellow men.(9) The result of this democratic and egalitarian arrangement is that society becomes harmonious and a place in which food is plentiful. This is in stark contrast to the undemocratic system perpetuated by the Norman/nineteenth-century aristocracy. But the anonymous author goes further: he hints at a republican solution to the problems facing nineteenth-century society:
Once when Oliver Cromwell released them from despotism, they had an opportunity, but they threw it away.(10)
Clearly, a republic would be a better set up for society than the prevailing system. This is quite significant as it represents the first time that a Robin Hood author since Joseph Ritson (1752-1803) connected republicanism with Robin Hood. Not even Pierce Egan the Younger or Thomas Miller the Chartist desired a republic.
This seemingly innocuous Robin Hood penny dreadful is suffused with radical thought. The public debate surrounding the extension of the vote to working-class males raged on until 1867 when the administration of the Tory Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli passed the Representation of the People Act. Little John and Will Scarlet effectively marks the end of radical portrayals of Robin Hood. Between 1880 and 1914 a number of children’s books appeared which presented a wholly conservative depiction of the famous outlaw. Attempts would be made during the 1930s to reclaim Robin Hood for radicals, notably with G. Trease’s Bows Against the Barons (1934) which is a very communist portrayal of the legend in which the outlaws call each other ‘comrade’.
(1)Stephen Basdeo, ‘Radical Medievalism: Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood, Wat Tyler, and Adam Bell’ in Leeds Working Papers in Victorian Studies, Volume 15: Imagining the Victorians ed. by Stephen Basdeo & Lauren Padgett (Leeds: LCVS, 2016), pp.48-64.
(2) John Belchem, Popular Radicalism in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Basingstoke: MacMillan, 1996), p.101.
(3) Brent E. Kinser, The American Civil War in the Shaping of British Democracy (Ashgate, 2011).
(4) W. D. Rubinstein, ‘The End of Old Corruption in Britain, 1780-1860’ Past and Present, No. 101 (1983), pp.55-86.
(5) Little John and Will Scarlet (London: H. Vickers [n.d.]), p.182.
(6) Little John and Will Scarlet, p.3.
(8) Little John and Will Scarlet, p.183.
(9) Little John and Will Scarlet, pp.46-47.
(10) Little John and Will Scarlet, p.183.