Although few Victorians in the 1880s could claim actual contact or social intercourse with the male agricultural labourer, known colloquially as ‘Hodge’, many would have had ample opportunity for discursive encounters with him in the pages of the periodical press. The closing decades of Queen Victoria’s reign witnessed events and political legislation that made the rural working classes the object of intensified discussion in writings across a spectrum of discourses that included Parliamentary reports and debates, as well as folklore studies, novels, pamphlets, agricultural societies’ reports, and the local and national periodical presses. The Third Reform Bill of 1884–85 ‘elevated [Hodge] to the dignity of a British citizen’1 but even as Hodge the voter was acknowledged to be ‘a mighty factor in the development of our social history’,2 he was anxiously identified as ‘an unknown quantity’,3 ‘an enigma’,4 a ‘cipher’.5 During the years surrounding the Parliamentary debates and the passage of the franchise bill that granted the male agricultural labourer the vote, the enterprise of knowing Hodge became an imperative, politically consequential undertaking. This project of knowing Hodge was an essentially discursive one, and it yielded lively, dissonant conversations in the Victorian periodical press in articles about the rights and social conditions of the male farmworker. Analysis of those conversations demonstrates the constitutive role of the press in the formation and sustaining of a political, national identity in late-Victorian England.
KeywordsNational Identity Radical Programme Agricultural Labourer Parliamentary Debate Periodical Press
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