Arthur Morrison Essay - Morrison, Arthur (Short Story Criticism)

Morrison, Arthur (Short Story Criticism)


Arthur Morrison 1863–-1945

English novelist, journalist, and short story writer.

Morrison's literary reputation is mostly based on his realistic novels and short stories about slum life in London. In addition, he wrote detective fiction that is openly derivative of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. Possessed with a wide and free-ranging curiosity, Morrison wrote both fiction and nonfiction works on diverse subjects, from Japanese art to occultism, and participated in English literary life well into World War II.

Biographical Information

Morrison was born in London's East End slums on November 1, 1863. While he apparently wanted to live down his working-class origins, and never gave any specific accounting of his early years, this never prevented him from displaying his penetrating understanding of slum life in his work. Commentators consider it likely that he was largely, if not entirely self-educated. In 1886 he began working as a clerk for the “People's Palace,” a social-improvement charity organized by novelist and critic Walter Besant. By 1889, Morrison was working as an editor for Besant's Palace Journal, and made a brief appearance on the editorial staff of the Globe as well. His East End sketch, “A Street,” published in Macmillan's Magazine in 1891, garnered some popular and critical attention. His work began appearing in newspapers and periodicals regularly, and a collection of his short stories about London slum life, Tales of Mean Streets, was published in 1894.

By 1910, Morrison had less interest in literature. He acquired a taste for Eastern art, especially Japanese painting and printmaking. He assembled an extensive collection of Japanese and other Eastern art, as well as works by a number of English masters, including William Hogarth, Thomas Gainsborough, John Constable, and J. M. W. Turner. His literary output continued to dwindle, even as he was elected to the Royal Society of Literature. Morrison eventually became a professional art dealer. He died in 1945 at the age of eighty-two.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Morrison's short fiction can be classified into two main categories; realistic East End chronicles and detective stories. His first collection, Tales of Mean Streets, chronicles the plight of the urban poor in London's East End. This collection, along with his subsequent East End novel A Child of the Jago, fed into the ongoing controversy over literary realism, a debate involving such authors as Stephen Crane and Emile Zola. In 1894 Morrison began publishing detective stories in the Strand and Windsor Magazine. The protagonist of these stories, Martin Hewitt, was thought to be a response to the death of Sherlock Holmes, to whom Hewitt is often compared. The Hewitt stories were collected in four volumes: Martin Hewitt, Investigator, Chronicles of Martin Hewitt, Adventures of Martin Hewitt, and The Red Triangle. In addition to his Hewitt stories, Morrison made two other forays into the detective field: The Dorrington Deed-Box, which introduces the quasi-criminal antihero Dorrington; and The Green Eye of Goona, a pastiche of Willkie Collins's The Moon-Stone.

Critical Reception

Although he was accused of overemphasizing and exploiting the gloomier and more fatalistic side of East End life, Morrison garnered considerable praise and attention for his collection Tales of Mean Streets. The stories in the collection figured in an ongoing debate about literary realism and were esteemed and criticized for its grimly vivid depictions of the bleakness and the squalor of lower-class existence in London's East End. Morrison's detective fiction suffered by inevitable comparison with Sherlock Holmes, but enjoyed moderate popularity all the same. As far as modern critics are concerned, many have observed that his work has fallen into undeserved obscurity and merits serious reconsideration.


The Bookman (review date 1909)

SOURCE: “Novels Notes,” in The Bookman, Vol. XXXV, No. 210, March, 1909, p. 281.

[In the following review, the anonymous critic lauds the humor in Green Ginger.]

It is evidently time that we revised our judgment of Mr. Arthur Morrison. Whilst we have been persistently classing him as a grim and sombre realist, he has been developing into one of the most delightfully irresponsible of humorists. Of course we knew from “That Brute Simmons,” in his Tales of Mean Streets, and from certain of the tales in his Divers Vanities, that he had an abundant sense of humour, but we had not credited him with possessing the breezy, broadly farcical spirit of fun that fills the pages of Green Ginger with the best and heartiest food for laughter that you will find nowadays anywhere outside a book by Jacobs. Now and then, as in such stories as “Cap'en Jollyfax's Gun” or “The Copper Charm,” he gives you quaint and excellent character-sketches; everywhere the descriptions of persons and places are touched in vividly and with his accustomed skill; but when all's said you come back to the story—the tale's the thing, and though it might be easy to decide which of them has the most ingenious plot, which embodies the most gloriously odd or ludicrous incident, it is very difficult indeed to look back over them and say, where all are so wholly amusing, which is the liveliest and most laughable. Perhaps it is enough to say that the present reviewer, a hardened specimen of his tribe, has read every one of them, taking them in their order, and was only sorry they were not twice as many, and that if you would like to laugh, and to keep on laughing through three hundred and twenty-eight pages, you cannot do better than ask for Green Ginger, and see that you get it.

Jocelyn Bell (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: “A Study of Arthur Morrison,” in Essays and Studies, Vol. 5, 1952, pp. 77-89.

[In the following essay, Bell provides a biographical survey of Morrison's writing.]

At a distance of half a century an age is no longer dismissed as old-fashioned; its historical importance and period singularity are recognized. The Victorians and Edwardians are reappearing, freshly presented in reprints and radio serials and revalued in biography and criticism. Arthur Morrison is among them. Born in 1863, he belongs in literature to the 1890's and the turning century, finishing his best work by 1902 but writing throughout the Edwardian reign until he retired in 1913. He was one of those contemporary best-sellers who could be found on every Edwardian bookshelf, but who vanished in the Great War and were unknown to the new and changed generation which followed; and now that, once again, the novels which made his name are in the bookshops, it is not out of place to attempt an assessment of his literary talent, to determine how much he achieved, and why he did not achieve more.

The 1890's were brilliant, chaotic years: gay, sombre; irresponsible, earnest; years which saw Lottie Collins at the Gaiety and Mrs. Pat Campbell as Paula Tanquerary; which saw Keir Hardie's first Labour Party and the Diamond Jubilee; the Sidney Webbs, Beardsley, and the trial of Oscar Wilde. The literary world introduced its own novelties, from the “incomparable Max” to George Bernard Shaw, and the dramatic explosion of Ibsen had been preceded but a few years previously by that of Zola, when in the 1880's his novels were first translated into English, immediately suppressed, and their publisher imprisoned. If it was an age of aesthetic adventure, it was also an age of moral revolution.

The translations of the French “realistic” novelists, Zola and Flaubert, the Goncourts and Maupassant, had raised a sharp and violent controversy in the English periodical press as to the place of frankness in literature, an outcry which had been countered successfully by prominent critics like Edmund Gosse1 and lesser known pioneers like Hubert Crackanthorpe,2 and by 1894 the “new” realistic fiction, though still experimental, was recognized in literary circles and developed by major writers like George Moore and George Gissing, and by minor ones like Henry Harland, “George Egerton”, Crackanthorpe, and Grant Allen. Taking its main inspiration from the French writers, it was concerned with the direct portrayal of the social conditions and moral problems of contemporary life, and novelists, claiming broader horizons for their art, asserted their right to deal with any subject, fine or ugly, beautiful or sordid, which was a genuine aspect of human existence. Arthur Morrison belongs to the forefront of this realistic movement, and his Tales of Mean Streets which appeared in 1894, were not only the first examples of “mean street” studies, but also a collection of best-sellers which provided a neat generic title for the subsequent studies of slum life which followed in rapid succession from other writers. Morrison's “mean street” realism, however, is in a different category from that of George Moore or Gissing, who used such surroundings as background to the main play of character and moral problem, for he is not a moralist, nor does he attempt studies of psychology and temperament; he presents the slum surroundings, not as the background, but as the main theme. It is a serious theme, too, plainly spoken. Slums and poverty were not, of course, new to literature; they were in Dickens, Mrs. Gaskell and Charles Kingsley, or, nearer to hand, in books like Walter Besant's Children of Gideon—a romance in the dismal East End setting of Hoxton which is at the same time a plea for social reform; and in Gissing's The Nether World there are descriptions of Pennyloaf Candy's wretched home in Clerkenwell which foreshadow Morrison's Child of the Jago. But Morrison was the first to set out deliberately to record slum life as it really was: “In my East End stories,” he said, “I determined that they must be written in a different way from the ordinary slum story. They must be done with austerity and frankness, and there must be no sentimentalism, no glossing over. I felt that the writer must never interpose himself between his subject and his reader. I could best bring in real life by keeping myself and my … moralizings out of it. For this I have been abused as hard and unsympathetic, but I can assure you it is far more painful for me to write stories than for you to read them.” How far in this attitude he saw himself as part of a literary trend it is difficult to say, for he was undoubtedly aware of the realistic movement and had seen its possibilities; he belonged to his time. Yet he was a journalist rather than a man of letters, and literary historians are sometimes prone to over-emphasize “influences”; however much he may have read of contemporary English and French realism, his primary inspiration came without question direct and at first hand from his own experience in the East End.

The People's Palace, founded by Walter Besant, had been opened at Mile End in 1887, and Morrison worked for many years as Secretary of the People's Palace Trust, being a close friend of its Chairman, Sir Edmund Currie, and living, as he said, “in the very heart of that part of London”. When he turned to journalism it was from these days that he drew material for his tales. The publication of the first of them in Macmillan's Magazine attracted the attention of W. E. Henley, then editing the famous National Observer. Morrison wrote, at Henley's request, further short stories which appeared in the National Observer and were later collected into the one volume: Tales of Mean Streets. Henley was an exacting editor; he demanded brevity, incisiveness and finish from his contributors, and Morrison, though he wrote many more stories, does not again achieve the variety and skill of these sketches and descriptive incidents, drawn objectively, but with a strong undercurrent of feeling, and detailing facets of East End life—its brutality, its heartlessness, its shoddy gentility and grey monotone. The first tale: “A Street”—where he tries to paint the empty sameness of average slum life, is perhaps the least successful, though it struck an original note when it was written, but there is a touch of genuine drama ending the story “In Business,” as the patient, stupid husband, driven at last to protest against his wife's nagging victimization, walks out quietly one morning and leaves her; a touch of comedy in the lighter treatment of a similar relationship in “That Brute Simmons”—a tale which he afterwards dramatized. There is the stringent cynicism of “Conversion,” in which light-fingered Scuddy Lond slips neatly back to iniquity after an emotional spasm of grace in the local mission hall; or the unblinking horror of “Lizerunt” (once christened, but long forgotten as, Elizabeth Hunt), her courtship and marriage. They are plain tales in plain language, in which, from a present-day vantage-point, it is easier to see omissions than achievement, since there is neither subtlety nor sophistication, depth of character study nor creation of mood, no sensuous appeal nor lyric grace. They possess, on the other hand, a firm and even economy of line, etched with a dry restraint which can deepen into caustic terseness; the subject-matter is genuine, the treatment honest, and, while in accordance with his purpose he sternly avoids emotionalism and sensationalism, he is never detached—the pressure of his own keen feeling is perceptible, strengthening his style.

The short story was becoming a popular form, and realism was a new vogue; Tales of Mean Streets, in addition to their intrinsic merit, came appropriately. Critics were impressed, and the author's reputation was established. Other writers like W. Pett Ridge and Edwin Pugh pursued the “mean street” theme in sketches of suburban types—shop girls, clerks, domestic servants, but played for Cockney comedy rather than serious comment. Nearer to Morrison in spirit were Richard Whiteing, who wrote No. 5. John Street as a picture of life in a London tenement, and Somerset Maugham, whose first novel, Liza of Lambeth, was in 1897 considered shockingly daring and quite improper for young ladies, since it told of an illicit love affair followed by a miscarriage. The style in its immature simplicity is tepid beside Morrison's, although the gift of sharp and accurate observation, the acute interest in people and their behaviour, which were ultimately to make him a more accomplished writer, are already apparent. Morrison took his own East End studies further two years later in a full-length novel, Child of the Jago. The Jago was his name for that part of Shoreditch known as the Nichol, from the name of Old Nichol Street, and it comprised the Boundary Lane area skirted by the Shoreditch High Street and the Bethnal Green Road. Nothing of it remains today except the faded name-plate of Old Nichol Street; there is merely a commonplace agglomeration of shops, houses, prefabs, and bomb damage, buttressed by the stolid barrack-like buildings of the L.C.C. housing estate. Contemporary nineteenth-century reports, however, described it as “a nest of vice and disease” comprising “congeries of filthy and insanitary courts and alleys,” and it was a notorious slum. It is claimed by those who know Morrison's book and something of the background against which it was written, that its publication was finally responsible for urging the London County Council to act and clear this district; unfortunately the compliment is without foundation, for the facts disprove it. The L.C.C. had been formed in 1889, and had started slum clearance in this part of Shoreditch as a pressing priority in 1891. Morrison himself stated, in a long interview in the Daily News for December 12th, 1896, that when he first went to the Nichol it was “on the point of being pulled down,” although encroachment was slow. He lived in the Nichol, working and talking with the inhabitants, for eighteen months, and his novel is a record of his experience, which he completed in 1896 “just as the last houses were coming down.” Building of the new estate began immediately, and it was opened by the Prince of Wales in 1900. Yet, although Morrison could not be credited with instigating the reform, he did receive tribute for commemorating it, for the Prince when speaking at the opening ceremony said that “few, indeed, will forget this site who have read Mr. Morrison's pathetic tale of Child of the Jago. Certainly the book made its mark, and its frank honesty may have influenced later housing schemes. It is as a sidelight on social history rather than as a novel that it is now valuable; the Jago, though vanished, is as symptomatic as Gin Lane. As a novel, the book is but average, but as a documentary it is illuminating. Critics complained, not without reason, of the technical faults in construction, and deplored the unpleasantness of the subject-matter, shifting a little uneasily, no doubt, before such an uncompromising statement of the facts, while Morrison in reply agreed that the Nichol was one of the isolated plague spots and not typical of the sheer dreariness of most East End life, which was “respectable to the gloomiest point of monotony”; on the other hand, he rewarded his critics with chapter and verse for the origin of some of the incidents they had picked out as improbable: “Critics have considered that Sally Green, my fighting heroine, was exaggerated. Indeed she is not. She is alive now, and her particular mode of fighting … is spoken of to this hour.” Glass bottles, deliberately broken and jagged, were “quite a feature of East End life” as aggressive weapons. Those who argued that he had “nothing new to say” and that in any case the evil he exposed was already being remedied were answered in the preface to a later edition of the novel, as well as in newspaper articles: “I have remarked in more than one place the expression of a foolish fancy that because the houses of the old Jago have been pulled down the Jago difficulty has been cleared out of the way. That is far from being the case. The Jago, as mere bricks and mortar, is gone. But the Jago in flesh and blood still lives. …” Slum clearance was only the first step in social reform, which would not be really effective until organized and authoritative action was taken for dealing with the human problem which the slums produced.

Morrison's intention in writing the book can also be given in his own words. It was “to tell the story of the horrible Nichol … and of a boy who, but for his environment, would have become a good citizen.” The tale is of Dicky Perrott, whose parents, though once boasting an honest if shabby livelihood, have sunk to Jago level. The mother is an inert weakling, the father a thief. Dicky, too, shows an early aptitude for theft which is promptly exploited by the cunning fence, Aaron Weech, while his childish gropings towards a better way of life are fostered by the local missionary, Father Sturt, who finds him a job as a shop boy in the Bethnal Green Road. The evil Mr. Weech, however, thereby losing a client, negotiates the boy's dismissal, and Dicky, bewildered and only half-comprehending the forces stronger than himself, returns to his old haunts, accepting the Jago dictum: “Spare...

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P. J. Keating (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: “Arthur Morrison and the Tone of Violence,” in The Working Classes in Victorian Fiction, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971, pp. 167-98.

[In the following essay, Keating provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of Morrison's fiction dealing with working-class life in the East End of London.]


In the 1890s Arthur Morrison wrote three books which deal with working-class life in the East End: Tales of Mean Streets (1894), A Child of the Jago (1896) and To London Town (1899). … Morrison's work is an amalgam of Besant, who supplies a new image of the East End; Charles Booth, who clarifies the class structure of...

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E. F. Bleiler (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: In an introduction to Best Martin Hewitt Detective Stories, Dover Publications, Inc., 1976, pp. vii-xiv.

[In the following overview of Morrison's detective stories, Bleiler contrasts Martin Hewitt and Sherlock Holmes.]

In detective stories the last decade of the nineteenth century was dominated by Sherlock Holmes. “A Scandal in Bohemia,” the first story of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, appeared in the July 1891 issue of The Strand Magazine, and was followed by a succession of stories that continued for some three years. But unfortunately for the publishers of The Strand Magazine, Holmes and A. Conan Doyle had to rest occasionally,...

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Michel Krzak (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: “Arthur Morrison's East End of London,” in Victorian Writers and the City, edited by Jean-Paul Hulin and Pierre Coustillas, De l'universite de lile III, 1979, pp. 147-82.

[In the following essay, Krzak describes Morrison's personal and professional connections to London's East End.]

Arthur Morrison, who died in December 1945 at the age of 82, is still described as a native of Kent in many reference books—for instance in the 1974 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica—despite new data found notably in P. J. Keating's introduction to the 1969 edition of A Child of the Jago. Such an indication is unfortunate since it may lead readers to...

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Michel Krzak (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: In a preface to Tales of Mean Streets, The Boydell Press, 1983, pp. 7-17.

[In the following essay, Krzak examines the circumstances surrounding the publication of Morrison's Tales of Mean Streets.]

In 1907, thirteen years after the publication of Tales of Mean Streets, Arthur Morrison stated in an interview: ‘the stories were built entirely on what I had heard and seen in the East End. I have reason for believing that they shocked a good many very respectable people.’ Morrison repeatedly claimed that his presentation was true-to-life, and it must be realised at the outset that his portrayal of East London rests on a first-hand knowledge of the area....

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Robert Calder (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: “Arthur Morrison: A Commentary with an Annotated Bibliography of Writings About Him,” in English Literature in Transition 1880-1920, Vol. 28, No. 3, 1985, pp. 276-97.

[In the following essay, Calder briefly surveys the critical response to Morrison's work.]

In his introduction to the 1969 edition of A Child of the Jago, P. J. Keating points out that little is known of Arthur Morrison's life before the beginning of his career as an author in the early 1890s and that little is known of his years following his retirement from writing in 1911. The scant facts are that he was born in Poplar, in the East End of London, on 1 November 1863, the son of an...

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Roger Henkle (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Morrison, Gissing, and the Stark Reality,” in Novel, Vol. 25, No. 3, Spring, 1992, pp. 302-20.

[In the following essay, Henkle discusses Morrison's portrayal of the urban poor in the context of the late nineteenth-century debate concerning realism and naturalism.]


Finally, in the early 1890s, the urban poor acquire a voice. Not the ventriloquized voice of Henry Mayhew, but the voice of one who was born in the East End of lower working-class parents, grew up there, worked there, and chose it as his subject. Arthur Morrison was born in Poplar in 1863, the son of an engine fitter who worked on the docks. His father died of...

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Further Reading


Calder, Robert. “Arthur Morrison: A Commentary with an Annotated Bibliography of Writings about Him.” English Literature in Transition: 1880-1920 28, No. 3 (1985): 276-97.

Provides a secondary bibliography on Morrison.


Morrison, Arthur. A review of Divers Vanities. The Bookman XXIX, No. 170 (November 1905): 91.

A mixed review of Morrison's Divers Vanities.

Priestman, Martin. “Detective Fiction and Ideas.” Detective Fiction and Literature: The Figure on the Carpet, pp. 105-35. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991.


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