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  • Writer's pictureMartin Vaux

Peterloo and The Masque of Anarchy

So, I am a bit obsessed with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and in recent weeks I have been reading around the author's life and coming to a fuller understanding of her work.

This led me, via Miranda Seymour's outstanding biography Mary Shelley, to become curious about the Peterloo Massacre.

As you do.

And, to be clear, I am not a person much interested in wars or battles. I am generally a pacifist. I am not a nationalist, either, and tend to avoid reading about events involving people wearing uniforms. Military and naval history are not aspects of human culture about which I have much interest.

All of that said, I would like to think that my knowledge of English history is reasonably rounded out, and what with my love of Shelley and her contemporaries, especially Lord Byron, about whom I am a proper nerd, I thought I was on reasonably firm ground contextually.

I confess however to having known very little about Peterloo.

I knew it was a battle where the aristocracy put down a protest by industrial workers in the north of England, and as such I had the event filed in my mind under 'Regency Atrocities' - a fairly substantial section of my mental filing cabinet.

And, to be fair, the number of industrial protests that have taken place in England over the years is substantial. There were the Levellers in the 17th century, the 1800s was awash with Luddites and Chartists, and there was the Merthyr Rising in 1831, and the Plug Plot Riots of 1842. It is all rather bleak, and depressing, and not the sort of thing I might choose to read about on a sunny summer afternoon.

But Peterloo was different. It was the first of a new kind of civil unrest in England, and it was an out and out atrocity.

I had not given it enough attention, and I feel guilty about that fact.

In case what I am writing about here sounds like utter nonsense to you, or you likewise just don't know much about it, to be as brief as possible, the Peterloo Massacre was named after the Battle of Waterloo - the conclusive battle of the Napoleonic Wars, which themselves came after the French Revolution.

In turn, the French Revolution had come about in the late 1700s because the people of France had suffered greatly under the rule of French monarchy, with civil protests having been prompted in no small part by the same food scarcities that prompted Peterloo.

Those initial protests led to out and out revolution, and period of iconoclastic political and social unrest that lasted for almost a century.

During the Georgian period, the English aristocracy saw events on the other side of the channel with fear, and so when a peaceful protest of over 60,000 workers formed in around St Peter's Field in Manchester their response was to send in the local yeomanry, and then the 15th Hussars, who rode, swords drawn, into crowds of unarmed men, women and children.

Awful. Awful, awful, awful.

Anyway, like a bit of an idiot, I had read Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem The Masque of Anarchy and had not realised that it was inspired by the events of Peterloo.

I read that poem as an allegorical ballad about the state of England at the time - a place that was grim for the working class in ways that became particularly acute during the economic and political instability of the Regency era, Six Acts and all.

I was wrong, of course. Not to say that the poem can't be read as I read it, or that Shelley did not intend it to be about more than Peterloo. But Peterloo inspired it, and the event was seen by the Shelleys, who were living on the continent at the time, as yet another example of the corruption of English society.

The Shelleys were, of course, politically radical people, and they sought a great many social and cultural changes. Percy Bysshe Shelley in particular was a firebrand, naive and indulgent as he might have been, and it is interesting to me that after his death Mary suppressed The Masque of Anarchy and prevented it being published until 1832 - a full ten years after he had drowned.

There is a huge distinction to be drawn between the Mary Shelley who wrote Frankenstein in 1816-17 and the Mary Shelley who survived her husband; where once she had been carried along by Percy's passion and devil-may-care attitude (he was, let us remember, a man who frequently gave away his shoes to people he met who were living in barefooted poverty; Mary was always responsible for sourcing him new ones...) after Percy died she became understandably conservative.

Mary was not recognised as a 'legitimate' wife of Percy Bysshe by his landed family for many years. Her own father, William Godwin, was perpetually on the verge of financial ruin, and she had a child to support. So, Mary set about censoring the past.

She ensured Percy's work was not published - particularly the most radical of it - as that is what her father-in-law demanded. And she censored herself too - something that can be seen in the edits made to the third (and most widely read) edition of Frankenstein, as published in 1831, which toned down several aspects of the radical sentiment that had driven her to write it in the first place.

What has made coming to understand Peterloo particular poignant for me, then, is two particular ideas.

Firstly, there is the rage of Frankenstein's creation, which is, undoubtedly, in part a channel Shelley used to express the rage of the labouring class. The monster is a diligent servant of the De Lacey family whose entreaties for love and kindness are so cruelly spurned. He is, he says, a slave, and the rebellion in which he engages turns Victor, his maker, into the slave instead.

This revolution in status was mirrored in the fraught social climate of Regency Europe.

Secondly, there is the recent Mike Leigh film Peterloo, which, having now seen I find hard to recommend but nonetheless found very powerful.

It is a long film - overlong - and it is tortuously complex. It contains far too many plot lines, and, like much of Mike Leigh's work in recent years, it is far from subtle.

But the final 40 minutes of that epic - the scenes of slaughter - are wild. And they should not have been so powerful to me. My imagination should have been enough to consider what the events of Peterloo had been like for those people who had been there. But the film brought that horror home, tangibly and realistically, and whereas I undoubtedly felt that some other aspects of the film lacked tact or nuance I truly believe that in the massacre sequences he showed me what happened on that fateful, dreadful day.

Having seen the film, it is easy to recognise allegories with today's politics. People suffering because the political class does not represent them. People protesting but not being listened to. Leaders afraid or unwilling to act to help the working poor of their nations as they, the political class, are happy in their isolated lives at the top of the social pyramid.

And perhaps that is one of the many reasons why Frankenstein remains so impactful for me.

Perhaps that is why The Masque of Anarchy remains so powerful.

The themes of those works are as relevant today as they were in the 1800s, and will be, I expect, forever.

Which is a depressing thought, I suppose - although one worth rolling over in the mind.

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