Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1070
Arthur Morrison 1863-1945
English novelist, journalist, and short story writer.
Morrison's literary reputation is for the most part based on his realistic novels and short stories about London slum life, of which the most prominent was A Child of the Jago. In addition, much of his body of work is detective fiction that is openly derivative of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. Possessed of a wide and free-ranging curiosity, Morrison wrote both fiction and nonfiction works on diverse subjects, from Japanese art to occultism, and participated in the life of English belles lettres well into the Second World War.
Morrison was born in London's East End slums on 1 November 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 and thorough under-standing of slum life in his work. Commentators consider it likely that he was largely, if not entirely self-educated. In 1886, at the age of twenty-three, Morrison 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 die Globe as well. His East En d sketch, "A Street," published in Macmillan's Magazine in 1891, brought him some popular attention and the interest of William Ernest Henley, editor of the National Observer. Through Henley, Morrison met Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hardy, Robert Louis Stevenson, J. M. Barrie, and other literary figures of the time, and his work began to appear in the Observer regularly, with a collection of his short stories about London slum life, Tales of Mean Streets, appearing in 1894. In that same year, at a time when Conan Doyle had apparently ceased writing Sherlock Holmes stories, Morrison inaugurated a detective series of his own. The stories appeared in the Strand and Windsor and were collected in four volumes over the next few years. Morrison's career as a noted author who was engaged with the literary, trends of his time was founded on his 1896 novel, A Child of the Jago, the first of three novels based on East End slum life. By 1910, Morrison's interest in literature had fallen off. Through Henley, he acquired a taste for Eastern art, especially Japanese painting and printmaking. Morrison 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 and went on to serve on its council for a time, and Morrison eventually became a professional art dealer. He died in 1945 at the age of eighty-two.
Morrison's works are best understood as falling into three main categories: realistic East End chronicles, detective stories, and nonfiction studies on various subjects. Morrison's first fiction collection, Tales of Mean Streets, brought him to the attention of Reverend A. Osborne Jay, a priest who invited him to visit his East End parish and witness the conditions there for himself. Out of this series of visits Morrison produced his most famous and best-received novel, the unsentimental A Child of the Jago, a bleak account of the plight of the urban poor trapped in crime-ridden slums by social forces beyond their control or understanding. Its appearance fed into the ongoing controversy over literary realism, a debate involving such authors as Stephen Crane and Emile Zola. Morrison went on to produce two more East End novels: To London Town, about middle-class life on the outskirts of London, and the much-praised The Hole in the Wall, set in a public house on the lawless Radliffe Highway. The next major category of Morrison's works, his detective fiction, began in 1894, when Morrison responded to the death of Sherlock Holmes (in Conan Doyle's story "The Final Problem") with a sleuth of his own, the private investigator Martin Hewitt, whose various adventures were published in the Strand (occasionally with illustrations by Sidney Paget, illustrator for Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories) and in Windsor Magazine. The Hewitt stories were collected in four volumes: Martin Hewitt, Investigator, Chronicles of Martin Hewitt, Adventures of Martin Hewitt, and The Red Triangle . Hewitt, while as perceptive, reserved, unsentimental, and eclectically erudite as Holmes, was much more a man of the crowd, average in appearance, temperament, and demeanor, a former solicitor's clerk who found his personality and inclination better suited to private investigation. Nonetheless, Hewitt's cases were just as bizarre and exotic as any of Holmes's: Hewitt hunts up clues underwater in a diving suit in "The Nicobar Bullion Case"; solves "The Case of the Lost Foreigner," in which anarchists are out to destroy civilization with bombs concealed in loaves of bread, by interpreting the doodles of an aphasie and agraphic character; and, in "The Case of the Missing Hand," puts his knowledge of Romany, the language of the Gypsies, to good use. Morrison made two other forays into the detective field, the first: The Dorrington Deed-Box, which introduces the quasi-criminal antihero Dorrington, and The Green Eye of Goona, a pastiche of Wilkie Collins's The Moon-Stone (1868). The third main category of Morrison's works comprise a series of non-fiction works, several of which reflected his growing interest in Japanese art, including Exhibition of Japanese Screens Painted by the Old Masters, The Painters of Japan, and Guide to an Exhibition of Japanese and Chinese Paintings. Of these, his two-volume Painters of Japan was a primary reference work for decades to follow.
Although he was accused of morbidly overemphasizing the gloomier and more fatalistic side of East End life, Morrison received considerable praise and attention for his collection Tales of Mean Streets, considering how little-known was his previous work. Similarly, A Child of the Jago figured significantly in an ongoing debate about literary realism and was both esteemed and criticized for its grimly vivid depictions of the bleakness and the squalor of his characters' lives. Of all his realistic novels, only The Hole in the Wall received unreserved critical approval, which was matched by popular success. 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 Morrison's work has fallen into undeserved obscurity and merits serious reconsideration.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 134
The Shadows around Us, Authentic Tales of the Supernatural (nonfiction) 1891
Martin Hewitt, Investigator (short stories) 1894
Tales of Mean Streets (short stories) 1894
Chronicles of Martin Hewitt (short stories) 1895
Zig-Zags at the Zoo (short stories) 1895
Adventures of Martin Hewitt (short stories) 1896
A Child of the Jago (novel) 1896
The Dorrington Deed-Box (short stories) 1897
To London Town (novel) 1899
Cunning Murrell (novel) 1900
The Hole in the Wall (novel) 1902
The Red Triangle: Being Some Further Chronicles of Martin Hewitt, Investigator (short stories) 1903
The Green Eye of Goona (novel) 1904; also published as The Green Diamond
Divers Vanities (short stories) 1905
Green Ginger (short stories) 1909
Exhibition of Japanese Screens Painted by the Old Masters (criticism) 1910
The Painters of Japan. 2 vols, (criticism) 1911
Guide to an Exhibition of Japanese and Chinese Paintings (criticism) 1914
Fiddle O'Dreams (short stories) 1933
Short Stories of Today and Yesterday (short stories) 1929
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 459
SOURCE : A review of "Tales of Mean Streets," in The Bookman, Vol. 1, No. 1, February, 1895, pp. 121-22.
[The following review praises Morrison's Tales of Mean Streets.]
[Tales of Mean Streets] is an unmistakably strong book. The East End and its dwellers have never before been painted from the same standpoint, nor in so vigorous and independent a fashion. That it gives the inevitable picture which sojourners in the neighbourhood must carry away, we certainly do not assert. It is distinctly limited, but limited because its point of view is individual, its purpose scrupulously truthful. Mr. Morrison's intention has been to tell just what he has seen, idealising nothing and keeping back little. He has carried it out with a frankness which no doubt some readers will term brutal, and which certainly wants some courage to face. They are pictures of misery, cruelty, sordidness, he gives us for the most part, pictures rather than descriptions; the moral showman never appears at all to pull a long face, or shake his head, or say "How pitiful!" or "How wrong!" The reader is left to make his own reflections, and they will not be comfortable ones, on "Lizerunt," "Without Visible Means," and "On the Stairs." Mr. Morrison has plainly a bias; and who has not? With the right or wrong of that bias literary criticism has nothing to do, provided he give it logical and forcible expression. It is, however, perfectly legitimate to take objection to the long monotony of dreariness, which the slight facetiousness of "The Red Cow Group," the comic mixture of rascality and hysteria in "A Conversion," the patient pluck in "Three Rounds," and the grim independence of "Behind the Shade," are not enough, and hardly of a kind, to relieve. It is fair to say that there is something wanting in his picture—something pertaining to rational happiness and unselfish endeavour, which experience has led one to expect in streets however mean. We need not accept his as the whole picture, but who will dare to say it is not true in great part? The book is far from heartless; indeed, possibly it is just because the observer's feelings were not of that easy kind that can be relieved by mere words of pity that his stories are so grim and so ungenial. So much for the effect of the tales on our emotions. Regarded merely from the point of fiction, they are the work of an unusually vigorous writer, whose vision is clear and whose dramatic sense is vivid, and who, in putting his scenes and pictures into words, invariably takes the best and shortest way. An introduction has been written for the American edition; and a portrait of Mr. Morrison will be found among our News Notes.
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SOURCE : A review of "Tales of Mean Streets," in The Spectator, Vol. 74, No . 3480, March 9, 1895, pp. 329-30.
[In the following review, critic praises Tales of Mean Streets, but contends that Morrison's characters are not typical of London's East End dwellers.]
These tales [Tales of Mean Streets.] paint with a marvellous literary skill and force the life which the author by implication alleges to be the normal life of the London poor. Were this the East-End, the whole of the East-End, and were the East-End nothing but this, then indeed are we of all men most miserable. If the squalor, the cruelty, the drunkenness, the deadly and grinding monotony, the total lack of all that is wholesome and loveable in human nature, here so vividly depicted, were really typical of the poorer streets of London, we should have to admit that we are face to face with a moral situation as awful and as terrifying as any that the world has ever encountered. If "Lizerunt," the factory girl, and Billy, the man who lives on her and his mother, truly represented the people of the mean streets, and if the social and political forces now at work were giving us such people as their normal product, one must feel that our society is rotten to the core, and that the sooner it is smashed to atoms the better. But we do not believe that the life here set forth is typical, or that Billy is a normal character, and we venture to say that those who know the East-End at first hand, and who most deplore its miseries, would be the first to endorse this denial. We do not say that Mr. Morrison has not drawn from the life. He may have done so and yet not painted the typical East-Ender. What we assert is that he has taken the worst characters in Mr. Booth's Class A—the class of the semi-criminals and the morally and physically degraded—and has set them up, or appeared to set them up, as if they were truly representative of East London. But Class A, as Mr. Booth showed us, is only some 9 per cent, of the East End.
Let us show by quotation what sort of people are Lizerunt and Billy. Lizerunt (Elizabeth Hunt) worked in a pickle factory. She married late, i.e., at seventeen, Billy Chope, who supported life by taking from the widowed mother with whom and on whom he lived, the proceeds of her mangling. When he married Lizerunt, after a courtship in which knocking her down and kicking her was an episode, he had two women to provide money for him instead of one, and this suited him exactly. He grudged Lizerunt her babies, however, as they kept her from work. At last his mother began to sicken, and, as the poor will, developed the instinct of saving enough money to bury her. Billy found the little hoard and seized it—
"'No, Billy, don't take that—don't!' implored his mother. 'There'll be some money for them things when they go 'ome—'ave that. I'm savin' it, Billy, for something partic'ler: s'elp me Gawd, I am, Billy.'—'Yus,' replied Billy, raking diligently among the clinkers, 'savin' it for a good ol' booze. An' now you won't 'ave one. Bleedin' nice thing, 'iding' money away from yer own son!'—'It ain't for that, Billy—s'elp me, it ain't; it's case anythink 'appens to me. On'y to put me away decent, Billy, that's all. We never know, an' you'll be glad of it t'elp bury me if I should go any time—'—'I'll be glad of it now,' answered Billy, who had it in his pocket; 'an' I've got it. You ain't a dyin' sort, you ain't; an' if you was, the parish 'ud soon tuck you up. P'raps you'll be straighter about money after this.'—'Let me 'ave some, then—you can't want it all. Give me some, an' then 'ave the money for the things. There's ten dozen and seven, and you can take 'em yerself if yo like.'—'Wot—in this 'ere rain? Not me! I bet I'd 'ave the money if I wanted it without that. 'Ere—change these 'ere fardens at the draper's wen you go out: there's two bob's worth an' a penn'orth; I don't want to bust my pockets wi' them.'"
That is how Billy treated his mother. How he treated his wife while she was expecting her first baby, is told in the previous chapter. Billy kicks Lizerunt because she will not give him money, and then goes out. By the time he comes back the baby is born. After looking at it he asks, "Where's my dinner?"—
"'I dunno,' Lizer responded hazily. 'Wot's the time?'—'Time? Don't try to kid me. You git up; go on. I want my dinner.'—'Mother's gittin' it, I think,' said Lizer. 'Doctor had to slap 'im like anything 'fore 'e'd cry. 'E don't cry now much. 'E—'—'Go on; out ye git. I do'want no more damn jaw. Git my dinner.'—'I'm a-gitting of it, Billy,' his mother said, at the door. She had begun when he first entered. 'It won't be a minute.'—'You come 'ere; y'aint alwis s' ready to do er' work are ye? She ain't no call to stop there no longer, an' I owe 'er one for this mornin.' Will ye git out, or shall I kick ye?'—'She can't Billy,' his mother said. And Lizer snivelled and said, 'You're a damn brute. Y'ought to be bleedin' well booted.' But Billy had her by the shoulders and began to haul; and again his mother besought him to remember what he might bring upon himself. At this moment the doctor's dispenser, a fourth-year London Hospital student of many inches, who had been washing his hands in the kitchen, came in. For a moment he failed to comprehend the scene. Then he took Billy Chope by the collar, hauled him pellmell along the passage, kicked him (hard) into the gutter, and shut the door. When he returned to the room, Lizer, sitting up and holding on by the bedframe, gasped hysterically: 'Ye bleedin' makeshift, I'd 'ave yer liver out if I could reach ye! You touch my 'usband, ye long pisenin' 'ound you! Ow!' Arid, infirm of aim, she flung a cracked teacup at his head. Billy's mother said, 'Y'ought to be ashamed of yourself, you low blaggard. If 'is father was alive 'e'd knock yer 'ead auf. Call yourself a doctor—a passel o' boys—! Git out! Go out'o my 'ouse or I'll give y'in charge!'
This is no doubt in one sense a true description, but is only true of a small and exceptional class in the East-End. It requires, however, a certain effort not to regard it as typical as well as true. If we read a vivid account of the cruel and savage husband in Mayfair we recognise easily enough that he is not a type of the West-End husband. We know, however, so little of East-End life at first-hand that we are apt to treat everything depicted with an East-End atmosphere as typical. It is the mistake of the traveller also who goes to the East and happens, as he well may, on some accidental and occasional piece of humanity or cruelty, as the case may be. Down it goes in his note-book as an instance of normal Arab goodness or wickedness, and unless he is able to live down this impression he is apt to think of "all Eastern peoples" as tinged with the particular vice or virtue which he came across in so sensational a way. But it may be said that Mr. Morrison does not merely paint East London by striking and sensational stories. In his introduction, he gives us a general description of the moral atmosphere of the mean streets. True, the effect of this general description seems hardly less appalling than that produced by the more dramatic portions of the book. Here is the description of the normal day in the street, and every day is normal. First comes the calling of the men by the policeman:—
"The knocking and the shouting pass, and there comes the noise of opening and shutting of doors, and a clattering away to the docks, the gasworks and the shipyards. Later, more door-shutting is heard, and then the trotting of sorrow-laden little feet along the grim street to the grim Board School three grim streets off. Then silence, save for a subdued sound of scrubbing here and there, and the puny squall of croupy infants. After this, a new trotting of little feet to docks, gasworks, and shipyards with father's dinner in a basin and a red handkerchief, and so to the Board School again. More muffled scrubbing and more squalling, and perhaps a feeble attempt or two at decorating the blankness of a square hole here and there by pouring water into a grimy flower-pot full of dirt. Then comes the trot of little feet toward the oblong holes, heralding the slower tread of sooty artisans; a smell of bloater up and down; nightfall; the fighting of boys in the street, perhaps of men at the corner near the beer-shop; sleep. And this is the record of a day in this street; and every day is hopelessly the same."
The children of the street and the life they lead wail in undertone in Mr. Morrison's description:—
"There is no house without children in this street, and the number of them grows ever and ever greater. Nine-tenths of the doctor's visits are on this account alone, and his appearances are the chief matter of such conversation as the women make across the fences. One after another the little strangers come, to live through lives as flat and colourless as the day's life in this street. Existence dawns, and the doctor-watchman's door knock resounds along the row of rectangular holes. Then a muffled cry announces that a small new being has come to trudge and sweat its way in the appointed groove. Later, the trotting of little feet and the school; the mid-day play hour, when love peeps even into this street; after that more trotting of little feet—strange little feet, new little feet—and the scrubbing, and the squalling, and the barren flower-pot; the end of the sooty day's work; the last home-coming; nightfall; sleep."
Mr. Morrison will not even let us hope that his mean street is the exception. It is the rule—
"Where in the East End lies this street? Everywhere. The hundred-and-fifty yards is only a link in a long and a mightily tangled chain—is only a turn in a tortuous maze. This street of the square holes is hundreds of miles long. That it is planned in short lengths is true, but there is no other way in the world that can more properly be called a single street, because of its dismal lack of accent, its sordid uniformity, its utter remoteness from delight."
So convincing and so excellent is Mr. Morrison's art, that it requires no small effort to pull oneself together, and ask again,—Is this true, and is it indeed a fact that all East London has upon it the weight of twenty Atlantics of grim, grimy, sordid, impenetrable, hopeless, helpless misery? We believe that it is not true. We shall be told that we are drugging a middle-class conscience in denying its truth, but we deny it. We believe that Mr. Morrison, like so many men before him, has painted his mean street in these hues of gloom and wretchedness, because he has imported into it the ideas of his own class. What the highly-educated and cultivated man of letters at this century's end dreads above all things is dull monotony. A life which does not run glittering like a brook in the open sunshine is not merely unblest, but the most terrifying, the most awful of earthly ills. Than that, he would rather face anything. But the plain men and women of this workaday world, though they may like a holiday and a spree, have no such horror of monotony. Their nerves are not shaken with wild vibrations by the dread of a yesterday, a to-day, and a to-morrow, which know no change. Besides, A's monotony is always more appalling to B than B's own. X, a head-clerk in the City, goes to the Bank every day by the same 'bus, and will do so till the unknown day on which each and every City man hails his last 'bus. This is monotony indeed; yet that very man heartily pities the eating-house waiter who spends his life calling out "a sausage on mash." Examine Mr. Morrison's account closely, and it is clear that the monotony is what horrifies him. But that monotony Providence has inexorably fixed on the shoulders of ninety-nine-hundredths of the human race. Can the results achieved by the one man in a hundred who escapes the monotony of existence be said to prove that life is necessarily better when unmonotonous?
But we must not seem to write as if we thought the life of the mean streets a desirable one. God knows there is much there to be morally and physically mended. The ugliness and griminess of life in the East-End is a great and terrible evil. We have no sort of sympathy with those who talk as if the ugliness and the grime did not matter.
They do matter; and it is not too much to say that the men and women who are reared, not in the woods and fields, but in the East-End as it is at present, cannot grow to perfection. For that reason we would do everything that communal effort can do to combat the dirt and the sordidness. And, first, the fog and the smoke. While London pours coal grit on its own head day after day, the poorer Londoners can never know the pleasure of cleanliness and fresh air. By all means let us abate the evils of London life, but do not let us delude ourselves into imagining that half London is inhabited by a race of Yahoos.
A last word as to Mr. Morrison's book as a whole. What we have said must not be taken in the least as said in depreciation of his art. He is a writer of great power. Again, we have not the least wish to speak as if he were deluding consciously the public into taking too black a view of the East-End. He is merely a painter who draws sombre subjects and works in sombre colours. To point this out, and to add that nevertheless the world is not a place without light and sunshine, is not to impeach either his art or his sincerity.
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SOURCE : "A Slum Novel," in The Saturday Review, New York, Vol. 82, November 28, 1896, p. 573.
[In the following essay, Wells notes the shortcomings of A Child of the Jago, yet praises it as "admirably conceived and excellently written."]
The son of the alcoholic proletarian, the apparently exhausted topic of Dr. Barnardo, has suddenly replaced the woman with the past in the current novel. We have had him clothed in Cant as with a garment in the popular success of Cleg Kelly, and we have had him presented, out Mr.-Henry-James-ing Mr. Henry James in pursuit of the mot juste, in the amiable Sentimental Tommy. And two men of knowledge as well as ability have been dealing with him in the new spirit of sincerity. No doubt this is, as yet, but a beginning. Next year the artful publisher will be asking his young authors for books about poor boys born in sin and vermin and displaying with infinite pathos the stunted rudiments of a soul, and the still more artful bookseller will be passionately overstocking himself with innumerable imitations. It is indisputable that the rediscovery of Oliver Twist is upon us. The imitator, that pest of reviewers, that curse of literature, will catch him and keep him. After the fashion of these latter days, we shall all be heartily sick of him long before we are allowed to hear the last of him. So far, however, he has been a fairly interesting person.
A Child of the Jago is indeed indisputably one of the most interesting novels this year has produced. We have admired Mr. Morrison already for his "Lizer'unt"; we have disliked him for his despicable detective stories; and we will frankly confess we did not think him capable of anything nearly so good as this admirably conceived and excellently written story. It deals with a well-known corner of the East End, not only with extraordinary faithfulness, which indeed is attainable to any one reasonably clear of cant and indolence, but also with a really artistic sense of effect. It is beyond doubt that Mr. Morrison must be full of East End material, and never once through this book does he drop into the pitfall of reporting. A Child of the Jago is one of those rare and satisfactory novels in which almost every sentence has its share in the entire design.
The design, it must be confessed, is a little narrow. It is as if Mr. Morrison had determined to write of the Jago and nothing but the Jago. It is the Jago without relativity. The reader will remember the spacious effect at the end of Mr. Conrad's Outcast of the Islands, when Almayer shook his fist at the night and silence outside his sorrows. Mr. Morrison never gets that spacious effect, although he carries his reader through scenes that would light into grandeur at a glance, at the mere turn of a phrase. The trial scene of Josh Perrott for the murder of Weech, and the execution scene that follows, show this peculiar want of breadth in its most typical manner. Mr. Morrison sticks to Josh Perrott, hints vaguely at the judge, jerks with his thumb at the Royal Arms, moves his head indicative of policemen, as though he was uneasy in such company. The execution is got off in three pages with a flavour of having been written in a hurry, is, indeed, a mere sketch of one of the characters for the fuller picture there should have been. It seems all the slighter, because it comes immediately after an elaborately written murder, action as finely executed as one could well imagine, and just before the equally stirring concluding chapter, the killing of Dick Perrott in a street faction fight. Moreover, by this brevity the latter chapter is brought too close to the murder chapter. Instead of crest and trough, a rise and cadence of emotion, we end in a confusion, like water breaking on a rocky beach. Had the father and son been presented in antagonism with some clearly indicated creative and destroying force, with Destiny, with Society or with human Stupidity, the book might have concluded with that perfect unity of effect it needs and does not possess.
But this want is not a failure with Mr. Morrison so much as the expression of his peculiar mental quality. He sees the Jago, is profoundly impressed by the appearance of the Jago, renders its appearance with extraordinary skill. But the origin of the Jago, the place of the Jago in the general scheme of things, the trend of change in it, its probable destiny—such matters are not in his mind. Here, perhaps, is his most fundamental utterance, àpropos of a birth:—
Father Sturt met the surgeon as he came away in the later evening, and asked if all were well. The surgeon shrugged his shoulders. 'People would call it so,' he said. 'The boy's alive, and so is the mother. But you and I may say the truth. You know the Jago far better than I. Is there a child in all this place that wouldn't be better dead—still better unborn? But does a day pass without bringing you just such a parishioner? Here lies the Jago, a nest of rats, breeding, breeding, as only rats can; and we say it is well. On high moral grounds we uphold the right of rats to multiply their thousands. Sometimes we catch a rat. And we keep it a little while, nourish it carefully, and put it back into the nest to propagate its kind.'
Father Sturt walked a little way in silence. Then he said: 'You are right, of course. But who'll listen, if you shout it from the housetops? I might try to proclaim it myself, if I had time and energy to waste. But I have none—I must work, and so must you. The burden grows day by day, as you say. The thing's hopeless, perhaps, but that is not for me to discuss. I have my duty.'
The surgeon was a young man, but Shoreditch had helped him over most of his enthusiasms. 'That's right,' he said, 'quite right. People are so very genteel, aren't they?' He laughed, as at a droll remembrance. 'But, hang it all, men like ourselves needn't talk as though the world was built of hardbake. It's a mighty relief to speak truth with a man who knows—a man not rotted through with sentiment. Think how few men we trust with the power to give a fellow-creature a year in gaol, and how carefully we pick them! Even damnation is out of fashion, I believe, among theologians. But any noxious wretch may damn human souls to the Jago, one after another, year in and year out, and we respect his right—his sacred right.'
There speaks Mr. Morrison. It is practical on the face of it, and quite what would occur to a man looking so nearly at Whitechapel that the wider world where the races fight together was hidden. But the fact is that neither ignorance, wrong moral suggestions, nor parasites are inherited; the baby that survives in the Jago must needs have a good physique, the Jago people are racially indistinguishable from the people who send their children to Oxford, and the rate of increase of the Jago population is entirely irrelevant to the problem. The Jago is not a "black inheritance," it is a black contagion—which alters the whole problem. An d Mr. Morrison knocks his surgeon's case entirely to pieces by his own story; for he shows, firstly, in Mrs . Perrott that to come into the Jago is to assimilate one-self to the Jago; and, secondly, in Kiddo Cook, that a vigorous, useful citizen may come out of it.
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SOURCE : A review of "A Child of the Jago," in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, Vol. 160, December, 1896, pp. 841-44.
[In the following essay, the critic questions why the reading public would want to expose itself to the "den of horrors" detailed in A Child of the Jago.]
Mr Arthur Morrison's work [A Child of the Jago] is [a] development of the New School. It is not a piece of deliberately constructed pessimism (which is the fashionable word), like the horrible story of the Carissima, in which there is so little trace of a real story to tell, or any natural impulse, and so much of elaborate manufacture. Mr Morrison's method is different. He does not attempt to horrify us by the sudden apparition of the demon under an exterior made up of all the attractive graces. There is nothing attractive at all in the world which he opens to our gaze. It is a world without hope or desire of any fair or pleasant thing, knowing nothing but the foullest sediment of existence, unable to conceive of anything better—brutal, filthy, miserable, yet in a measure content. The "Mean Streets" of his former work were meaner, more squalid and horrible even, than the reality, terrible to contemplate, and madding to think of. It is strange to think upon what rule it is that pictures like these please the imagination, and are received by so many in the character of an entertainment, a portion of the relaxation of life. It may be well that we should see how another part of the world lives; and indeed the reports of some benevolent societies afford here and there similar stories, told without skill, as bare records of fact, which make little impression, and which we may glance over for duty, but certainly not for refreshment. In these publications, however, the "cases" are generally exceptional, and we are not called upon to accept them as the ordinary level of life.
But Mr Morrison's narratives are professedly on that level, and the scenes he puts before us are too foul for any imagination, and, in all their horrible details, must either be fact or a lie, since no one, we imagine, could invent them. What are they for? to make us all a kind of missionaries, impelled by disgust and horror, if by no better motive? If that were so, they might be justified—nay, might be better than the most weighty and powerful arguments. But we know that at least in many dens of London, if not in the particular Mean Streets here illustrated, the missionaries, whether of religion, or of scrutiny, or of benevolence, jostle each other already, and send out appeals and demands without cease. Are we then to take these doubtful tales for amusement? France has accepted a similar kind of amusement from M. Zola; but only when highly spiced with vice and the peculiar kind of garbage upon which the French novel-reader has chosen to feed. Seldom, however, does the historian of the Jago bring in this element to make his horrors palatable. He shows us all the uncleannesses of the streets excepting that. So far as we can recollect the appalling sketch called 'Leizerunt in the Mean Streets,' in which the brutality becomes tragic and so almost justifies itself, is the only one in which the great pollution of all is so much as referred to. Sheer filth, misery, blows, and bloodshed, hunger, squalor, nakedness, cold, and filth again—the lowest depths to which human creatures can fall—are the subjects, the atmosphere, the meaning of these tales. To read A Child of the Jago is voluntarily to place yourself in a spot reeking with every odious smell and sight, among savages whose sole instruction is how to thieve, and whose children are as proud of their first efforts in stealing as others are of a successful lesson or a prize won. What can be more extraordinary than that we should receive these disclosures as a source of recreation and relaxation to our own minds, to occupy our lighter hours and charm our weariness? In the days which are now old-fashioned we used to be warned against the "sensibility" which wept over fictitious distresses, but rarely, so said our mentors, was moved thereby to any act of charity. What shall we say for the fictitious horrors which are now pressed upon us for pleasure? But perhaps Mr Morrison will say that he does not wish to please, but only to exhibit another phase of life.
We are glad to say that we have been assured, by an authority very well qualified to speak on the subject, that such a den of horrors as the Jago is so little common that she, with an immense experience of the slums, finds it difficult to believe in its existence,—from which so much comfort as is practicable may be taken. Mr Morrison, however, gives us a map of the district in which that region of utter lawlessness, intestine warfare, crime, and savagery is to be found; where two factions, men and women, fight to the death periodically without interposition of the police, sometimes even killing, often wounding and maiming, each other, quite unchecked by the law. He even gives us chapter after chapter descriptive of these illustrious fights, and the Homeric encounters of the Ranns and the Learys, with wild interludes of single combat led by the bleeding furies Norah Welsh and Sally Green. In the midst of all these horrors there arises a little boy, an imp so far contradictory of his "environment" that, though the commandment has been read to him, Thou shalt steal, and he feels the excitement of his first achievement in this way, and of the pursuit and flight that follow, to be glorious,—is all the same a fresh little dutiful soul out of heaven, knowing no evil, and full of love, obedience, and trust. Dicky is born to steal and fight, as other boys are to be good and get on in the world. He knows no other way, until it is suddenly revealed to him that there is such a thing as working and getting wages, an alternative which he embraces with his whole heart, though without any sort of conviction that it is more virtuous; but thieving is precarious and its rewards irregular, and the serving of the shop, and its protection from all predatory prowlers, is infinitely elevating and delightful. Poor Dicky is slandered by a diabolical "fence," or receiver of stolen goods, who fears his talents are to be lost to his natural profession, and thus is plunged again into the vile current from which he has almost escaped; but he is no less an innocent and naturally honest child, because he is a poor little thief, bound by both hatred and love, such love as is possible in the Jago, to its horrible lot. This strange problem Mr Morrison has worked out very tenderly and pathetically. His little hero is in no way superior to his surroundings, has no aspirations after excellence, no dreams of either cleanliness or godliness; yet the little soul in that human hell has still a faint trail of the light that came with him from a brighter world.
It is a pity that Josh Perrott, the father, should follow so closely in the steps of Bill Sykes, who did it better—both the flight over the housetops and the rest. But the murder for a moment raises the Jago and its dreadful inhabitants into something like humanity. We cannot say very much for the Parson, whose figure is visionary, and whose muscular Christianity seems somehow out of date, a thing which has gone by, which indeed is quite true, though perhaps a pity. Let us hope that Father Sturt will yet get possession of his uneasy parish, and, aided by all the new lodging-houses, succeed in clearing out the Jago. But it will be to little purpose, we fear. The rooks disturbed will cluster anew in some other rookery. They will find the half-ruinous houses, the familiar dirt, in some other quarter, and the new tenements will receive another class. Will it ever be possible, driving them thus out of one hole of misery into another, to wear away these dreadful tribes altogether? Who can tell? But the prospect seems an unlikely one.
We have an apology to make to Mr Morrison. His motto shows that it is not without purpose that he has taken up this subject. But perhaps when a writer quotes from the prophet Ezekiel to show his motive, it would be better for him to put his work in another form. Fiction is scarcely the medium for a lesson taught in such miserable detail, and in colours so dark and terrible. It is a gruesome book to sit down to by the fireside after a day's work, when our minds require repose rather than stirring up to a consideration of the most bitter of problems. Perhaps he thinks it is the best way to seize the attention of the frivolous public; but we think he is mistaken, and that, however much he may secure it, very little practical service will come from the people who are thus beguiled into a lesson, and that of the most serious kind, when they expected entertainment. It is not in this way, we fear, that any practical good is to be done. An d in these days the public is not by any means exclusively devoted to fiction as the sort of sugar adapted to coat a pill. On the contrary, the gentlest of readers prefers to be seen with Nordau, or Kidd, or Pearson, quite superior kinds of literature, upon her table. An d there is a great future before the man who will expound to us with all the guarantees of fact, and for some real purpose, those scenes to which we highly object when they are served up for our amusement. Then Mr. Morrison will no longer need to give point to his story with an episode à la Bill Sykes.
But we advise him in the meantime to study the Parson of to-day with diligence. He is by no means the Parson of yesterday, but a very different person. Muscular Christianity has, we fear, much disappeared from the Mean Streets; but there are other powers at work of much potency and well worth expounding. Do they accomplish as much as the cost of personal outlay and endurance warrants? We know not. When Mr Rudyard Kipling with his keen eyes descended into the slums, of which, indeed, in the nature of things (so far as that is of any avail with a born See-er) he ought to have known nothing, he found there a Catholic priest, an Anglican curate, and certain women, all fighting the devil in their several ways. Was it merely from the exigencies of art that he placed them there? Is it with respect to the exigencies of another kind of art that Mr Morrison keeps them out? Facts apparently, so far as we are able to get at them, and with our imperfect means of sifting and verifying them, are on the side of the angels, so to speak, and reveal a web of closely woven agencies penetrating everywhere, or almost every where, in that dark world. Fiction has the great disadvantage as an expositor that we never can be quite sure that it does not add a light, or heap on a darkness, almost involuntarily in the interest of its picture. We should very much like to know which is true.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2121
SOURCE : "An East End Novelist," in The Living Novel & Later Appreciations, revised edition, 1964. Reprint by Vintage Books, 1967, pp. 206-12.
[In the following essay, which was first published in 1947, Pritchett praises Morrison's realistic storytelling.]
"And the effect is as of stables." My eye has been often baffled by lack of the word which would define the poor streets of the East End, as they used to be before the last war; and here in Arthur Morrison's Tales of Mean Streets which were written in 1894,1 find it. Those acres of two-story houses which lay below the level of the railway arches of Bethnal Green and which stood like an alien stretch of unfeatured plowing beyond the Commercial Road, are particularized at last. The mind has won a foothold in a foreign city.
For, east of Aldgate, another city begins. London flattens and sinks into its clay. Over those lower dwellings the London sky, always like a dirty window, is larger; the eyes and hands of people are quicker, the skins yellower, the voices are as sharp as scissors. Every part of London has its smell, and this region smells of rabid little shops, bloated factories, sublet workrooms and warehouse floors; there is also the smell of slums, a smell of poverty, racy but oftener sour; and mingling with these working odors, there arises an exhalation of the dirty river which, somewhere behind these streets and warehouses and dock walls, is oozing toward the flats of the Thames estuary like a worm. The senses and the imagination of the stranger are so pricked by this neighborhood that he quickly gets a fevered impression of it; it will seem dingier or more exotic than it really is. And when we turn to literature for guidance, we are even less sure of what we see. For the literature of the East End is very largely a stranger's literature. It lies under the melodramatic murk and the smear of sentimental pathos, which, in the nineteenth century, were generated by the guilty conscience of the middle classes. They were terrified of the poor who seethed in a trough just beyond their back door. The awful Gothic spectacle of hunger, squalor and crime was tolerable only as nightmare and fantasy—such as Dickens provided—and the visiting foreigner alone could observe the English slums with the curiosity of the traveler or the countenance of the anthropologist. And there was another difficulty. Philanthropy, for all its humbug, did slowly have its effect on the public conscience in every generation, so that it was genuinely possible to say "things have changed." The Ratcliffe Highway went. Limehouse had been purged, and there arose a romantic literature of the East End, based on a riotous evocation of the bad old times. The stranger's literature was the literature of a time which first strengthened morale by giving the reader a fright, and then went on to make the fright pious, sentimental and picturesque.
But what of the literature written from within the East End, the really saturated literature which has been lived before it has been written? For many years now, in accounts of the realism which came into fashion at the time of Gissing, I had noticed a recurring title: Tales of Mean Streets, by Arthur Morrison, and lately I have been put on to The Hole in the Wall and Child of the Jago by the same author. They are written from the inside and they have extraordinary merit; The Hole in the Wall strikes me as being one of the minor masterpieces of the last sixty years. It has the kind of fidelity to scene that the modern documentary writers have sought, yet is never flattened, as their work is, by concern for conditions; let us not allow "conditions" to deflate the imagination or argue away the novelist's chief delight and greatest difficulty: the art of constructing and telling a story complete in itself. For unless he learns this art, a novelist neutralizes his power of observation, his power to observe more than one thing at a time, his power of writing on different planes and varying perspectives, and discriminating among the accumulated incrustations of fact that clog an impressionable mind. Arthur Morrison had this power. "Conditions" were in his bones; his books stand apart from the worthy and static pathos of Gissing, from the character albums of the writers of low comedy, from the picturesque and the nightmare schools. Mr. Morrison's early novels and sketches are often modest in their art, like the work of someone learning to write, but they have an anthropological drama of their own, and, at any rate, are not more awkward than Bennett's Tales of the Five Towns. What is missing from these novels is the modern novelist's sardonic exposure of the economic rackets which make the poor man poor; the brutality of poverty is subject enough for Mr. Morrison. A book like Child of the Jago, the story of a young thief in Bethnal Green, shows a sharp-eyed and intimate knowledge of how East End society used to behave as a society, of how it used to deploy its cunning and uphold its customs. Injustice is done and the President of the Immortals has already abandoned the hopeless scene to the human instinct of self-preservation when Mr. Morrison comes in to record it. Out comes the cosh, the street wars begin, the half-naked harpies run at each other with broken bottles, the pimps and fences step over the bodies of the drunks who lie, pockets turned inside out, in the gutters. It's a world of sullen days in backrooms with the baby lying half dead on the bed and the hungry women gaping listlessly at the empty cupboards, while the men go out in search of loot and drink and come back with their eyes blackened and their belts ready to flay the undeserving family. I have picked out the seamier side of Child of the Jago not to gloat over the horrors but to indicate the material. Such incidents are not raked into the book without discrimination; these novels are not pools of self-pity in the Gissing manner; nor are they worked up with that sadistic touch of angry ecstasy which Dickens brought to his pictures of poverty. In Mr. Morrison's book slum life is the accepted life, a dirty but not a turgid stream. In their position, you say—as one ought to say of all human beings—these people have lived, they've kept their heads above water for a spell. Man is the animal who adapts himself.
Child of the Jago describes the brutal, drunken, murderous London of the late nineteenth century which used to shatter the visiting foreigner and send him home marveling at English violence and English hypocrisy. Its picture of the street wars is unique. The Hole in the Wall raises this material to a far higher plane of narrative. Here is a thriller set in Dockland, where the filthy river, its fogs and its crimes, stain the mind as they did in Our Mutual Friend. Every gas-lit alley leads abruptly to some dubious business. The average thriller takes us step by step away from probability. It strains away from likelihood. The Hole in the Wall belongs to the higher and more satisfying kind, which conducts us from one unsuspected probability to the next. Mr. Morrison has employed what is, I suppose, the classical method of writing this kind of book; he shows us the story mainly through the eye of a young boy. The child goes to live with his grandfather who keeps a pub at Wapping and there he gradually discovers that his heroic grandfather is really a receiver of stolen goods. The old man comes by a wallet containing £800 which has been robbed from a defaulting ship-owner—who has been murdered—and the plot is made out of the attempts of various criminal characters to get this money back. The merit of the book lies in its simple but careful reconstruction of the scene—the pubs and gin shops of the Old Ratcliffe Highway, the locks and swing bridges, the alleys and gateways of Dockland with their police notices, the riverside jetties and their lighters, the way over the marshes to the lime kilns. I take it to be a mark of the highest skill in this kind of novel that nothing is mentioned which will not have, eventually, an importance to the tale; and that the motives for action arise in the characters and are not imposed on them by the need of working up a mystery and creating suspense. We do not know what their next step will be, because these people are still ruminating upon it themselves. Marr, the absconding shipowner, disguises himself as a sailor, but forgets that he will blab if he gets drunk; Dan Ogle who merely intends to take his watch, gradually sees that murder will be necessary if the £800 is to be taken; the blind fiddler who does not mind very much being double-crossed, thinks otherwise when he is assaulted and ridiculed as well as cheated. An d Mr. Morrison succeeds with them because he shows them to us, first of all as ordinary shady characters muddling along the path of shifty illegality, and then suddenly faced by a new, a more terrible temptation and jumping at it.
The Hole in the Wall moves calmly from one major scene to the next; there is no sagging of the narrative. We see Marr, stunned and tottering, led like a broken marionette between his murderers. They are bawling at the tops of their voices so that, in the night, passersby will think they are drunken sailors helping a pal, instead of murderers, dragging an almost lifeless body to the river. We see the body fished out—and what a remarkable piece of description that is. It "tells"—as Henry James used to say—because of the very homeliness of the boy's narrative. (There is a lesson to the modern tough writers here. They lose their effect because they are tough all the time. They do not allow us to have the homely, frightened, law-abiding emotions. They do not allow us the manly fear, and they lose the interest of moral conflict.) And then there is the tremendous scene where the blind fiddler takes his revenge on Ogle, the murderer. He is hiding in a lime quarry. At night the fiddler gropes across the marshes to the shed where Ogle is sleeping:
He had been gone no more than a few seconds, when the snore stopped. It stopped with a thump and a gasp, and a sudden buffeting of legs and arms; and in the midst arose a cry; a cry of so hideous an agony that Grimes the wharf-keeper, snug in his first sleep fifty yards away, sprang erect and staring in bed, and so sat motionless for half a minute ere he remembered his legs and thrust them out to carry him to the window. And the dog on the wharf leaped the length of its chain, answering the cry with a torrent of wild barks.
Floundering and tumbling against the frail boards of the shed the two men came out at the door in a struggling knot; Ogle wrestling and striking at random, while the other, cunning with a life's blindness, kept his own head safe and hung as a dog hangs to a bull. His hands gripped his victim by ear and hair, while the thumbs drove at the eyes the mess of smoking lime that clung and dripped about Ogle's head. It trickled burning through his hair and it blistered lips and tongue, as he yelled and yelled again in the extremity of his anguish.
The blind man had blinded his persecutor.
One puts the book down looking back on the ground it has covered, seeing how economically it implanted that sinister Dockland of the eighties on the mind, with a simple warmth and precision; how it mocked the little criminals, and then, suddenly, struck out into the squalor behind the drink in the snug bar and the bawling songs in the upper room; and how finally it pierced one with human fear and horror, without once cutting adrift from probability and an identifiable daily life. It is a masterly course, sustained, calm and never exaggerated. The style is a little old-fashioned, but it never scuttles away for safety into period dress. There was a London like this—we are convinced—mean, clumsy and hungry, murderous and sentimental. Those shrieks were heard. There were those even more disturbing silences in the night. Dockland, where the police used to go in threes, has its commemoration.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4733
SOURCE : "Arthur Morrison," in Four Realist Novelists, Longmans, Green & Co., 1965, pp. 7-20.
[In the following essay, Brome discusses the realism of Morrison's novels that depict the lives of London's poor.]
A cloud of self-induced obscurity surrounds the life of Arthur Morrison, that small master among the group of English novelists who concentrated their attention on the working classes in their East End milieu during the late nineteenth century. The Times obituary about him is a bewildered piece of writing. A few lines giving the barest bones of his life are overwhelmed by a laboured examination of his work. According to Morrison himself, he was born in Kent in 1863, but his birth certificate places him immutably in the East End of London. His father he described as an engineer, but he was in fact an engine fitter. Professionally, he identified himself, later in life, as a civil servant and this may be considered a legitimate extension of the fact that he helped to run the People's Palace, a charitable 'mission' founded by Walter Besant in the East End of London in 1887. It was almost as if the man who so vividly evokes the horror, the poverty, the seaminess of late nineteenth century London, wanted to forget or run away from his roots.
His personality is similarly masked. Few interviews or sketches worthy of the name remain, and none reveals what manner of man he was, but there are hints in his contemporaries' comments of a touch of snobbery which might complicate his reasons for concealing his origins. He tired very soon of his life as 'a civil servant' and turned to journalism, becoming a member of the staff of a London daily newspaper. He married in 1892 Elizabeth Adelaide, the daughter of a Dover man. Their one son, Guy, died in 1921 of 'maladies consequent on his war service'. Morrison himself served as an inspector of special Constabulary during World War I, and had the curious distinction of telephoning the warning of the first Zeppelin raid on London. Little else of a personal nature has been recorded.
In 1892-3 he drew on his experiences of the East End to write a number of short stories the first of which, published in Macmillan's Magazine, attracted the attention of W. E. Henley, who was then steadily building up the reputation of the famous National Observer. Morrison wrote, at Henley's request, a number of new short stories which were gathered and published in one volume under the title Tales of Mean Streets in 1894, the year when Henley also discovered H. G. Wells. Perhaps it is irrelevant to ask for subtlety or depth of character in stories which set out brutally and bluntly to depict the darker side of life in the East End of London, but these early stories are not so effective as Morrison's first novel, A Child of the Jago, which appeared in 1896.
Morrison's intention in writing A Child of the Jago can be given in his own words: 'To tell the story of the horrible [Jago] … and of a boy who, but for his environment would have become a good citizen.' He sets the scene rapidly in the opening paragraphs:
It was past the mid of a summer night in the Old Jago. The narrow street was all the blacker for the lurid sky. … Below, the hot heavy air lay, a rank oppression, on the contorted forms of those who made for sleep on the pavement; and in it, and through it all, there rose, from the foul earth and grimed walls, a close, mingled stink—the odour of the Jago … there the Jago, for one hundred years the blackest pit in London, lay and festered.
Carefully avoided by most of those who came from the West End of London, the Jago was an awful Gothic spectacle of squalor, brutality and crime, which actually existed under another name in the East End of London, and many of its inhabitants knew what it meant to be driven by hunger into extreme behaviour.
A small boy, Dicky Perrott, streaks across this scene with the hunted vitality of a child whose wits have been sharpened beyond anything childhood should know, and whose spindly body is alive with the nervous tensions of desperate need. One day he stealthily insinuates himself into the ceremony of opening the new wing of the Institute, a procedure which allows Morrison fine scope for satirizing those West En d eminences, including a Bishop, who come to witness the results of their own charity and congratulate themselves on the wonderful effects of 'Pansophic Elevation' among the degraded classes. The canker in their midst, Dicky Perrot, hides himself behind the curtains of the room wherein the Bishop and other Eminences will retire to take tea after the ceremony. Presently the amiable Bishop, 'beaming over the tea-cup … at two courtiers of the clergy, bethought him of a dinner engagement and passed his hand downward over the rotundity of his waistcoat. "Dear, dear" said the Bishop glancing down suddenly, "Why—what's become of my watch".'
When Dicky Perrott bursts in on his family ten minutes later crying: 'Mother—Father—look! I done a click. I got a clock—a red un!'—he expects praise, but his father, carefully pocketing the watch, up-ends and beats him. From now on the horror of double-dealing, of dirt, crime and brutality grows as the novel unfolds scene after scene where gangwarfare outdoes in violence anything known today:
Down the middle of Old Jago Street came Sally Green: red-faced, stripped to the waist, dancing, hoarse and triumphant. Nail-scores wide as the finger striped her back, her face, and her throat, and she had a black eye; but in one great hand she dangled a long bunch of clotted hair, as she whooped defiance to the Jago. It was a trophy newly rent from the scalp of Norah Walsh, a champion of the Rann womanhood who had crawled away to hide her blighted head and be restored with gin.
Against this background, rendered with horrific detail, Dicky Perrott finds himself torn between Aaron Weech, the cunning fence who can dispose of anything so long as it is stolen, and Father Sturt, who gets Dicky a job as a shop-boy in the Bethnal Green Road and sets him on the path to respectability. Furious because he has lost a skilful child operator, Weech engineers the boy's dismissal and Dicky, once more the bewildered victim of forces he only dimly comprehends, drifts back to his old haunts and his old ways. Once again the Jago teaches him: 'Spare nobody and stop at nothing, for the Jago's got you, and it's the only way out except the gaol and the gallows.' In due course Josh Perrott, the father, murders Aaron Weech and Dicky is knifed in a street brawl. One solitary principle comes through the murk and the muck. When Dicky is dying Father Sturt asks him—'who did it?'—and he replies, 'Dunno Fa'er'. The lie—the staunch Jago lie. Thou shalt not nark.
Arthur Morrison developed into a distinguished practitioner of a new school of realism in English fiction which derived from Zola, Dickens and Gissing but in his hands became different from any of their work. Descriptions of slums and low life occur in Dickens, Charles Kingsley, Walter Besant and many others but Morrison disdained the quaintness of Dickens's slum characters and recoiled from any attempt to romanticise East End lives. He wanted to record the reality as it was.
Gissing in The Nether World gave a description of Pennyloaf Candy's terrible home in the East End of London which leads directly into Morrison's work, but Morrison carefully avoided the self-pity evident in much of Gissing's work:
In my East End stories 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.
There was no explicit moral anger in Morrison's work as there was with Dickens, and the French naturalism of Zola gave place to the empirical realism of England. The character which dominates A Child of the Jago is really the Jago itself. But it is presented without social comment, and for all the remorseless accuracy with which the author reveals every corner of this black and hopeless pit, he seldom suggests any explicit concern for its inhabitants. On the surface, Morrison seems to shrug his shoulders. Conditions are like this. Slum life has to be accepted and the destiny of those born within its precincts is played out under Morrison's direction with a dreadful inevitability. Take the dialogue in the first chapter of A Child of the Jago between Kiddo Cook and the stranger:
'Ah-h-h-', he said, 'I wish I was dead; and kep a cawfy shop.'
Kiddo Cook felt in his pocket, and produced a pipe and a screw of paper. 'This is a bleedin unsocial sort o'evenin' party, this is', he said. 'An ere's the on'y real toff in the mob with 'ardly a pipeful left, an' no lights. Dy'ear me lord',—leaning towards the dozing neighbour—'got a match?'
'O wot 'orrid langwidge … '
A lank elderly man who sat with his back to the wall, pushed up a battered tall hat from his eyes, and producing a box of matches exclaimed:
'Hell? And how far's that? You're in it … '
'Ah', Kiddo Cook remarked, as he lit his pipe in the hollow of his hands, 'that's a comfort Mr. Beveridge, anyhow.'
There is another element implicit in the book which tends to qualify its external realism. A black despair which verges upon hatred appears in over-emphasized descriptions, and bursts of emotion are sometimes expressed in acid sarcasm. For all his protestations, there are times when Morrison cannot keep his own feelings out of the book. Philanthropy and its half-sister charity may have brought about changes in the Jago, but they were full of smugness and humbug which Morrison exposes. His general method is to describe the surface reality in detail. He gets his effects by selecting and reiterating melodramatic episodes, but occasionally he goes beyond this naturalistic approach and ventures a moral judgement.
He did not create in Dicky Perrott a child as memorable as George Eliot's Maggie Tulliver because he deliberately foreswore insight into the hidden workings of character. In his view nature reacted on nature and produced a series of conditioned reflexes in Dicky Perrott. That was sufficient for him. The power of environment was more important than any hidden complex in the psychological makeup of the child.
It is possible to charge the method with superficiality. The wellsprings of human nature are subject to many complicated influences of which topographical environment is only one, if a major one, but it now becomes necessary to explore the theory of English realism in nineteenth-century fiction and its ancestor French naturalism.
One of the most repetitive and confused pieces of writing of which Zola was ever guilty, his prolonged essay, or series of interlocking essays, on 'The Experimental Novel' tries to relate the naturalistic school to the scientific method. It is a pity that no-one at that stage of critical history took the trouble to define clearly the differences between the words naturalistic, realistic and scientific, for the result was that the labels could sometimes be interchanged to the confusion of the whole scene. The main distinguishing feature between French 'naturalism' and English 'realism' was that French writers saw character and event as shaped by environment and other processes which could be scientifically defined. English writers tended to be interested in character as something essentially idiosyncratic, an end in itself, and action as often determined by the operations of chance.
What Zola meant by the école naturaliste can be stated fairly simply. Zola saw the late nineteenth century as an age of science, and believed that no subject which was not studied and developed according to the scientific method could claim attention as a serious branch of knowledge. The essence of the scientific method was centred on experiment, and as the scientist had passed from experiment in chemistry and physics to experiment in physiology, so the novelist must pass from the traditional novel to the experimental novel. He saw the novel partly as a means to social reform, and a moral element must therefore prevail in this new approach. The experimental novelist 'must do for man as a whole what the experimenting physiologist does for his body'. He would probe into inherited characteristics, take account of the influence of environment, dissect every action to discover its cause and effect and then, acknowledging the laws of scientific determinism, give an account from beginning to end of the interaction of mind, body and environment.
Strictly speaking, Zola was describing not the application of the scientific method to novel-writing but simply a new departure from an old creative tradition. Granted an overwhelming reverence for the new science, Zola wanted to make it part of literature, but there were only two points where they really met. First the rejection of the romantic tradition and the substitution of a realism which recorded what it saw no matter how nasty or sordid that reality turned out to be, and second, the belief that life and events were mechanistically determined. An experiment carried out under controlled conditions in the laboratory was very different from telling a story in a new way with more realistic observation. Zola wanted novels in future to be closely based on the realities of life and the underlying philosophy of scientific determinism. Henry Norman summed up the desired change in technique in the Fortnightly Review for 1 December 1883:
Do not contrive a complicated family or social puzzle of which your novel is to exhibit the process of solution, exhausting your ingenuity in making people misunderstand one another, and in placing obstacles in their way; but take a piece of real life for your basis and let your motives and means be those of our common existence.
The first translations of Zola's novels in England were received with disgust, and a public outcry led to the imprisonment in 1889 of his publisher, Vizetelly. For English readers, with their uneasy Victorian conscience, Zola had overstepped the borderline between the sordid and the pornographic. Always fascinated by the raw material of life, Zola had in fact set out to explore this in a series of novels telling the story of the Rougon-Macquart family and its enormous ramifications during the second Empire. This was intended to be not merely a picture of French life and society but also a study in heredity.
Arthur Morrison read La Terre, included in the second half of the series. It is almost certain that he also read Zola's rambling attempt to make a science of literature in The Experimental Novel, which was translated into English in 1893, the year before A Child of the Jago appeared. Literary periodicals in England also paid attention to the new French school and novels like George Moore's Esther Waters were stamped as naturalistic, but the growth of English realism had several distinguishing characteristics. It did not concern itself with science or the scientific method and in the hands of Morrison it had nothing to do with moralizing. Dickens had given it a peculiarly English twist by concentrating on 'characters' but neither Morrison nor Dickens accepted the assumption on which Naturalism as a literary movement was based—that man and his societies can be explained entirely in mechanistic or deterministic terms.
When challenged to explain the precise nature of his brand of realism, Morrison produced a rambling essay in the New Review for March 1897 which lost its way in an outburst of pique and failed to answer the question. Stung by an article in the Fortnightly, Morrison declared:
I decline the labels of the schoolmen and of the sophisters; being a simple writer of tales who takes whatever means lie to his hand to present life as he sees it; who 'insists' on 'no process' and who refuses to be bound by any formula prescription prepared by the cataloguers and pigeon-holers of literature.
He then gives his definition of realism:
It seems to me that the man who is called a 'realist' is one who, seeing things with his own eyes, discards the conventions of the schools and presents his matter in individual terms of art.
This, of course, will not do. It is not a definition of a realist; it merely describes a particular kind of artist. A man who sees things with his own eyes and presents them in individual terms too often imposes his own vision on the scene observed and loses the documentary quality which is a prime element in realism. Dickens ceases to be a realist when his Cockney characters are converted by his vision into comical caricatures and his slums take on a picturesque or quaint air. Trade unionism in Hard Times ceases to be an instrument of working class organization and becomes a form of pointless intimidation, which is very unrealistic.
Not so in the work of Arthur Morrison. If anything he tended to make the Jago more appalling than it was—if that were possible—by over-emphasizing its depravity and squalor. Certainly the London to which he was born provided him with a wealth of realist material. The rabid region east of Aldgate was a catacomb of evil-smelling alleys and tiny shops, of crumbling warehouses and sublet rooms, of a rancid river slithering furtively to the sea and mud flats which oozed into the city carrying their sour exhalation to the railway arches of Bethnal Green and the grim blackness of the Commerical Road. Thousands of people lived out their pallid lives without leaving the precincts of the slums and many died before they were forty of disease, malnutrition and the hazards of everyday life in places like the Jago. Of course, there were music halls, pubs and gaiety. Of course, on Saturday nights a zest for living burst through all the horrors and insisted on a coarse form of—was it happiness? Arthur Morrison did not deal in the reverse side of the coin. He was concerned with slums, poverty, hardship, to the exclusion of joy, and to that extent could be accused of being an inverted romantic rather than a realist.
He had a second very precise purpose in his writing, which made it necessary to exercise a special technique of selection. Before Gissing and Arthur Morrison, the literature of the East End of London was a stranger's literature seen from the outside. As V. S. Pritchett has written:
It lies under the melodramatic murk and the smear of sentimental pathos, which in the nineteenth century were generated by the guilty conscience of the middle classes. They were terrified of the poor who seethed in an abyss just beyond their back door. The awful Gothic spectacle of hunger, squalor and crime was tolerable only as nightmare and fantasy—such as Dickens provided—and the visiting foreigner alone could observe the English slums with the curiosity of the traveller or the countenance of the anthropologist.
Gissing and Arthur Morrison broke into this convention to write from within the slums, to make internal what had always been external. They looked out through the eyes of men, women and children living in places like the Jago and faithfully recorded what it meant to be involved, day in, day out, in a kind of poverty which was far removed from anything to do with the picturesque. Gissing's novels are full of misery and worthy pathos. Arthur Morrison's dispense with the pathos and convey the impression of a species adapting itself to horrors which should have overwhelmed it. His novels are different from picturesque or nightmare novels and different again from the 'character albums of the writers of low comedy'.
His second novel, London Town (1899), another Tale of East End Life 'among the better sort of people in those parts' was not very successful. Dealing with the extremities of East End life Morrison emerged supreme. When he tried to convey a slice of less extravagant life where people were not so hard-pressed and even the beauties of Epping Forest had their place, the note was less urgent, the descriptions less vivid, the narrative rambling.
The powerful colours of squalor and violence inevitably had an impact far greater than the quieter colours of the semi-respectable. It is a severe test of any writer to make the commonplace as interesting as the melodramatic. Morrison did not match up to it. He said, in a note which prefaced this second novel:
I designed this story, and, indeed, began to write it, between the publication of Tales of Mean Streets and that of A Child of the Jago, to be read together with these books: not that I pretend to figure in all three—much less in any one of them—a complete picture of life in the eastern parts of London, but because they are complementary, each to the two others.
Aware that his first novel had splashed down one kind of East End life in fierce colours, he tried to redress the balance by evoking more neutral scenes which would justify his claim to realism. He did not succeed. As if aware of this his third novel, Canning Murrell, was a total departure from what had gone before. It dealt with the activities of a witch doctor in rural Essex in the early 19th century.
Morrison's fourth novel—The Hole in the Wall—is his best and stands out among the novels of working class life in the late nineteenth century as a minor masterpiece. It returns once more to the techniques of A Child of the Jago. The Hole in the Wall was a public house in the notorious Radcliffe Highway of the East End, and the novel centres upon an orphaned boy, Stephen, brought up by his grandfather in an atmosphere of filth, murder, deception and theft. The viewpoint of the novel shifts from Stephen the boy to the omniscient novelist, one chapter being seen through Stephen's eyes, another taking the wider, third person perspective. It is a clumsy device. It breaks the consistency of the novel and the shifting viewpoint occasionally threatens verisimilitude. It would have been a far more severe test of Morrison as a novelist if he had limited himself to Stephen's viewpoint and seen everything through the boy's eyes. Indeed there are many indications that he intended to do just that, but the intractable material did not easily surrender to the single viewpoint and particularly to the viewpoint of a boy. In an attempt to bring the activities of all the characters into a cohesive whole he was driven to step out of Stephen's shoes.
The central theme of the novel is the effect on Grandfather Nat of the boy's relationship with him. The child is 'sheltered' by Nat, and as he observes the murky life of the pub, he gradually discovers that his grandfather is a receiver of stolen goods. Marr, a defaulting ship owner, disguises himself as a sailor to escape with £800 which eventually comes into the hands of Grandfather Nat. Marr gets drunk and is murdered by Dan Ogle, who at first intended no higher flight of theft than stealing a watch. There is a terrifying scene in which Marr, stunned and tottering between the two men, is dragged towards the river while they sing and bawl at the tops of their voices, pretending they are drunken sailors helping a pal to keep his feet. It is a pity, in one sense, that Morrison introduced that cliché character, a blind fiddler, because it modifies the austerity of his realism, but the fiddler finally indulges a form of brutality which lifts him clean away from any romantic tradition. While the wallet with the stolen £800 passes mysteriously to Grandfather Nat, the blind man is double-crossed, assaulted and ridiculed by Dan Ogle. He sets out to track Ogle down across the marshes and when he finds him asleep in a shed concealed by a lime quarry, he attacks him:
Floundering and tumbling against the frail boards of the shed the two men came out at the door in a struggling knot; Ogle wrestling and striking at random, while the other, cunning with a life's blindness, kept his own head safe and hung as a dog hangs to a bull. His hands gripped his victim by ear and hair while the thumbs still drove at the eyes the mess of smoking lime that clung and dripped about Ogle's head. It trickled burning through his hair and it blistered lips and tongue, as he yelled and yelled again in the extremity of his anguish.
The blind man has blinded his enemy. Just one word seems out of place in a description which is much longer and more powerful in the original; the word 'yelled'. It does not adequately convey the reaction of a man whose head is burning from lime and whose eyes are being put out by another man's hands. Such a man undergoing such an experience would have screamed.
The clash between the innocent boy's view of the events he witnesses and the depravity of most of the remaining characters, including Grandfather Nat, gives the novel the tension of moral conflict. As in A Child of the Jago, where the clash occurs between the evil of the Jago which itself becomes one of the main characters and the social goodness of Father Sturt, here the child's innocence and unquestioning affection modify Grandfather Nat's degenerate character. The people in A Child of the Jago tend to be good or bad, black or white, but in The Hole in the Wall they are more complex and the novel, in consequence, more sophisticated.
Once again the River Thames, dragging through its murkiest reaches, the wharves with cranes wheeling atiptoe, the marshy flats, sullen skies and the ghastly traffic in human beings trapped in one squalid conspiracy after another, combine to leave a memorable picture of one side of East End life conveyed in the most realistic terms. Only Stephen and Grandfather Nat emerge with any hope for the future:
Dan Ogle, blinded and broken, but silent and saving his revenge; Musky Meg, stricken and pitiable but faithful even if to death; Henry Viney, desperate but fearful and urgently needy; these three skulked at bay in dark holes by Blue Gate.
It remains to guess that Stephen and Dicky Perrot were both embodiments of the shy sensitive boy Arthur Morrison, who had been born into an East End jungle which he wanted to dissociate from his new and cultured life as a writer.
Following The Hole in the Wall, Morrison failed to develop as a novelist and produced nothing worthy of comparison. There are obvious reasons for this. In the first place, as a busy journalist his spare time was limited, and another powerful preoccupation had arisen to challenge his interest in creative writing. After the first four novels much of his spare time was spent studying Oriental painting. He left a fine collection of Chinese and Japanese drawings to the British Museum, and wrote a two-volume study of Japanese painting which is still respected by scholars in the field. He also wrote, as early as 1894, a series of detective stories which began with Martin Hewitt, Investigator. Within his work itself, however, lay the major reason for his failure to develop. Morrison was a craftsman who rose occasionally to the heights of original creation, but these experiences could not be sustained. Moreover he had stated and re-stated his particular message. He did not have the boundless creative energy of great novelists like Dickens and Zola, and the range of his interests was much more limited. His was a brilliant but minor talent which could not reach beyond the area it had already illumined.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12820
SOURCE: "Arthur Morrison's East End of London," in Victorian Writers and the City, edited by Jean-Paul Hulin and Pierre Coustillas, Publications de l'Université de Lille 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 think that his was an outsider's picture of London.
We may wonder what prompted Arthur Morrison to provide false information about his origins to Who's Who's first biographical enquiry in 1897, at a time when he was an established short-story writer and the novelist of A Child of the Jago. If we dismiss ignorance on his part—although we can understand why he chose Kent, his mother's native country, rather than Essex which he had adopted as his home—, we are faced with a riddle, only partially and unsatisfactorily solved by charges of deceit or social snobbery. Not that a deliberate wish to stand aloof was out of character in a man who, judging by the testimonies of acquaintances, was reserved and secretive. But there remains a mystery when we realize that this information would have provided an overwhelming argument to counter the fierce reactions and bitter attacks after the publication of Tales of Mean Streets and A Child of the Jago, especially during the controversy on realism initiated by H.D . Traill. Perhaps he felt that Victorian society could not acknowledge his rise from a working-class background. Whatever his true motives, personal and social, there is no need to capitalize on his mystification at this juncture. Indeed, we can reinstate him as a man of the people, born in Poplar, and the son of an engine fitter. Though we have no documents about his education, we know, from the 1871 census, that he was still in the East End at the age of eight; and, as he became an office boy at fifteen, he must have spent all his childhood east of Aldgate. Thanks to the encouragements of W.E . Henley, he made his way to realistic literature in the 1890s, via his secretaryship at the People's Palace in Mile End Road and journalism in Fleet Street.
The biography, as well as the historical and social context, underlines the significance of Morrison's work. In the closing decades of the nineteenth century, a new outlook on the environment of industrial cities prevailed—London being regarded as an epitome and a development of the basic traits of urban life. Special emphasis was laid on hidden features, and fresh evidence was brought forward to question society's achievement, notably its policy towards the poor. The Bitter Cry of Outcast London, which forcefully sounded the alarm in 1883, was by no means an isolated appeal for changes and reforms. Several other publications and reports—Walter Besant's All Sorts and Conditions of Men in 1882 and George Gissing's The Nether World in 1889 are prominent literary examples—exposed shameful facts and were instrumental in arousing acute concern for city slum dwellers in the 1880s and 1890s.
Naturally, Mayhew's studies of London labour, Chadwick's and Greenhow's investigations of the 1840s and 1850s should be kept in mind when examining Morrison's descriptions of the 1890s, even though their perspective was different. The image of the unknown country was still used to describe the poverty-stricken areas, but Morrison's main interest focused on the urban growth of London as the cause of severe negligence despite successive reports and subsequent reforms. His presentation can be seen as resulting from a long investigation into living conditions which started with an enquiry into the paupers of mid-century London to end with Booth's study of the submerged population. From the "Cockney Corners", which appeared as early as 1888, through the trilogy Tales of Mean Streets, A Child of the Jago and To London Town, to The Hole in the Wall, published in 1902, Morrison followed a path leading from fact to fiction, from a factual account to a more elaborate description of city life, from journalism to naturalism and realism.
Morrison's earliest contribution to The People provides his first approach to a picture of London. As the announcement made it clear, this series of independent "sketches" was to "deal with localities and their peculiarities, rather than with individuals." Its aim was to introduce the reader to several districts of London and to pinpoint their characteristic traits—Poplar and its Saturday market, Clerkenwell and its clockmakers and jewellers, the French restaurants of Soho, Bow Street Police Court, Whitechapel with its rows of houses, its homecrafts and ethnical groups, Jacob's Island, and the contrapuntal areas of Greenwich Park and Epping Forest.
Morrison successfully gives the impression of a dense population at certain key points of the capital, on London Bridge for instance every Saturday at noon, when "the pavement is filled by two solid streams of steadily hurrying human beings" and when pedestrians must dodge an incessant flow of traffic. Similarly on Saturday nights another gathering of people busy shopping in the East End is depicted in these words: "The broad Whitechapel road swarms with laughing, shouting, noisy human life. Buyers and sellers, rogues and dupes, drinkers and fighters. Each for himself and the thought of the moment!" The struggle for life is felt all the more acutely as economic competition is magnified by the thick crowd and as London Hospital looms up in the vicinity, looking after those who "have come to grief in some of the thousand ways so easy among the dense population, the large works, and the traffic". Urban concentration is an unquestionable factor of accidents in this "great cosmorama of life and death, joy and sorrow, health, sickness, and pain". Morrison excels in drawing accurate sketches of people in the streets, but on the whole he sticks to a general description and watches with a critical eye both setting and city dwellers. His "explorer's mind" notices in Soho "bell-handles, thick on the door-posts, like stops on an organ, front door never shut, children rolling down the steps, dirty babies nursed by premature little women and 'Apartments to Let' everywhere", as so many signs of overcrowding, of the conditions of tenant and subtenant families, and of the corollary questions of child care and hygiene.
In contrast with city life and to balance or counter the effects of urban overcrowding and pollution, Epping Forest is a godsend, whose proximity and advantages should be realized by the busy population of London, for, as Morrison puts it in his sketch, "Epping Forest is a Cockney Corner, from Epping to Wanstead Flats, and from Walthan Abbey to Chigwell, but one without smoke, chimney pots, noise and dirt; with whispering thickets, noble trees, grassy hollows and cool waters; with singing birds, humming insects, all sweet sounds …". How surprising to find this quasi-lyrical description of nature coming from Morrison's pen! The author so appreciated this wholesome "lung" of the city, the benefits of which should fall to the working East Ender, that he settled on the outskirts of the forest, at Chingford, and later at Loughton. He publicly stated his marked preference for life in Essex, never far from London it is true, and was well aware of the threat of industrial or urban growth, of the continual encroachment of the town upon nature, upon the Hainault Forest for instance. The notion of an antithesis between town and country life, not original in itself, refers to a duality inscribed in Morrison's life and literary career. His emigration may be seen as corresponding to the typical aspiration of the East Ender he was. Rooted in the East End, he later developed a professional life in London and a private life in the country, chiefly in Essex. This parallel is present in the double current of his production—his East End studies and his Essex stories, united by the same insight into place and character, and an earnest commitment to faithful treatment. Besides, if his interest in oriental art lies beyond this duality, his commitments to the literature of detection, to journalism and to humorous short stories are essentially urban.
Whereas Tales of Mean Streets and A Child of the Jago are set in London only, To London Town depicts a migration to London from the country for economic reasons. Actually, several migratory movements, illustrating a general situation, are outlined in the plot. First, sons and daughters leave their rustic parents to come and work in the job-supplying East End of London; secondly, when an emergency arises, if the father dies for instance, the family returns to the parents or grandparents in the country; thirdly, when the latter source of supporting income becomes extinct, a new economic migration takes place—the industrious widow enters the labour market as head of the family while the elder son becomes an apprentice at the firm which used to employ his father. The facts and the events are exemplary in so far as the Mays are drawn by the centripetal force of London; the country is their native soil as well as a temporary refuge or source of comfort—it is motherly on both counts. Indeed, even though this orphaned family is uprooted and plunged into a highly competitive world, it is hardly touched by urban morality; only the younger generation represented by Johnny proves more adapted to a tougher milieu and more wary of city sharks or spongers. The Mays are still endowed with sturdy rustic qualities; they have retained a filial love for the country of their forbears, which they semi-consciously uphold as their ideal.
Contrasted with a world ruled by the economic struggle for bread, the country is idyllically associated with the notions of peace and quiet. But this position is far from being immune to change. As London keeps expanding, nature is slowly and relentlessly the victim of urbanization and industrialization. If the air in Essex is still "healthier and cleaner" than in London, the country has become a "poorer hunting ground" for butterflies, a prey to "the great smoky province that lay to the south-west". London is a magnetic and tentacular force which draws the lifeblood from the provinces through migration and impairs the country's unadulterated state through pollution.
Apart from this image of the city threatening the countryside, Morrison's early descriptions of the outer environment of the poorer classes of London lay stress on the sameness of streets and houses. He notices in "Jacob's Island" a "very dull street" with "mean, black little dwelling houses", and draws attention to the depressing atmosphere pervading this dreary, matter-of-fact world:
Back from the river, what a sorry blank is Jacob's Island! It is to-day, without exception, the saddest Cockney Corner we know. Not eminently crimesaddened, or poor or starved. Colourless, blank … Mean little houses, not old enough to be interesting and not new enough to be clean, cluster thick about Jacob Street, London Street, Hickman's Folly and their alleys ( … ) Jacob's Island is comparatively respectable, but, oh!, how fearsomely dull!
As in another sketch, "On Blackwall Pier", which takes up the identical themes of sordid street monotony and hard living conditions, the crude facts are attended by pessimistic comment. This particular emphasis paves the way for his highly praised study entitled "A Street", which dwells obsessively upon the drabness of surroundings.
If the setting in "Cockney Corners" can be regarded as a décor in the sense of a somewhat neutral visual presentation, in his subsequent work it loses its picturesqueness to assume social significance since it is directly, if negatively, related to its counterparts in more favoured districts. The architectural impression is strengthened by a parallel view of the inhabitants' way of life. Morrison establishes an inevitable link between outer appearance and actual existence, although this interpretation, which sets the tone for a realistic approach, is not borne out in all the "tales of mean streets", for life is not necessarily dreary where living conditions are grim.
Morrison was not the first nor the last of his generation to have observed the uniformity of die streets and houses in London. Hubert Crackanthorpe for instance depicts the monotony of "shabbily symmetrical" streets, with "a double row of insignificant, dingy-brick houses". In To London Town Morrison offers a similar description when the Mays come to the East End. If "the road narrowed and grew fouler, and the mouths of unclean alleys dribbled slush and dirty children across the pavements", they eventually reach "a place of many streets lying regularly at right angles, all of small houses, all clean, every one a counterpart of every other", Unlike some other areas, Shipwrights Row is renowned for its cleanliness and the colour pattern of the outside paintwork. Yet, monotony is spreading—the children travelling to Essex notice "close, regular streets of little houses, all of one pattern, (that) stared in raw brick, or rose, with a forlorn air of crumbling sponginess, amid sparse sticks of scaffolding"—as if London kept exporting a mass-produced housing pattern. The depressing monotony in certain quarters is intensified by overcrowding. Families gather near their places of work, in districts which soon become congested. These districts change character according to their inhabitants, whose number keeps increasing. People pile into quickly saturated lodgings—"eight, ten or a dozen human sleepers" in one room, in the extreme case of the Jago.
Foul nooks and crannies inevitably developed in the texture of Victorian London, as backhouses enjoyed the cheap rents a working-class family could afford. Different types of slum dwellings emerged as demands rose and rents altered, tenancy being more or less temporary. The poorer labourers had to resort to these lodging ghettos, motivated by proximity of work and their financial resources. The ironically named Pleasant Court in Crackanthorpe's Vignettes (1896) is a good example—"To find it, you must penetrate a winding passage, wedged between high walls of dismal brick". And Jago Court, the focal point in Morrison's novel, is a typical, though extreme, example of reclaimed backyards where all kinds of needy people have come to settle. Dr. Barnardo's article entitled "A Tale of a Mean Street" provides a parallel depiction of a narrow, ill-paved, East-End street and a dark cellar-like kitchen. An identical impression of an underground world pervades the crowded courts, typical of those built-in areas which have long passed saturation point, depicted by Octavia Hill in the 1870s. The spatial confinement becomes unbearable in the sultry atmosphere. In "a narrow paved court with houses on each side, the sun has heated them all day, till it has driven nearly every inmate out of doors". The children especially are "crawling or sitting on the hard hot stones till every corner of the place looks alive". The opening pages of A Child of the Jago offer an exact parallel. The Jago is the "blackest pit in London" and Jago Court, "the blackest hole in all that pit". In the sultry and smelly atmosphere of summer nights, it is filled with rat-like human shapes. Because the contemporary picture, with its rhetoric, is so consistent, we may infer that Morrison's fiction is based on reliable facts, and insist on his first-hand knowledge of the places he describes—a knowledge he repeatedly stressed in reply to criticisms. His four years as secretary to the People's Palace, his observations as a journalist, and his careful documentation prior to writing (notably his "intimate study" of the parish of Trinity Church at Shoreditch which lasted a year and a half), bear witness to the credibility of his account.
There is both a gradation and an evolution in presentment. "A Street" underlines the bleak monotony of city streets in Poplar, where spectacular aspects are deliberately discarded. Yet, his denunciation of false, biased views of the East End as "an evil plexus of slums that hide human creeping things", is contradicted by the image of the Jago in his first novel. Again, if the docks in To London Town, where the Mays used to live, are described in a subdued manner, and if the busy riverside at Blackwall Pier is less colourful, the dockland and Wapping area in The Hole in the Wall is much more picturesque and dangerous with its maze of "crooked lanes" and "small, ill-lighted streets". Off the notorious Ratcliff Highway, lies Blue Gate, hazardous and ill-famed, set in mid-nineteenth-century London.
Habitation and reputation varied according to the district and the economic situations of the inhabitants of the East End. While regular workers lived in rather characterless though clean lodgings, casual labourers and new immigrants had to be content with unsuitable dwelling places, for financial reasons. They had to join other urban categories—marginal groups such as criminal types—, running the risk, repeatedly stressed, of being contaminated. As for the densely crowded areas, or rookeries, inhabited by a fluctuating, unstable population, they were often considered dangerous quarters—a threat to civilized society. The traditional haunts of disreputable characters, thieves and criminals, such as Whitechapel, Limehouse, Ratcliff Highway, were often painted in this light.
In point of fact, as the slum dwellers had little inclination to stay confined in their small dingy rooms, they repaired to the street, which was the meeting place of natives and visitors, and a vantage point for the observant novelist. The streets in the East End were busy places at any hour, but on a number of regular and special occasions, people gathered in large numbers. While fun fairs, bank holiday rejoicing, and street fights tended to draw people from far and near, street markets assembled a more local crowd. Apart from adults, loafers or busy tradesmen and housewives, observers noticed the presence of a great number of children, which seemed to corroborate the idea of a prolific East End. Although school attendance was compulsory, it was seldom or inadequately enforced, so that, when unemployed, children were left on their own. Because of the absence of their fathers, ill or dead or in jail, which obliged mothers to rule the home, the children had to fend for themselves, unsupervised. As bread, not to mention money, was lacking, many of them became self-sufficient at an early age. They regarded the streets as a spectacle—witness the boys watching the clockmakers in a sketch called "Clerkenwell"—, but they were also on the lookout for a favourable opportunity —picking up an odd job like parcel carrying, or snatching things. Maturity soon fell upon their young shoulders, especially when, like Mother Sister Julia in Edwin Pugh's A Street in Suburbia (1895), the elder children helped to bring up little brothers and sisters, or when new family or social responsibilities prevailed. Early moral and economic independence was not a new fact in the late Victorian period, but a characteristic feature of the working-class children of East London. Dicky Perrott is the archetype of boys who, rather than playing games, were in search of food, or objects to exchange for bread, and who, like adults, had to rely on themselves only.
The documentary realism used by Morrison and some of his contemporaries to present a vivid description of the environment in East London also provided a basis for reflection. Many aspects of this environment seemed unworthy of a modern Victorian city; they were at variance with the ideals and principles expounded by contemporary society. These writers implicitly demanded that efforts should be made to relieve those shameful areas, those dark recesses which bore witness to obvious neglect in town planning, and also to abolish the actual and latent dangers of a marginal, segregated life to the population at large, but especially to children left without proper material care and moral support. If the later Morrison seems to have been more cautious about such possibilities, the young writer of the "Cockney Corners" did not hesitate to dwell on the positive merits of Epping Forest and public parks as essential lungs for oppressed East-Enders, just as he provided guidance in organizing the activities of young members when he was at the People's Palace.
Morrison reveals that there is a definite physical and moral pattern of life in the East End of London, people being identified with their streets and their districts. From his descriptions of the drab lives in mean streets and the violent life in the Jago, we can gather that urban structures had a direct bearing on the material and mental conditions of people.
A direct consequence of the sanitary conditions, already exposed by Edwin Chadwick in the 1840s, was the high death-rate in slum areas. Shoreditch is an exemplary case, even in 1898: "Nowhere else in London can you gaze on such a scene of wretchedness. Houses hardly fit to be dog-kennels, breeding disease which brings the children of Shoreditch to the grave with terrible rapidity and suddenness. Four graves are dug here for every one in any other part of London". Statistics showing population density and mortality rates were used to show the consequences of deplorable circumstances. Morrison did not fail to stress the phenomenon dramatically:
Albeit the Jago death-rate ruled full four times that of all London beyond, still the Jago rats bred and bred their kind unhindered, multiplying apace and infecting the world.
Infant mortality was markedly more widespread in cities, and among poor urban working-class families. The death registers at Somerset House bear numerous mentions of still-born babies. Moreover, neglect and lack of food caused the untimely deaths of frail children, as we may observe in A Child of the Jago, in little Looey's case. Dicky Perrott's sister is soon replaced, however, by little Em and baby Josh, which demonstrates the high birthrate prevailing in East London. For the same environmental reasons, children like Dicky "would never get really tall". In those substandard lodgings and insanitary conditions, the children were the first to suffer, as poverty was the cause of undernourishment and malnutrition, which accelerated disease and death.
Poverty was also related to, and aggravated by, drinking. In view of the social context, it is not surprising that drinking should have been so popular. The public houses were attractive, brightly lit places which stood out against the dreary surroundings, and afforded an outlet, a release from outer struggles and family troubles. Octavia Hill clearly points out the effect of the close, stifling courts on people's behaviour—during the hot evenings "the drinking is wildest, the fighting fiercest, and the language most violent", while Robert Sherard indicates that "it is indeed rather on account of the physical exigencies of their work (and, we may add, of their lodgings) that these people, as a class, exceed and are intemperate". Naturally, drinking was considered an aggravating factor in those unfavoured districts of the East End. Not only did it divert money from more immediate needs, but it also brought people into contact with disreputable characters. The pubs were indeed places where shady business transactions were often settled. Apart from "The Hole in the Wall" which chiefly enjoys an underground activity, there are several types of public houses in the Jago. "The Feathers" is described as "the grimiest and vilest of the four", and in all of them there were frequent "bar riots". At Mother Gapp's, fighting and rejoicing alternate. On great occasions, such as the homecoming of a released convict—Josh Perrott in the novel—the public house fulfils a social function, in that it proclaims reintegration and asserts its communal feeling. Hannah Perrott has to "prove herself not unduly proud" and indulge in gin-drinking, lest she should incur her neighbours' rebukes.
Much of the money is spent on drinking—in poor districts shopping is done on Sunday morning after Saturday's drink, with what is left of the week's wages. The search for food and the basic necessities of life takes several forms, according to the ability of the housewife. Morrison points out in "A Workman's Budget", published in 1901, that although generalization is difficult, the working-class woman is "commonly no fool and no idler". Yet, recalling his personal experience—"I have met with perfectly amazing cases of masterly household management on slender means; and brilliant instances aside, the average workman's 'missis' is a very good housewife"—, he implicitly infers that there are less happy cases. In fact, he acknowledges the existence of wide differences—"between the drunkard, whose household starves while he soaks away his wages, and the weakling, whose wife takes every penny and scarce gives him one back, there lie many degrees"—, between a Jago family and the Ropers or the Mays.
Hunting for the money necessary for subsistence and lodging involves a daily struggle. When illness strikes a working-class family, hardships increase. "Chrisp Street, Poplar", after a picturesque description of the streets, introduces the reader to the pathetic story of a couple emerging from a pawnshop:
Times have been hard with Joe and the missis. Joe has had rheumatic fever, and has spent his entire convalescence in hunting for a job. Day after day he has started out, good fellow, with a mendacious assurance to the missis that he didn't feel up to any breakfast, well knowing the little he left for her and the small Barkers even then. Evening after evening he has come home again—feetsore, hungry, disappointed, and well-nigh heartbroken—unsuccessful. And evening after evening his noble little missis has met him with a smile—poor soul, it gets harder to smile as the face grows thinner and the brain feels duller—with a smile and a kiss as warm and as true as even when she was a plump-faced nursemaid and he was a jolly 'prentice lad over on the island.
If the outlook is optimistic and the tone slightly sentimental, as the family is seen climbing uphill with courage and perseverance, this vignette depicting representatives of die "industrious poor" is nonetheless truthful enough.
To overcome adversity, pawning is the usual solution. From the "Cockney Corners" onwards, Morrison mentioned it in his works. When Josh Perrott is injured and is unable to work, his wife Hannah pawns a coat at a "leaving shop in a first floor back in Jago Row". In To London Town, Norah's dress is pledged as a direct consequence of the drinking habits of her mother. The same means was used to pay the rent. Otherwise, as a long term solution, it was possible to sub-let, or take in lodgers, but Hannah Perrott would not hear of this simply because "she doubted her ability to bully the rent out of them, or to turn them out if they did not pay"—which indicates that the practice was frequent.
Circumstances drove people along various paths, even beyond the limits of morality, to obtain basic necessities. Several methods were used to get money and clothing from the "profitable sentimentalist" in the Jago, although these methods were held in contempt by the "sturdier ruffians", who preferred stealing. One of the devices consisted of "a profession of sudden religious awakening", which reminds us of the study called "A Conversion". Hesitant potential converts received "the boots, the coats, and the half-crowns used to coax weak brethren into the fold". Similar behaviour is seen in children who do not normally attend school except when free gifts—coal or food—are distributed. Dicky, for instance, goes to school "at irregular intervals", but "whenever anything was given away, he attended as a matter of course".
Hardships tend to favour a realistic approach to daily problems. Several examples of the suffering poor are given in "Cockney Corners", especially in "London Hospital", where disease or injury leads to crises. A bricklayer, who has fallen from his scaffolding, is happy to see his wife, courageous and smiling:
His wife is sitting by him, with her little boy. See what a brave, bright face she keeps, and how gaily she reports her own well-doing, although the poor fellow himself well knows how few shillings there were in hand a month ago, when he first came in, and how she is charring hard for every mouthful she and the child eat.
The poignancy of the picture is enhanced if we are aware that Morrison's mother may have gone through a similar experience when his father was in hospital suffering from phthisis.
Diseases, death, brutal or violent events steel people to a stern, often stoic, attitude to life. Harsh realities and constant worries are not conducive to pleasure and laughter. Indeed, women with a tendency towards merriment or singing are regarded with suspicion and judged mercilessly, like the young countrywife in "A Street". Lizerunt, in the opening "tale", hardly experiences any pleasure in her almost inevitable progression from work at a pickle factory to charring, mangling, and finally to forced prostitution. Robert Sherard, who also describes "the mean miseries of the very poor", insists on work as being their all-encompassing activity, which means that they have "no time for relaxation" and that "their entire energy is taken up in the hunting of the loaf'.
Yet "the utter remoteness from delight", which closes "A Street" and sets the tone for the Tales of Mean Streets, must be qualified. Even in "Lizerunt" courting represents a pleasant, if brief, spell of comparative happiness before marriage. Elsewhere life is brightened up, if not illuminated, on a few rare occasions, especially when a little time or money can be spared. Drinking can be a special occasion, even in the Jago, when Josh Perrott wins his fight for instance. In more favoured spots, a funfair (as in "Lizerunt"), or a ball at the Institute (as in To London Town, though it comes to naught for the young pair), are events that lit up the dull, workaday routine. Brief, fleeting pleasures, with no time wasted in refinement, characterize life in the East End.
Socially, if anonymity prevails in all great cities and particularly in the urban pattern of the East End, there is also a definite sense of community. Neighbours, because of proximity and promiscuity, exert a more or less overt pressure on each other, seemingly inspired by both a sense of bondage in poverty and a desire to be protected against social annihilation. On the positive side we see in To London Town the exchange of paint as a mark of good neighbourly relationship and solidarity; on the negative, the compulsory leave-taking of the May family once the shame of quarrelling and the accusation of adultery and bigamy have stained the shop's good name and the family's character. Respectability varies according to districts, but, as often as not, the fear of scandal and loss of people's esteem are compelling forces in matters of behaviour. Even in a district like the Jago, the Ropers find it hard to preserve their working-class decency. Their presence in the Jago results from unemployment; they are not integrated. Mrs . Roper is disliked because of her neatness and cleanliness, and her "aloofness from gossip", just as her husband is rejected, for not drinking, or brawling, or beating his wife. This reluctance to comply with the Jago norm is a cause of antagonism; the Ropers are a disruptive example, or, as Morrison puts it, "a matter of scandalous arrogance, impudently subversive of Jago custom and precedent". The tension is so acute that the Ropers, who have complained of robbery, are accused of "assailing the reputation of the neighbourhood" and, because they are but "pestilent outsiders", are beaten up and plundered by their neighbours, only to be saved by the parson's timely intervention. The Ropers are in fact an alien graft and are physically and morally rejected by the community; they are fought as a threat to its identity. Brian Harrison gives corroborative evidence when he points out that "slum dwellers disliked working men" who "gave themselves airs", and that tee-totallers were often insulted.
Hannah Perrott experiences similar difficulties at first, because her background is different and she is "an alien who has never entirely fallen into Jago ways". She neither drinks, nor gossips; nor is she beaten by her husband—a side reference to the normal relationship between husbands and wives. Her attitude is regarded as scornful aloofness and resented by other women, "irritated by such superiorities", to the point of causing her harm—she is in fact beaten up as she belongs neither to the Ranns nor the Learys, the two families in feud. Non-compliance thus exposes people to reprisal. In Hannah's case though, a slow process of acceptance and integration takes place, the physical preceding the moral change.
Respectability can be demonstrated in various ways. In "Behind the Shade", two women, a widow and her daughter, live in a cottage at the end of "the common East End street", but the neighbours disapprove of the independence enjoyed by this one isolated family, and gossip over the "pianoforte lessons" advertised in the window. Gradually their situation deteriorates and rather than appeal to public charity, they let themselves die of hunger. Two features are revealed; on the one hand a sense of conformity to a general "code of morals" even if it is a warped one, and self-respect on the other. To starve rather than beg stems from an attitude of stoic defiance. Echoes of the same notion were common enough at the time: a commentator noted in 1898 that "the reticence and reserve of the respectable struggling poor, who would prefer to starve in a garret rather than apply for the charitable doles, was not understood". The idea expressed here establishes categories among the poor and the destitute, and takes for granted that charitable money was there for the asking, though there undoubtedly were misuses. What Morrison and his contemporaries often insisted upon, was the extreme point to which self-respect could lead. Typical is the attitude towards funerals—everything becomes subservient to the profound, stubborn urge to stage a "handsome funeral". "On the Stairs" portrays an old mother who fails to help her dying son and keeps the money that could have brought him relief in order to procure the "mutes" and "plooms" required for a respectable departure, to be acknowledged by the whole neighbourhood. There are similar observations in To London Town, also in George Gissing's The Nether World. Elsewhere the characters express their horror of a cheap, plain coffin, and long for a "lovely" one—vainly in the case of Jack Randall in "All That Messuage". Such an attitude may be the sign of imported middle-class notions, but it represents a characteristic outburst of self-respect or pride in the harsh life of the poor.
If we now return to the problem of the precarious existence of the working classes, we are led to note how often the chase for subsistence was frustrated, since work was insecure for the labourer whose hands were his sole property. In addition to the bad housing and sanitary conditions, the lack of security endangered the health and life of the working population. But unlike Sherard, who exposed the harsh and dangerous conditions in industry, Morrison did not dwell upon life in factories—except an engineering firm in To London Town. Instead, he depicted women at home, engaged in various occupations, such as rush-bag, sack or matchbox making. The latter especially enjoyed popularity among late Victorian observers. A Child of the Jago provides us with a well-documented picture—Morrison himself claimed to have assembled a few boxes. Hannah Perrott's case is typical in so far as "temporarily widowed" wives were numerous in the Old Nichol-Jago area since many men were "in the country", i.e. in jail. Several such activities, like shirtmending, were in great demand, and were reserved for these more or less permanent widows. In the course of one of their removals, the Perrotts come to a room "wherein a widow had died over her sack-making two days before", leaving hungry children. She presumably tried to avoid going to the workhouse, to which her children were eventually sent. Hannah, like the other women, would rather be exploited by manufacturers, and work for a pittance, than depart to the "house". Dr. T.J. Barnardo, in an article on the East End working classes, described their dread of the workhouse:
The workhouse? Ah! Well you hardly know, perhaps, the loathing and horror with which the industrious and decent poor contemplate the prospect of breaking up their little homes, of being separated from their children, and of committing themselves, without hope of deliverance, to the Union.
The "Union" or the "house" meant the break up of families, since the sexes as well as children and parents were separated, and imposed restrictions on the independence of the poor. Outdoor relief was rarely given, but even when people were entitled to it and even though they were at the end of their tether, they radically refused the provisions of the Poor Law. Individualism and self-respect prevailed again.
Thinking of the slum population in this light, sociologists have divided families into clear-cut categories. Mayhew proposed several divisions according to the "honesty" of the poor, and distinguished between those "who will work", those "who can't work", and those "who won't work", in other words, the "striving", the "disabled" and the "dishonest". The range of people presented by Morrison provides a parallel with this classification. Just as there were various types of slums, so there were different classes of East Enders, "working class" being an ambiguous or inadequate term when applied to the second and third categories. The third one also includes criminals of the Jago type, as well as spongers on charity organizations or even on women like Mr. Burton in To London Town. In the preface to this story, Morrison described his new novel on the East End as forming with Tales of Mean Streets and A Child of the Jago "a trilogy intended to paint a picture of a certain portion of life in the East End". Although he insisted on the limits of his representation, he claimed that "in these three books there is a fairly wide range, from thieves and blackguards, through decent workmen and their wives, to the best classes of workmen, the last of whom make up the characters in To London Town". P.J. Keating's distinction between the poverty-stricken, the criminals and the respectable artisans in Morrison's work is another convenient way of describing the same three classes.
Morrison tried to restore a truer perspective in an interview published in Cassell's Saturday Journal, stating that:
The 'East-Ender' is, more often than not, a respectable, hard-working man, who does his duty to his wife and children, and goes cleanly and honestly through the world. The great majority of the men work regularly and live in decent houses.
Here, the pendulum undoubtedly swung too far the other way, but the author at least tried to justify his view by adding that:
There is still in the East End an enormous multitude of people who seem almost of another race than ours, who bring up large families in poverty, live in dens rather than houses, and eat to-morrow what they earn to-day.
It is refreshing to see him leave aside moral characteristics, and stress physical and genetic as well as social and environmental features. No doubt his exposure of the daily life of representative sections of East End Londoners led to a wholesome and salutary reaction. The realistic portrayal of the living conditions of the poor and the working classes resulting from the urban environment in the East End was to disturb consciences and to challenge the unruffled complacency of the time. Characteristic of the contemporary reception of Morrison's studies was the enlightened appraisal in the Literary Year Book for 1898 which commended their direct sociological significance: "In his two studies of the East End, Tales of Mean Streets and A Child of the Jago, Mr. Morrison has made his mark both as an artist and as a sociological observer. He gives as it were the subjective side of one of Mr. Charles Booth's pictures".
Because of the complex interaction of several factors it is hard to assess exactly the negative influence of urban conditions upon people's lives. If overcrowding and poverty were sometimes perceived as leading to delinquency and crime, the mere association of urban and social evils was more often observed than their causality. The back streets and backyards in the slum areas of East London certainly created conditions which were conducive to crime. These blights in the urban fabric made it possible for people to evade both the Victorian sanitation and policing laws. In the crowded rookeries, criminals of all descriptions could find shelter, secure as they were from police interference, while the streets and main thoroughfares were regarded by them as hunting grounds. Jago Court is described by Morrison as "an unfailing sanctuary, a city of refuge ever ready, ever secure", to the extent that higher rents had to be paid for "the privilege of residence in the Jago", however questionable this advantage was in respect of sanitation and housing. Arthur Mee recalls Orange Court, in the Old Nichol area of Shoreditch, which "was approached by a tunnel from the street, and was on this account the favourite haunt of thieves", adding that "the police dare not enter the court, as the men would watch them emerge from the tunnel and throw bricks at them". It is not surprising in this context that people should have developed special norms of behaviour, verging on, if not altogether steeped in, criminality. Contagion did play a role. As J. J. Tobias points out in general terms, "groups of people, living in distinctive areas, had evolved a way of life of their own based on crime", which forced other people to adopt the "same techniques, habits and attitudes". A minority was thus capable of influencing a whole group and of giving a peculiar reputation to a given area.
Because of their unreachable recesses, the dockland and riverside areas of London, which play such prominent parts in A Child of the Jago and The Hole in the Wall, used to harbour and even favour dishonest deals and shady transactions performed by unscrupulous characters. The environment also palpably told on people's physical and mental health. William Booth insisted upon the "disease-breeding, manhood-destroying character" of congested housing, statistically involving about three million "submerged" people. Quite naturally, contemporary writers dwelt on the notion of degradation to bestiality, and resorted to animal imagery when depicting slum dwellers. Crowded courts would be compared to dens, unfit for human habitation. Morrison uses this image extensively in his description of the Jago, where people are debased into "slinking" rats living in foul dens.
The danger of contagion, previously mentioned, menaced young people especially. The children were often in the streets, and, for want of parental authority, were submitted to various harmful influences. R. L. Shoenwald, studying Chadwick's investigations in the 1830s, observes that exclusion of children from factories or reduced hours, has often turned them "out into the streets and swollen the ranks of juvenile delinquents". Even after the creation of School Board inspectors there were many ways of playing truant. Moreover, the milieu had such a powerful impact on the children that they could not improve in it. They were "schooled, not educated", as William Booth deplored. Many were born in workhouses, or were orphaned, experiencing, instead of a protective—though often inadequate—parenthood, the "competitive city life". In that context of indiscipline and laissez-faire, young minds were an easy prey to social determinism.
A prison chaplain, the Reverend W. D. Morrison, observed in 1896 that "Juveniles in all ranks of life are exceedingly sensitive to public opinion, and, unless gifted with great inborn force of character, are apt to become what the world in general considers them to be"—which pinpoints the pressure weighing on those young shoulders. The young were expected to behave the way their parents did; they had to bear the burden of their social origins as if they had committed unredeemable faults. Everyone was induced to follow the code of morals prevailing in his neighbourhood. Self-appropriation, for instance, was the means of defeating necessity in the Jago, and even "the one way to riches". Typical of this unwritten law is Dicky's reflection over his first theft, that "by all Jago custom and ethic it was his if only he could get clear away with it". For those quick-maturing, self-sufficient boys, who modelled their conduct on the general pattern, the atmosphere was conducive to delinquency.
Yet, the notion of determinism seems to be absent from the following statement by W. D. Morrison:
There is a population of habitual criminals which form a class by itself. Habitual criminals are not to be confounded with the working or any other class; they are a set of persons who make crime the object and business of their lives; to commit crime is their trade; they deliberately scoff at honest ways of earning a living, and must accordingly be looked upon as a class of separate and distinct character from the rest of the community.
This viewpoint, which in 1891 was by no means new, reminds us of the distinction made in 1851 by Mary Carpenter between the "perishing classes", in danger of falling into crime, and the "dangerous classes", living by theft. Logically, all reformatory endeavours were directed towards the former, the latter being judged unredeemable. The moral distinction between the deserving and the underserving poor became a sociological one, so that, despite this clear-cut categorization, it was still thought possible to alter conditions and circumstances so as to salvage endangered people, without examining the direct correlation between poverty and crime.
The existence of a criminal class was so much taken for granted that it found its way into fiction. In A Child of the Jago the criminal class is inseparable from the milieu that gives it nurture and support, and, behind the apparently individualistic and empirical character of its actions, it has developed an internal discipline and a structure capable of stimulating the young. Dicky Perrott entertains two hopes—owning a shop, and achieving the status of a mobsman, i.e. a first class thief. In his eyes both objectives are praiseworthy; they would earn him consideration on the economic and social levels. A high mobsman, like the Mogul, commands general respect in the underground world—he is a tyrannical ruler exerting his sway over a given urban territory. He generally enjoys "suburban respectability" and police immunity because of his established position based on wealth, so that he can operate safely as the brain behind important swindles or robberies. He is the ruthless captain at the top of the criminal hierarchy, and there is intense rivalry among cabin-boys, or street urchins—young Dicky is a good example—to resemble most closely the man they at once admire and dread.
The actions performed are measured with a special yardstick which distinguishes several categories of crime, from pilfering to shoplifting, and from house-breaking to burglary, just as thieves fall into classes and are manipulated by fences and mobsmen. The latter control people, supervise fights and organize betting in the Jago. Once a young boy like Dicky has proved his worth, he may be contacted and engaged by a receiver—Aaron Weech uses food and flattery to coax the hungry boy into working for him. A whole substructure is thus revealed. When the chase after the thief becomes too hot, stolen goods are dropped into the fence's yard, conveniently concealed from the public eye. On the other hand, when Josh Perrott wants to sell the watch he has stolen from the Mogul, or King of the High Mobsmen, the news has already got abroad and he vainly goes from Mother Gapp to pawnbrokers and to Weech. The latter treacherously informs the Mogul in the hope of a reward from this powerful protector. This incident points to an active underground organization, which controls individuals to preserve its cohesion.
For a better understanding of environmental influences on young people, we may examine Dicky Perrott's exemplary case, and try to grasp the meaning of the rise and eventual downfall of a talented boy who could have made his way to the top. Forced to fend for himself at an early age, he soon realizes that "he must take his share, lest it fall to others". Necessity accelerates maturity and self-sufficiency. The lack of food in the cupboard and the fact that "there seemed nothing at home worth staying for", reduce him to loitering and pilfering, then to petty larceny with groups of other boys where he is noticed for his efficiency. He soon becomes an expert thief, and wins grades, the birchrod being part of his experience. This progression follows the lines traced by Old Beveridge in his advice to Dicky, when he urged him to become a high mobsman, "one of a thousand"—which implies that luck is necessary in the strife to find room at the top. All means are justified to reach this end—"Learn to read and write, learn all you can, learn cunning, spare nobody and stop at nothing, and perhaps"—Dicky might become one of the High Mob. "It's the best the world has for you, for the Jago's got you", Old Beveridge adds. The moral standard of behaviour directly originates from this East End corner.
The second pole of his potentiality is presented by Father Sturt, but it presupposes a transformation in outlook. No doubt Dicky senses that it is "a chance of life", but the dream of becoming "a tradesman, with a shop of his own and the name R. Perrott, with a golden flourish, over the door", is soon shattered by the jealous villainy of Weech the fence and the shopkeeper's prejudices. Old Beveridge's lessons and Weech's philosophy cannot be ignored, especially when life proves too firmly rooted in Jago reality. Dicky's defeat confirms his predestination—"He was of the Jago, and he must prey on the outer world, as all the Jago did"—and should not long after an impossible ideal. The other—and better—way out, somewhat artificially reiterated by the dying Dicky, is impossible. He feels further branded and rejected when his father is executed: "Now he went doubly sealed of the outcasts: a Jago with a hanged father … He was a Jago and the world's enemy". He is inexorably doomed: he is destined either for the Gallows or for the High Mob.
One is led to think that such children become outcasts because they are cast out by society, and restricted to their self-contained world of crime. Dicky's position is conditioned by two driving forces: hunger or necessity on the one hand—theft or crime are alternatives to starvation—, ambition on the other—the desire to reach a high criminal status. These forces, especially the second, must be related to pressures and influences stemming, not only from congested slums, but also from the jungle-like atmosphere people have been steeped in from their childhood. These are hereditary causes, not in the sense of genetic developments due to alcoholism for instance, though this factor is not to be neglected, but because criminal fathers, parents and neighbours are the models on which children frame their image of the world. The street is their school. Old Beveridge is Dicky's real teacher; Father Sturt only an occasional preceptor from the outside who has neither the time nor the influence necessary to alter the situation. Conditioning affects adults as well as children; because they are unable to bear physical or moral rejection, individuals are sucked under. The phenomenon that Jocelyn Bell calls "sinking to Jago level" reaches the Ropers—who are later offered a chance to escape—and also affects Hannah Perrott.
Social commentators seem to have been especially aware of the inversion or distortion of moral values, though criminality was seen as an inherent product of the environment. Of the same district in Shoreditch a writer observed: "There are men here whom it is impossible to convince that stealing is a crime. They were born into evil, bred on stealing, and it is their means of livelihood". In the fiercely competitive street life of late Victorian London, a certain type of class war was being waged. In Morrison's Jago, people not only take to plundering each other's property, but keep delivering attacks on the well-stocked shops in Meakin Street, and on wealthy passersby—walking in some streets of East London was actually fraught with dangers for everyone. But their predatory instinct carries them further afield. Dicky ventures as far as St Paul's, while Josh takes the train to Canonbury to commit burglary, disturbing the suburban tranquillity enjoyed by a High Mobsman who directly exploits East End thieves. Warehouses are also visited—the "great goods depot of a railway company" at the end of Bethnal Green Road and the neighbouring tobacco factories are preyed upon by the Jagos. The "fat's a-running" industry, i.e. snatching goods from vehicles and running away, is part of the sport practised by the able-bodied and younger members. "To venture a load of goods up Luck Row" was perilous indeed, the narrator observes when describing the experience of a newly-appointed carman who rashly chases a thief into the Jago area. After plundering, the compromising objects are quickly disposed of. Other instances of stealing, burgling, peter-claiming, swindling are also depicted in Divers Vanities (1905). In The Hole in the Wall, fighting, smuggling, violence and murder flourish unhindered by the river. Dicky himself sometimes resorts to the riverside area, as well as to the market-places in Mile End and Stepney, or to Liverpool Street Station to do some bag-carrying, though the struggle is all the more savage as he intrudes upon territories where the local boys claim their hunting right. He is more secure in his own district and shares this feeling with his father. In the Jago's movement from exposure to shelter, from enemy territory to family or community (and vice versa), can be seen a pattern characteristic of hunters in primitive societies: the man roams abroad, till he finds the food or the articles necessary for his sustenance and mat of his family.
As in tribal groups there is an endless feud between families, the Ranns and the Learys inside the Jago, but also an eternal feud, racial in character, between the Jago area and Dove Lane, with peaceful spells between the battles underlined by bouts of general rejoicing at Mother Gapp's. Nevertheless, they are united by a common feeling against the police: hostility and distrust. Their code of morals forbids them to "nark", and retaliation threatens informers—Aaron Weech is thus murdered by Josh Perrott when the latter is released from prison. As for Dicky, he refuses to tell the name of his young assassin. "Thou shalt not nark" is one of the first commandments of the Jago creed. Any police intervention is resented as a violation; people observe the law of silence or attempt to baffle any investigation. In Darkest England there can be no intrusion or trespassing.
This specifically urban type of criminality was partially due to the presence of uncleared, foul spots, notably in East London. Distressing slum-dwelling conditions, coupled with destitution and disease, could not but sharpen the moral and social problem of criminality, which became all the more acute as urban growth gathered pace and as the rift between East and West, the poor and the rich, widened. Moreover those facts were variously perceived by the public. The existence of a hard core of criminals amidst a working class community did cast a shadow over the East End as a whole. Morrison's descriptions were sometimes misread and their actual bearing misinterpreted. A book reviewer went so far as to warn his readers: "let us not delude ourselves into imagining that half London is inhabited by a race of Yahoos". This sweeping statement prompted the author to react in a letter to the editor of the Spectator in which he insists on his personal knowledge of life in East London and rejects the unfair generalization. The concept of dangerous classes, mentioned above, was part of the prejudiced associations latent in the mind of the middle-class public. Though Morrison's work has no strictly statistical basis, it has sometimes been incorrectly judged, just as Mayhew's description of street folk has been made to encompass all the poor and working-class population of London. Despite his protests, Morrison may nonetheless have unwittingly contributed, through the very forcefulness of his East End studies, to lay an undue emphasis on the question of urban violence and criminality among the poor, east of Aldgate. His stories have given the city poor a metaphorical dimension which appears to be responsible for simplified modern visions of the "brutal, murderous London of the late 19th century", to cite V.S. Pritchett's words.
If determinism is sometimes blurred or hard to define, human behaviour proceeding both from a broadly genetic process and an environmental phenomenon, A Child of the Jago is clearly basically naturalistic in character. Théodore de Wyzewa, a contemporary French critic, perceived it to be so in his article entitled "Un naturaliste anglais", published in 1897. Although the English equivalent of Zola did not develop as a naturalist, his picture is sociologically significant. The existence of criminal rookeries was known, but a detailed description was needed to throw the issues into sharp relief, to shake the sensibilities and rouse the conscience of the middle-class. The demonstration agrees with J. J. Tobias's insistence on the strict relation between environment and crime when he writes: "These youngsters were criminal in England because of lack of work and because of the pernicious effects of a morally unhealthy urban environment". In Dicky Perrott's tragedy we find a striking exposure of society's sly ways of rejecting an individual's attempt to better his condition. Society maintains and safeguards its rigid hierarchy. In the same way as the Jago dictates its law to its immigrants, the world outside the ghetto keeps the status quo. The novel may in fact be seen as presenting a realistic and pessimistic view of urban and social mobility.
H. D. Traill, in his attack of the book in The Fortnightly Review, to which Morrison replied in The New Review, asserted that it was not impossible to escape from the Jago, thus refuting Dicky's predicament. In an interview given in 1907, Morrison himself indicated this possibility if only in the form of a radical break—transplantation through the adoption of children for example. In the same interview the author expressed his intentions and expounded his views of the "curse of environment":
In A Child of the Jago it was my desire to show that, no matter how good a boy might be, or how great his abilities, there was no chance for him if he was put in the wrong environment, and that if his lot was thrown among the habitual criminals, he was inevitably bound to become a criminal.
More explicit of the naturalistic nature of his picture is his earlier analysis published in 1900 where he stresses the fundamentally deterministic value of his demonstrative case:
The root of the whole problem is the child, and it was to show this that I wrote the story of the Jago, one of the worst of all the districts in the East End. I took a boy through the whole of his life in the environment of the Jago, and tried to show how he was crushed at every turn, and how helpless any effort to uplift him was.
Upbringing and environment are powerful influences: "stealing became a moral habit" to the boy—which means that, as Dicky is morally determined, the moral debate is irrelevant and the social one is essential. "So criminals are made and paupers are brought into the world", Morrison concludes, implicitly accusing society.
If statistical data are rare in Morrison's novel—we know that there are seventy males on ticket of leave in Old Jago Street alone—, William Booth's work, In Darkest England, provides us with figures on criminality and suicide which substantiate his idea of the oppressing forces bearing on the population that is "partially, no doubt, bred to prison, the same as other people are bred to the army and to the bar". In his mind society is to blame for the existence of "the hereditary criminal", since in many cases such causes as poverty or "sheer starvation" are determining factors:
Absolute despair drives many a man into the ranks of the criminal class, who would never have fallen into the category of criminal convicts if adequate provision had been made for the rescue of those drifting to doom. When once he has fallen, circumstances seem to combine to keep him there.
Dicky Perrott's life is a study in depth of the impossible emergence of a talented boy. Family education and experience in the street are too powerful to be discarded, so that, despite a brave attempt at improvement—through decent, honest work—, the criminal context proves the victor. The Jago frustrates his higher ambitions, plunges him into its murderous ways, and eventually, causes his death.
Morrison's presentation of East London constitutes a social indictment, a statement of failure on several counts, which spells out the crying need for adequate organization. As far as town planning is concerned, A Child of the Jago is a realistic story based on a slum clearance scheme. While the crowded, insanitary district moulds characters and shapes events, the transformation of the structure by demolition serves as a background to the crisis. Only at the end does the changed area defeat Josh Perrott who can no longer find a refuge in his flight. It is unquestionable that the destruction of rookeries cleared dangerous quarters where policing was difficult, besides providing more wholesome lodgings. But Morrison did not fail to highlight the contradictions and inadequacies of such schemes.
If the demolition of "the foul old lanes" and the "subterraneous basements where men and women had swarmed, and bred, and died, like wolves in their lairs" can be regarded as a positive achievement, as it also served to deter criminality in that particular area, the planning scheme which intended to "wipe out the blackest spot in the Jago" was a partial failure. In the novel, Morrison mocks the eager philanthropic movement which intended to "abolish poverty and sin" in that part of the East End, and points out that people were very reluctant to leave the Jago. They devised all sorts of pretexts to postpone their eviction and, when they left, preferred to rent a room in another area. Morrison ironically notes this tendency to crowd neighbouring districts.
They did not return to live in the new barrack-buildings; which was a strange thing, for the County Council was charging very little more than double the rents which the landlords of the Old Jago had charged.
The only successful case presented is Kiddo Cook, whose prosperity enables him to take two rooms in the new County Council dwellings. Similarly, H. J. Dyos and D. A. Reeder point to the paradox of these urban improvements, which were
hailed as a means of clearing the slums, though they had hardly ever failed to aggravate them, for their effect always was to reduce the supply of working class housing, either absolutely or in terms of the kind of houses which those turned out of doors by their operations could afford or wish to occupy.
The complaint was not new in the 1890s though the range of it had altered: the lowest strata of slum-dwellers were the worst hit. Moreover, in the case of the Old Nichol Area, the number of people to be rehoused was gradually reduced, as indicated in The Housing Question in London (1900). On the one hand, town-planners were concerned, as they are to-day, with problems of expenditure and rent; on the other, people shrank from living in lodgings so rationally, or impersonally, laid out—they resented any interference. What was more subjective but nonetheless real was the ineradicable habits of the destitute deplored by Octavia Hill in Houses of the London Poor in 1875: "Transplant them to-morrow to healthy and commodious houses, and they would pollute and destroy them". She disbelieved in public intervention and favoured individual initiative, with good results in some cases only. Many medical officers were reluctant to act forcefully through the Sanitation Acts, because they rightly thought that expulsion meant further overcrowding. Also, though various bodies were conscious of the relation between rent-paying and wage-earning, it was not until the turn of the century that adequate solutions were realistically examined. The Public Health Act of 1875 was insufficiently enforced. Yet, on the credit side, some progress was made towards a better grasp of the social problems of overcrowding and slum-dwelling.
Even though the clearance scheme was already in progress when Morrison gathered his material in the district of the Old Nichol in Shoreditch, his novel had a definite, if tardy, influence, as testifies the reference made by the Prince of Wales in 1900 at the official opening of the new lodgings. It is no mean achievement on the author's part to have illustrated the problem so well. But Morrison's outlook was pessimistic. To the objection that the slums were slowly disappearing, he replied in 1900:
Are you quite sure of that? You drive the people away by pulling down their houses, but you drive them to another place—that is all. One slum goes, another comes. The lower East-End, as we know it to-day, will disappear, but it will appear farther out ( … ). The same evils we are seeking to destroy in Central London are growing up in the suburbs. In many of the larger suburban towns the people are being crowded together, and some day Greater London will be face to face with the slum problem as we have it in the East-End to-day.
Starting from the observation that the load was merely transferred from one area to another, and that the movement generated from the centre, he reached the conclusion that the centrifugal shift would affect the suburbs. Fortunately the prophecy of an outgrowing housing problem was not to be realized in such terms.
Correspondingly the problem of criminality could not be solved simply by wiping out criminals' haunting places—the root causes could not be obliterated overnight. Young Dicky Perrott, as we have seen, inevitably relapses into his former habits despite the advice and protective support of a priest, which proves that moral precepts and honest living are defeated. In fact, harsh contact with daily reality has abated the ideals and the enthusiasm of both the surgeon and the missioner in the Jago. In an enlightening dialogue, the surgeon acknowledges the failure of medicine to deal with the consequence of the high birth rate, but advocates the right to curb the proliferation of children in such a dangerous environment:
Is there a child in all this place that wouldn't be better dead—still better unborn? ( … )
Here lies the Jago, a nest of rats, breeding, breeding, as only rats can; and we say it is well. On high moral grounds we uphold the right of rats to multiply their thousands.
As for Father Sturi, he confesses that the situation is hopeless, while stoically insisting on the duty he has to perform.
These ideas are taken up in the Saturday Journal article where Morrison voices his private views on the impossibility of influencing the race of criminals and paupers. Because the latter frustrate any hope of improvement he proposes a strict control: "Personally I should be in favour of almost any means which would restrict the growth of such a race" in order "to eliminate danger to the community". An d he suggests segregation and transportation. If this solution, and indeed the notion of a race apart, is rather unpalatable in the 1970s, it nevertheless stems from a keen wish to protect vulnerable individuals, and, first and foremost, children—"the care of the children is really of grave importance", he adds—, which may mitigate the brutality of the proposal.
Poverty increased certain types of criminal offence, because the Poor Law was inadequate and the workhouses were considered to be worse than prisons. They dissuaded needy people from applying for relief and were even regarded as schools for gaol-birds. As for the failure of penal measures, Morrison is more precise when he examines the problem of hooliganism. Condemning the leniency of justice, he recommends a deterrent punishment—the cat-o'-nine-tails in cases of violence. This proposition recalls two features in A Child of the Jago. When Josh Perrott weighs the pros and cons before committing his burglary, or robbery with violence, he shudders at the thought of the cat, like all the Jago toughs. Dicky Perrott, on the other hand, would rather take a whipping than go to a reformatory. Although Morrison's analysis is correct on the whole, the problem of urban hooliganism included elements and factors beyond his ken. His was a plea for an unsentimental, hence realistic, apprehension of the bankruptcy of religious, social and judicial measures.
Education was also inadequate in the East End. The Education Acts left loopholes in their regulations, and inspectors could not enforce the measures capable of schooling the young East Londoners. If the number of juvenile delinquents alarmed the authorities, compulsory education contributed in no negligible way to diminish the rate of criminality, if only because it kept young children from the streets where they were "learning their lessons of evil". Besides, the opening of Institutes proceeded from an attempt to find an appropriate cultural and educational means of reaching working-class people, and of catering for the masses in dense urban districts. In To London Town, Johnny attends evening courses at the Institute founded by a shipbuilder, which includes a gymnasium, a cricket club and activities like boxing, also cookery and dressmaking for girls. This recalls the example of the People's Palace as a way of educating the culturally underdeveloped working-class area of Poplar in the East End. Morrison, who had quitted the post of secretary to the Beaumont Trust administering this scheme after four years of active work, later criticized the development of the institution into a polytechnic, seemingly because it had ceased to fulfil its vaster cultural and social role. Yet this venture was not lost, it paved the way for the one University in East London, Queen Mary College, an outpost of culture and advancement set in this essentially working-class district.
In his article in the Saturday Journal, he reveals his disappointment at the non-realization of cultural plans for the masses: "Such places as the People's Palace, and a hundred others—excellent institutions all of them—do not reach the people they are started for". He also pinpoints the delusion, which affected outside visitors, of "imagining that these well-dressed people were once the dirty, ragged, vulgar people these institutions were built for", and then condemns the misdirection of otherwise praiseworthy endeavours. His purpose is clearly to de-bunk his contemporaries' dangerous complacency. "Let us be honest", he concludes, "and not pretend that we are reaching people who are quite beyond our influence". This is a statement of failure and incompetence, stemming from a pessimistic view of the possibility of social improvements. Equally pessimistic is the description of miscarried ventures in the rookeries. Slumming led to philanthropic blunders, which are satirized in A Child of the Jago, notably in the form of the East End Elevation Mission and Pansophical Institute. Superior or paternalistic attitudes were ill-suited to the character of the East-Ender; ill-adapted too, was the sentimental approach, mocked in the novel. Most charitable institutions fell short of their promises.
As positive evidence there remains Arthur Osborne Jay's (or Father Sturt's) example—a model of muscular approach to Christianity and to social problems. His down-to-earth principles, his iron discipline, his directness and singeing irony, seem to have had good results in his East End parish. Clubs could unite people, and boxing was a sport that suited their temperament and kept them away from street fights. But he refused to take advantage of their presence in the club to force religion into them. His was a new pedagogy, adapted to a tough milieu; it represented a breakaway from stale and sterile patronizing attitudes. Yet Jay was rather fatalistic as he noted only slight improvements in the Old Nichol area. Morrison probably inherited this pessimistic outlook on human nature. But both men wanted change. Jay wished to "wake up the authorities as to the state of the district", as he put it in the opening pages of A Story of Shoreditch (1896). and demanded reform for those who "enter life heavily handicapped". Morrison, too, still believed in social reform, if not in a social revolution:
There is not likely to be any great upheaval. The East-End is no revolutionist. And in the main it is much better than its reputation. But there will always be room for the social reformer, as there will be in every great city, and the most hopeful aspect of his work, I think, will be that which aims at the child.
This is an appeal to concentrate duly on the future generation in the city.
Arthur Morrison's record of East End life should be examined in relation to the sociological works of men like Booth and of social workers and reformers like Octavia Hill. Morrison is one of the few writers who wrote forcefully and convincingly of the "People of the Abyss" in the 1890s, to refer to the title of Jack London's social novel published in 1902. If Morrison's books had such an enduring impact, it is partly because his account of East London represented a shock treatment for the public, but also and essentially because his presentation supported as well as foreshadowed other descriptions and parallel images drawn by contemporary writers and social historians. His work both crystallized and perpetuated a portrayal of an East End calling for reform.
His exposure of the physical and moral degradation of the poor and working-class population in the East End implies that determinism of the environment should not prevail, and that alleviation if not complete eradication, of hardships and handicaps, are possible by eliminating the causal errors, the blameful shortcomings of social structures. If the Jago already represented an old battle when Morrison published his fictional account, the problems raised reach beyond its contemporary, documentary value. It is exemplary of the housing question whenever society relinquishes its responsibilities and fails to cater for its needy members—especially the children whose expectancies are frustrated.
Although W.C. Frierson correctly sees the naturalistic current in A Child of the Jago, one must question his conclusion that "Morrison draws no lesson and preaches a sermon" and that "he accepts the low creature's depravity". The author's quotation from Ezekiel, which heads the novel, is indicative of his intention to rouse public opinion. The message borne out by Morrison's work is the necessity for a solution to the larger issue of urban poverty and criminality—still a relevant problem to-day when unfavourable environment favours unsocial or delinquent attitudes. In Lizerunt's fate and in Dicky Perrott's tragic life, the reader may feel a desire for a truly equalitarian city, where equal opportunities should be made available to all its inhabitants, a plea for improving the material conditions and for raising the educational and moral standards of the disinherited through supporting bodies, which should be organized yet flexible. This desired urban therapy depends on a reform of social legislation, which ultimately rests on the politico-economic plane.
His social exposures paved the way for the welfare state, but there remain issues on which the battle to be waged is sure to be a long one. One can cite for example two present-day problems: the question of battered wives and the dockland redevelopment program in East London. The former is more universal in its bearing—with some reservation one is tempted to say that Lizerunt is with us still. It involves family morals as well as social legislation, whereas the second more specifically concerns town planning policy. In a pamphlet issued by the London Docklands Study Team in April 1973, one may read: "Some parts of the Area have interest and character, but the general impression of the physical environment is of drabness and deterioration", and one of the first alternatives proposed is "to provide housing for families living in overcrowding conditions or in dilapidated property". Mean streets and mean lodgings still. The East End has witnessed a radical alteration due to the closure of the docks; it is ironic that industry should now be asked to migrate to the East End to meet the labour supply of this essentially working-class community. In this period of economic crisis in Britain, redeployment has come to a head, though the long term programme will be carried to the nineties—the 1990s. As in Victorian times, there are housing problems and planning misjudgements, and social priorities are still matter for debate in East London.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2555
SOURCE : "The Damned and the Innocent: Two Novels by Arthur Morrison," in London Magazine, Vol. 19, No. 2, February, 1980, pp. 62-7.
[In the following essay, Severn praises Morrison's work in A Child of the Jago and A Hole in the Wall.]
Of the minor novelists who formed the 'realist' school at the turn of the century only Gissing has an established place in the literature of his time. Arthur Morrison, who at his best was a writer of greater power, has been forgotten. The reason is not far to seek: of his 15 volumes only one is truly distinguished, and one other notable enough to merit consideration.
Morrison was born in 1863, the son of an East End engine fitter (a background that he was at some pains to conceal), and spent some time in his twenties as a social worker in Walter Besant's People's Palace in Mile End Road. He turned men to journalism, joining the staff of a London daily newspaper, and presently published in Macmillan's Magazine a number of stories which attracted the attention of W. E. Henley, the distinguished editor of the National Observer, whose contributors included Barrie, Kipling, Hardy, Wells and Stevenson. In 1894 Morrison's contributions to these two periodicals were collected as Tales of Mean Streets, and with his next two volumes he joined the fairly considerable number of imitators of the Sherlock Holmes stories. In all he published seven novels and eight volumes of stories, but apart from Selected Tales (1929) and Fiddle O'Dreams, which appeared as late as 1933, he wrote no fiction after 1909. He had by then become an authority on Oriental painting, and published in 1911 a two-volume study, The Painters of Japan, which still holds a respectable place in its field; his collection of Chinese and Japanese paintings was bought by the British Museu m in 1913. Morrison did not die until 1945, when his copyrights passed by bequest to the Westminster Hospital and the NSPCC.
His first novel is of no importance, but the second, A Child of the Jago, which Henley published in instalments in the New Review in 1896, is a work of horrifying power. In it he sets out 'to tell the story of the [Jago] … and of a boy who, but for his environment, would have become a good citizen'. Bu t in that environment the boy is tricked into theft by a hymn-singing receiver of stolen property, for whose murder his father is hanged, and is eventually knifed in a street fight. It is a terrible story, and it is written from the inside: the Jago actually existed, though that was not its name, and Morriso n had little need to draw on his imagination for his material. He sets the scene at once:
It was past the mid of a summer night in the Old Jago. The narrow street was all the blacker for the lurid sky; for there was a fire in the farther part of Shoreditch, and the welkin was an infernal coppery glare. Below, the hot, heavy air lay, a rank oppression, on the contorted forms of those who made for sleep on the pavement: and in it, and through it all, there rose from the foul earth and the grimed walls a close, mingled stink—the odour of the Jago … There the Jago, for one hundred years the blackest pit in London, lay and festered; and half-way along Old Jago Street a narrow archway gave upon Jago Court, the blackest hole in all that pit.
A square of two hundred and fifty yards or less—that was all there was of the Jago. But in that square the human population swarmed in thousands … What was too vile for Kate Street, Seven Dials, and Ratcliff Highway in its worst day, what was too useless, incapable and corrupt—all that teemed in the Old Jago.
The Jago itself is thus a major character in the novel. Ol d Beveridge points out to the boy the Hig h Mobsmen , the big-time gangsters, 'swaggerin g in check suits and billycocks, gold chains and humpy rings':
'Now, Dicky Perrott, you Jago whelp, look at them—look hard. Some day, if you're clever—cleverer than anyone in the Jago now—if you're only scoundrel enough, and brazen enough, and lucky enough—one of a thousand—maybe you'll be like them: bursting with high living, drunk when you like, red and pimply. There it is—that's your aim in life—that's your pattern … It's the best the world has for you, for the Jago's got you, and that's the only way out, except the gaol and the gallows. So do your devilmost, or God help you, Dicky Perrott—though he won't: for the Jago's got you!'
It is an area where women lure strangers to their squalid rooms so that their men may cosh them for the contents of their pockets. The Rann s and the Learys with their factions fight savage street battles, but entertain their common enemies from Dov e Lane with muc h punctilio. Cupboards are empty, the children are left to fend for themselves, the proceeds of theft are spent on drink. The only purpose is self-preservation, the condition of survival is cunning, the only commandment is 'Thou shalt not nark'.
Although it is somewhat old-fashioned in tone, Morrison's prose is spare and muscular. He has the journalist's eye for detail, the journalist's economy. He preaches no gospel. 'My East End stories,' he wrote, … '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 the reader. I could best bring in real life by keeping myself and my moralizings out of it.' The result is not Dickens's nightmare representation of the London slums: it is Hogarth's Gin Lane:
Down the middle of Old Jago Street came Sally Green: red-faced, stripped to the waist, dancing, hoarse and triumphant. Nail-scores wide as the finger striped her back, her face, and her throat, and she had a black eye; but in one great hand she dangled a long bunch of clotted hair as she whooped defiance to the Jago. It was a trophy newly rent from the scalp of Norah Walsh, a champion of the Rann womanhood who had crawled away to hide her blighted head and be restored with gin.
The power of that passage is sustained throughout. The novel has three outstanding qualities—Morrison's steadiness of vision, his accuracy of observation, and the assurance with which he handles each of his major scenes. If A Child of the Jago fails as a work of art it is because he has not yet mastered his craft as he has certainly mastered his material. Hi s characters are simply drawn—not lacking in conviction but lacking in depth; in the early chapters the quality of his imagination is not always matched by the quality of his narrative; the heavily ironical tone of several passages is an intrusive element; the concentration on squalor, crime and violence is too intense, the range of colour too restricted, so that there is not enough variation of texture, pace and tension; and the episodic nature of the story robs the theme of a little of its force. But if A Child of the Jago is something less than a masterpiece, it is much more than a work of mere promise. It is a substantial achievement by a writer with power in reserve, a necessary preparation for The Hole in the Wall, which was published in 1902 and has recently been reissued by the Folio Society, and is by any standards a masterpiece.
The scene is Dockland in (presumably) the 'eighties of the last century, and much of the action is presented through the half-comprehending eyes of another small boy, Stephen, who comes to live with his grandfather, a retired sea captain and a receiver, in a riverside pub which gives the novel its title. This is not an area for strangers to enter, though many unsuspecting seamen do, to be coshed and robbed and, if necessary, dropped in the river: the alley walls are plastered with police notices headed 'Found Drowned'. The whole life of the area is in this story, the seamen, the polluted, twisting, gas-lit alleys, the locks and wharves, the stink of stale beer and garbage, the dubious business in every corner and rathole. Plots are hatched, mouths closed by fear or the cosh, disappearances noted in silence. When Marr, an absconding ship-owner, is robbed of his wallet, which contains more than £800, the money comes by accident into the hands of Grandfather Nat, who determines to keep it for Stephen's education, since Marr was responsible for the death of the boy's father. But the hunt is on: not only Marr's partner, Viney, but every petty criminal in this warren is after it.
The material, then, is that of a thriller, and Morrison brings to it the swiftness and economy of a writer practised in that genre, sustaining the excitement with masterly control. Simply as an exercise in plotting The Hole in the Wall is superbly accomplished, and the story is strong enough not to be dislocated by the occasional shifts of viewpoint. Although there is nowhere any sense of constriction, there is not an incident, not a paragraph or a detail that fails either to advance the story or to develop the background. But the novel's strength lies not only in the unbroken chain of causality: it lies also in the unity of tone, which is sustained unfalteringly whether the narrator is the child Stephen or the omniscient novelist. Above all it lies in the remarkable skill with which Morrison ensures that every twist and turn of the plot derives from the characters of these stupid, blundering little criminals, who live from moment to moment, for ever plotting but unable to think more than one move ahead, and forced by every new development to change their plans. Nothing appears to be contrived, because the next move is always unforeseen. There is another element, too, which removes all possibility that the novel may degenerate into crude melodrama. The presentation of the story through Stephen's eyes is not a mere technical device to enhance the interest or elaborate the plot: it adds another dimension, implicitly and in every paragraph, by establishing the contrast between the rampant evil of the action and the child's innocence, a contrast made all the more effective by the steady progress towards redemption of Grandfather Nat.
Morrison's sense of place is acute, and his eye for detail so unerring that the story commands one's assent with absolute authority:
Scarce eighty yards from Blue Gate stood Blind George, fiddling his hardest for a party dancing in the roadway. Many were looking on, drunk or sober, with approving shouts; and every face was ghastly phosphorescent in the glare of a ship's blue-light that a noisy negro flourished among the dancers.
So too with his characters, Blind George exuding evil, with his left eye 'horribly wide and white and rolling', like the china marble in Stephen's pocket, and his 'flow o' language as would curl the sheathing off a ship's bottom'; little Cripps the sign-painter, with his dirty hands and lank dirty hair and his nose 'wide and bulbous and knobbed all over' under his greasy wideawake hat; Viney's 'yellow face, ever stretched in an uneasy grin, a grin that might mean either propitiation or malice, and remained the same for both'; the charwoman, Mr s Grimes, 'rusty and bony, slack-faced and very red-nosed', who 'swept the carpet and dusted the shelves with an air of angry contempt for everything she touched'. They have, every one of them, not only character but personality. Dickens might have drawn them, but he would have exaggerated the lighting, made them eccentric and romanticized them with his curious poetry. Morrison does no such thing. His characters are drawn to the life, and belong as ineluctably to this environment as do the rotting buildings, the lighters, the snug in the bar parlour to which come petty thieves with something to sell. They are more complex, more closely observed, more deeply understood than those of A Child of the Jago. In that novel the characters have always been what they are; but those of The Hole in the Wall have become what they are. Nothing about them, not a flicker of an eye or an inflection of the voice, escapes Morrison's notice. They are not controlled by the plot: they create it.
And yet the plot is inescapable, and Morrison moves his story steadily towards its climax through a succession of major scenes that are handled with masterly authority. Marr, already coshed and robbed, is dragged off between his murderers to be dropped in die river; they are singing at the tops of their voices, pretending to be two drunks helping another home. Ogle, the murderer, is blinded with slaked lime on the marshes where he is hiding by the blind man he has abused. Here is the finding of Marr's body:
The rope came up from its entanglement with a spring and a splash, flinging some amazing great object up with it, half out of water; and the men gave a cry as this thing lapsed heavily to the surface.
The man in the boat snatched his hook again and reached for the thing as it floated. Somebody threw him a length of line, and with this he made it fast to his boat, and began pulling towards the stairs, towing it. I was puzzled to guess what the object might be. It was no part of the lighter's rudder, for it lay in, rather than on, the water, and it rolled and wallowed, and seemed to tug heavily, so that the boatman had to pull his best … He brought up alongside the foreshore, and he and another hauled at the tow-rope. The thing in the water came in, rolling and bobbing, growing more hideously distinct as it came; it checked at the mud and stones, turned over, and with another pull lay ashore, staring and grey and streaming: a dead man. The lips were pulled tight over the teeth, and, the hair being fair, it was the plainer to see that one side of the head and forehead was black and open with a great wound. The limbs lay limp and tumbled, all: but one leg fell aside with so loose a twist that plainly it was broken, and I heard, afterwards, that it was the leg that had caused the difficulty with the hawser.
That exactness and steadiness of observation, with its suggestion of yet more power in reserve, never falters. Without hurry, and without the least sign of strain, Morrison has achieved what few novelists ever achieve, a book in which all the elements—scene, action, character and moral problem—are woven into a seamless fabric. We know this area and these people as if we lived among them, we feel the fear that counterpoints the dreadful story at every turn; and when we have come through to safety with Stephen at the end, we salute the book with the satisfaction one always feels over something superbly well done. It is a work of classic quality, and deserves a permanent place in English literature.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5494
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 over 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 consumption when Arthur was a boy, and his mother raised the three children by running a haberdasher's shop in Grundy Street. Arthur himself took a job early as office boy in the architect's department of the School Board of London at a weekly salary of seven shillings, and moved up to junior and then "third class" clerk in 1886, when he left to become secretary of the Beaumont Trust, which administered Besant's People's Palace. There he started a Dickensian kind of journalistic ascent, publishing pieces on the East End in the Palace Journal, honing his journalistic skills at the evening Globe, and finally attracting attention, like Boz, with the publication in Macmillan's Magazine (October 1891) of his sketch of "A Street" in the East End.
As his brief biography might suggest, Morrison underwent an embourgeoisement that took him beyond his East End roots. The dialogue that his writings create is with a middle-class reading audience. But he saw himself as an authentic voice of the urban slum experience, and his early works provided such a strikingly different version of the East End that they immediately created a small critical sensation. They were unlike the representations of the poor that had dominated the literature for half a century. Thus Morrison rejects the sentimental and the melodramatic for a laconic, unmodulated prose that rarely rises to a dramatic climax. He portrays of world of gratuitous violence or enervating degradation which offers up no meaning to the middle-class reader; it cannot be integrated into the systems of value, psychology, or material relations of the middle class. Morrison's world seems to be of a different order altogether.
The bourgeois feminine sensibility, … [once] the site of affective connection between the middle class and the urban underclass, … no longer provides a focal point around which to construct even the effect of subjectivity. In "Lizerunt," the most famous story in Morrison's first book, Tales of Mean Streets (1894), the protagonist Elizabeth Hunt differs significantly from the pure and "unexpressive" young women who became the channels for middle-class ethical projection. As the corruption of her name to "Lizerunt" signifies, she has scarcely any chance to assert her own integrity and separate identity. Her time as a saucy young flirt, playing off the boys against each other, proves to be short; she attaches herself to Billy Chope in spite of his viciousness, and descends quickly into a life of steadily increasing degradation, in which she gradually becomes coarsened. Morrison graphically renders the relationships of East End existence that had been missing from the earlier journalistic and sociological accounts. They are not uplifting.
… Billy, rising at ten with a bad mouth, resolved to stand no nonsense, and demanded two shillings.
"Two bob? Wot for?" Lizer asked.
"Cos I want it. Non o' yer lip."
"Ain't got it," said Lizer sulkily.
"That's a bleed'n' lie."
"I'll break y'in 'arves, ye blasted 'eifer!" He ran at her throat and forced her back over a chair. "I'll pull yer face auf! If y' don't give me the money, gawblimy, I'll do for you!"
Lizer strained and squalled. "Le' go! You'll kill me an' the kid too!" she grunted hoarsely. Billy's mother ran in and threw her arms about him, dragging him away. "Don't Billy," she said, in terror. "Don't Billy—not now! You'll get in trouble. Come away! She might go auf, an' you'd get in trouble!"
Billy Chope flung his wife over and turned to his mother. 'Take yer 'ands auf me," he said: "go on, or I'll gi' ye somethin' for yerself." And he punched her in the breast by way of illustration.
Billy later tries to abuse Lizer within hours after she has given birth to their unwanted baby and has to be thrown out of the house by the attending medical student, who is then roundly attacked by both Lizer and Billy's mother for interfering. He is an outsider who clearly does not understand the codes of East End life, which follows its own brutal logic. When Billy's mother dies from overwork, too poor for a decent burial because he has stolen all her savings, Lizer then feels the full brunt of his meanness. And the story ends with him forcing her into prostitution.
"Lizerunt" follows Rudyard Kipling's remarkable story, "The Record of Badalia Herodsfoot," in detailing the "creed and law" that governs slum life. Badalia is recruited into service by the local curate to help distribute alms because she is streetwise enough to spot a fraudulent claim and because she is not above smashing the face of any woman who tries to steal food or money meant for those in need. The story tells of her struggle between maintaining the trust that has been placed in her and her adherence to the slum code of womanhood that says she will be faithful to her drunken husband to the end. The struggle proves fatal; her husband beats her mercilessly in an attempt to get the alms-money out of her. Yet even on her deathbed she refused to accuse him—thus keeping both "trusts."
Morrison and Kipling sketch out an East End that is more complexly—and fatalistically—coded than that of earlier accounts. It is no longer a land of shadows cast by the projections of middle-class subjectivity, no longer a terra incognita to be read in line with the dominant class anxieties and desires. It constitutes its own social order: a subsystem of gender relations that exert a power within their own domain that cannot be interpolated into bourgeois categories of self-agency. The slums of Morrison and Kipling acquire a density of customs and personal patterns that had rarely been observed in earlier accounts, as if, in Morrison's case especially, there were an effort to say that the East End is not simply an object of upperclass anxiety or domination, but an entity in and of itself. At the same time that he asserts this, Morrison also insists upon the enclosed, immobilizing fatality of that world: its immersion in violence, its deadened submission to poverty, its constricting social containment. The vicious circularity of the poor is symptomized by the frequent set pieces of Amazonian brawls between women, such as this one from a later Morrison work:
Down the middle of Old Jago Street came Sally Green: red-faced, stripped to the waist, dancing, hoarse and triumphant. Nail-scores wide as the finger striped her back, her face, and her throat, and she had a black eye; but in one great hand she dangled a long bunch of clotted hair, as she whooped in defiance to the Jago. It was a trophy newly rent from the scalp of Norah Walsh, champion of the Rann womenkind, who had crawled away to hide her blighted head, and be restored with gin.
For all the efforts of social services to confirm the woman as the ethical center of lower-class life, she turns out, in many of these stories, to be as uncontrollable as the men, at her worst, or too passive to resist her own victimization, at her best. …
The conditions of Morrison's East End not only diminish the capacity of women to act as an ethical force in family and neighborhood; the economic isolation of the slums also eliminates them as figures of commodity desire. Ironically, the objectifying in the upper classes of women into fetishes of style, beauty, even spiritual worth, transposes them into symbols of social and economic status and advancement. Clearly this is a form of dehumanization, but it has the effect of masking or finessing whatever subjection of the women is occurring. In a subsociety such as Morrison's urban slums, in which women cannot be conceived as icons of aesthetic or ethical value because there is no role for such values in the social order—no possibilities for women to be the means of financial or social improvement, no function for them to fulfill as the conservers of money and ideals—their status will be severely reduced. Their subjection will be all the more evident.
Correspondingly, die diminishment of women refigures the literary form, for die heroine as the register of morality, and as the focal point at which aesthetic and social ideals were brought together, had been essential to the English novel itself. The great experiment in the naturalist novel of the lower classes—Emile Zola's L'Assomoir, Edmond and Jules de Goncourt's Germinie Lacerteux, and George Moore's Esther Waters—had been to dramatize the moral and emotional issues of poverty and struggle through women whose victimization, and in some cases, personal weaknesses, stripped them of much of the auratic power of the conventional heroine. Moore, in particular, compensated by sentimentalizing his heroine, and it is telling that die prominent English example relies on the bourgeois ethos of feeling to sustain a measure of attraction to his protagonist. Morrison will have none of that, and, as a consequence, his writing in Mean Streets has different rhetorical rhythms; it resembles in many respects the uninflected, neutral style of Margaret Harkness's A City Girl.
The circumstances of life in the slums affect the possibilities for writing a traditional masculine text as well. The wave of optimism that prevailed at the beginning of the Victorian period, and which allowed the writers of Mayhew's generation to balance all their misgivings about the rapaciousness of die new competitive order and the loss of scope for mythicized action in men's lives against die excitement of change and social mobility … has disappeared from the scene of lower-class London. The dynamism that converts the somewhat puerile fantasy of masculine adventure and power into a vibrant, if often bizarre, scene of small entrepreneurialism and vivid sensory impression is gone. In its place is misogyny. The lower classes had always been depicted as misogynist, and we are quite aware how poverty leads to abuse and the self-hatred that goes with it, but the East End of Morrison's and Kipling's streets is the logical deterioration of the propensities of the illusory, gender-fixed compensations of die 1840s and '50s representations of an alternative underworld. … The misogynist social texts that we get of the slums thus … undermine any attempt to construct a generative male subjectivity. Morrison's male protagonists are to a man unfulfilled, fated to frustration. Economic and social conditions force this upon them, but the inchoate natures of all the characters indicate that a full, mutually interdependent code of subject construction is absent. A system such as that of the middle class, in which a female ethical subject balances and validates the agency that is granted to the male, is missing in the nether world.
This is, after all, the primary reason that the myth of a realm of primarily male adventure and "freedom" cannot be represented except in the hermetic form of the boys' adventure story, in which the protagonist never has to come of age. There is something of the same limitation in Morrison's novels about the slums, all of which focus on boyhood and young adolescence. It is only natural, in a way, that Morrison should turn to some form of the Bildungsroman for his accounts of life in the East End, since the likely course that the slum culture would take would be to imitate the middle class in its effort to establish for itself a masculine-based, if not patriarchal, order. The Bildungsroman is the form that epitomizes that effort, and we can surmise that Arthur Morrison had in mind, as a kind of model, the century's best known book about poverty, Dickens's Oliver Twist. Morrison's most famous and most compelling book on East End life, The Child of the Jago (1896), and his later novels touching on the urban slums, To London Town (1899) and The Hole in the Wall (1902), focus, therefore, on the issue of the formation of the male in the slums: the classic patriarchal story. Tellingly enough, the protagonist in each of these novels is a boy, as if to indicate that mature or "full" subjectivity is never attained in lower urban existence.
Morrison selected as his setting for A Child of the Jago one of the most anarchic and violent quarters of the East End, the Old Nichol area in Bethnal Green, a nest of streets just to the east of what is now Shoreditch High Street (about ten blocks north of Liverpool Station). The Old Nichol (which Morrison calls "The Jago"), was known as the warren of some of the most impoverished and depraved wretches in London, a pocket of narrow streets and courts that was on the verge of being demolished by the London County Council in the 1890s. Morrison spent eighteen months there, gathering impressions under the tutelage of the Reverend Arthur Osborne Jay, a well regarded and intrepid slum minister. In a later interview with The Daily News, Morrison contended that the "majority of the Jago people are semi-criminal, and an ordinary respectable working man would quickly be hounded out. …" Morrison's Jago denizens eke out an existence in robbery, burglary, picking pockets, or "coshing" unwary strangers (a "cosh" is an iron bar); the women survive making match boxes or through other marginal activities. The men and women entertain themselves with massive and bloody brawls between rival gangs, and A Child of the Jago has several unforgettable accounts of the pitched battles between the Ranns and the Learys, which rage back and forth throughout the novel.
There is no quarter given to delicate Victorian sensibilities in Jago, and the popularity of the novel was matched only by the critical outrage over its alleged grossness. Yet the violence is so spectacular, and so emblematic of the ferocity that comes out of lives of depravity and idleness, that the pathology becomes symbolic. The opening chapter establishes an atmosphere in which the specific details—of the restlessness in the Jago on a typical night, as a victim is coshed and robbed—are transposed into a symbolic setting: "Old Jago Street lay black and close under the quivering red sky: and slinking forms, as of great rats, followed one another quickly between the posts in the gut by the High Street, and scattered over the Jago." Even the violated human body auratically conveys a social pathology:
Out in the Jago the pale dawn brought a cooler air and the chance of sleep. From the paving of Old Jago Street sad grey faces, open-mouthed, looked upward as from the Valley of Dry Bones. Down by Jago Row the coshed subject, with the blood dry on his face, felt the colder air, and moved a leg.
The ostensible protagonist of the story is the Child of the Jago, Dickie Perrott, who roams its streets, participating in its random violence, its crime, and its occasional play. He is a lad of strong familial instincts, attached to his younger brother and sister, but he shares some of the community's meanness, especially toward a crippled boy, Bobby Roper, who becomes Dickie's nemesis and stands for the perverse crippling of Dickie's own conscience. Under the influence of Father Sturt (modeled after Arthur Osborne Jay), Dickie makes one effort to go straight, and work his way out of the Jago, but it is condemned to failure. Indeed, any effort to get out of the Jago, by virtuous work or by crime, is doomed, and the "moral" of the story is intoned by old Beveridge, regarded … as a trifle 'balmy', though anything but a fool," who points to a gathering of the super-criminals, the High Mobsmen, and tells Dickie,
"Now, Dickie Perrott, you Jago whelp, look at them—look hard. Some day, if you're clever—cleverer than anyone in the Jago now—if you're only scoundrel enough, and brazen enough, and lucky enough—one of a thousand—maybe you'll be like them: bursting with high living, drunk when you like, red and pimply. There it is—that's you aim in life—there's your pattern. Learn to read and write, learn all you can, learn cunning, spare nobody and stop at nothing, and perhaps—It's the best the world has for you, for the Jago's got you, and that's the only way out, except gaol and the gallows. So do your devilmost, or God help you, Dickie Perrott—though He won't: for the Jago's got you!"
If the only way out of the Jago is to emulate the High Mobsmen, it is a route through a parodic Jago-vision of the "better world" of money and power. "Those of the High Mo b were the flourishing practitioners of burglar, the mag, the mace, and die broads, with an outer fringe of such dippers—such pickpockets—as could dress well, welshers, and snidesmen. These, the grandees of rascality, lived in places far from the Jago, and some drove in gigs and pony traps." The Mobsmen and their circle mimic and exaggerate upper-class clothing and upperclass airs—those with their gigs and pony traps—and parade before their inferiors a bizarre parody of privilege and grand manners. Their affectations transmit the felt presence of upper-class power—they play out a crude image of another realm of life—but they have the upper-class codes all wrong. … Swept up in the centrifugal vortex of its ignorance and self-violence, the Jago denizen cannot conceive of the alternative world in a way that would allow him or her psychological access td it (at least in any terms that are "real"). It is as if the two spheres—the urban slums and the social world above it—are sealed off from each other. …
A social formation so detached from the prevalent order can, however, be conceived symbolically. This was, as it turned out, the very thing that Morrison's middle-class reviewers refused to allow him to do. The minute they read the disquieting book, they called it a "realistic" novel. And by "realism" they meant the English literary establishment's conception of "naturalism," a literature that dealt with lower social orders, with distasteful and debasing material, and that was characterized by graphic detail, violence, and physicality.
The late nineteenth-century English debate over realism and naturalism, then, involves much more than literary taste and style: it embodies the effort by the cultural establishment to assure that all depiction and expression of lower-class life will be kept within the power of the middle class to assimilate it and represent it. One of the major pitched battles occurred between Morrison and the prominent literary critic H. D. Traill and it is worth pursuing briefly because it focuses the issues at stake. Remarkably enough, Traill perceives at some level that Jago is a symbolic text, and it makes him so uneasy that he rushes to dismiss the possibility. He acknowledges that what "has most astonished" him "is the impression of extraordinary unreality which, taken as a whole, [the novel] leaves behind it. To a critic opposed to the theories and methods of so-called realism, this is naturally rather disconcerting." Girded to show that the realism of Jago has sacrificed art for a false and exaggerated naturalism, Traill "comes out from the Jago with the feelings, not, as he had expected, of a man who has just paid a visit to the actual district under the protection of the police, but of one who has just awakened from the dream of a prolonged sojourn in some fairyland of horror. This, to be sure, may be the effect which Mr. Morrison desired to produce: it is certainly not difficult, I think, to show that his methods are distinctly calculated to produce it; but then those methods cannot be exactly the methods which the realist professes to employ, nor that effect at which he is commonly supposed to aim." Traill insists that Morrison's work be treated as realism, that it be measured by a truth-factor and be shown to be untrue to actuality. "But I will make bold to say that as described by Mr. Morrison—described, that is to say, as a place of which, with [a] half-dozen exceptions … every single inhabitant out of 'swarming thousands' is either a thief, or a harlot, or a 'cosher' or a decoy, or a 'fence,' or a professional mendicant—it never did and never could exist. … If it is not what you would have actually found in exploring the Jago, it is no doubt what you might have found if all London had happened to pour its manifold streams of corruption into that particular sentina."
Several things bother Traill here. First, he rejects Morrison's premise that the urban slums constitute a fully fleshed-out subsociety, with its own set of codes so antithetical to bourgeois norms for the lower classes. Second, he recoils from the notion that there might be a place where people live who cannot be reached and redeemed by either sentiment or economic "logic." Realism for Traill (and others of his time) means that characters will always stand in for human subjects, and by this he means figures whose sensibility are registered on terms readily associated with middle-class values: who desire what we desire. And finally, Traill's determination to categorize Morrison as a "realist" will assure that Morrison's vision will always be grounded in material terms. …
Morrison's Jago is not accessible to that scheme. The physical details in his novel attest, paradoxically, to the estrangement of the lower classes. Amy Kaplan has noted this in American realist works, saying that they "often assume a world which lacks solidity, and the weightiness of descriptive detail—one of the most common characteristics of the realistic text—often appears in inverse proportion to a sense of insubstantiality, as though description could pin down the objects of an unfamiliar world to make it real." The spareness of Morrison's prose, its starkness—held in place only by a half-Dickensian ironic narrative commentary—constitutes not realism, at least as the English and French middle-class literary culture knew it, but a symbolic text. So disturbing is his version of slum existence, so alien, so intractable is it to middle-class representation and hegemonizing, that he has to be content with the charges that what he describes isn't there.
Consequently, an almost absurd exchange took place between Morrison and his supporters and Traill and his. The publication of Traill's essay on Morrison in his book The New Fiction was accompanied by a letter from a Mr. Woodland Erlebach, "who speaks from a thirty years' acquaintance with the district (Mr. Morrison's Jago)," and who writes, "I boldly say that the district, though bad enough, was not even thirty years ago so hopelessly bad and vile as this book paints it." Traill then appends the names and addresses of eight other people who had written letters protesting Morrison's picture of the East End. Morrison, for his part, rallied Arthur Osborne Jay to his defense, and argued his bona fides in Daily News interview. In a separate article titled "What Is a Realist?" in the New Review, he summed up all the strategies used against him:
There is a story current in the East End of London, of a distracted lady who, assailed with a request for the loan of a sauce pan, defended herself in these words:—"Tell yer mother I can't lend'er the saucepan, consekince o' 'avin lent it to Mrs. Brown, besides which I'm a-usin' of it meself, an' moreover it's gone to be mended, and what's more I ain't got one." In a like spirit of lavish objection it has been proclaimed in a breath that I transgress:—because in the first place I should not have written about the Jago in its nakedness; next, that my description is not in the least like; moreover, that it is exaggerated; further, that though it may be true, it was quite unnecessary, because the Jago was already quite familiar, and everybody knew all about it; beyond this, that the Jago houses have been pulled down; and finally that there never was any such place as the Jago. …
When the journalist Clarence Rook tried to follow in the line of Arthur Morrison in his book The Hooligan Nights (1899), a reputedly first-hand account of the life of a young criminal named Al f from the slums of South London, he seemed prepared for some of the same objections to his "realism." Thus in the Preface, he stresses that [he has written] "neither a novel, nor in any sense a work of imagination. Whatever value or interest the following chapters possess must come from the fact that their hero has a real existence. …" Rook goes on, however, to paint a picture of a slum career with a romance to it that is a long way from Dickie Perrot's existence:
When the Daily Chronicle published portions of the history of young Alf early in the year the editor received numerous complaints from well-meaning people who protested that I had painted the life of a criminal in alluring colours. They forgot, I presume, that young Alf was [a] study in reality, and that in real life the villain does not invariably come to grief before he has come of age. Poetic justice demands that young Alf should be very unhappy; as a matter of fact, he is nothing of the sort. And when you come to think of it, he has had a livelier time than the average clerk on a limited number of shillings a week. He does not know what it is to be bored. Every day has its interests, and every day has its possibility of the unexpected, which is just what the steady honest worker misses.
Young Alf is something of an original: he was trained as a boy by an acrobat to be able to creep about in absolutely complete silence; he modeled himself after South London's Patrick Hooligan, with whom, "as with the lives of Buddha and of Mahomet, legend has been at work"; and he apprenticed himself to the celebrated Billy the Snide, the most accomplished passer of false coin of his time. He lives a life along the undersides of society that often approaches, in Peter Keating's term, the "pastoral" in its freedom from moral self-doubt and in its removal from the harsh realities of the economic system. Al f glides in and out of Rook's view at times like a phantom, losing himself in back alleys, stairways, and the crowded stalls of the South London slums. He insinuates himself upon victims through his charm, and eludes capture by the same means; in one bold house burglary he saves a baby from choking to death on its night-dress and is toasted with wine by its grateful parents, the burglary victims. The Artful Dodger lives again.
A similar romanticism creeps into another Morrison-inspired novel, W. Somerset Maugham's early work Lisa of Lambeth. Liza, though a product of the margins of the slums and the lower working classes, charms the reader in ways that no denizen of the urban depths had done before her:
It was a young girl of about eighteen, with dark eyes, and an enormous fringe, puffed-out and curled and frizzed, covering her whole forehead from side to side, and coming down to meet her eyebrows. She was dressed in brilliant violet, with great lappets of velvet, and she had on her head an enormous black hat covered with feathers. …
Liza had been so intent on her new dress and the comment it was exciting that she had not noticed the organ.
"Oo, I say, let's 'ave some dancin'," she said as soon as she saw it. "Come on, Sally," she added, to one of the girls, "you an' me'll dance togither. Grind away, old cock!"
Spirited, genial, fun-loving, engagingly flamboyant in dress and gesture, Liza is perhaps the most affecting figure in late nineteenth-century representations of the poor. Yet the dark futility of the slums quickly casts its shadow upon her. She proves vulnerable to the charms of a married man who will not leave his family to marry her, and she is turned into a pariah among the Lambeth lower working class. Caught up in an awful determinism, she slips into social ruin, finally beaten so severely by her lover's wife, in one of those celebrated fights among women which seemed to have become staples of the novel of the lower classes after Zola and Morrison, that she miscarries the child she is carrying, and dies of its complications. The paradigm is similar to that of a Mean Streets story, but the difference is that a winsome, vital figure emerges briefly in the portrait of Liza. A personality is created and possibilities for self-definition are suggested, as if in an effort to open up a space for a gentler, happier experience among the lowest of the working classes and the urban poor. Liza has time to dream, to fall in love, to play cricket in the streets with the neighborhood children, to go off with her boyfriend on a lively, pleasurable bank holiday excursion. Maugham, who observed many of the conditions of Lambeth poverty during his years there as a medical student and clerk to physicians, shared some of Morrison's pessimism about the bridging of social spheres—and Liza's death symbolizes the futility of it—yet the tenor of Liza of Lambeth differs greatly from that of "Lizerunt." A new element has been infused into the line of slum novels so dramatically begun by Morrison. Just as Alf's joie de vivre absolves us from the depressing fatality of poverty and petty criminality, so we can find solace in Liza's sharing of the same desires that any lower middle-class girl might. Her instinctive good-heartedness can pass for a lower-class version of ethics; she is potentially redeemable, transformable within the system. The fact that she cannot rise above her blighted circumstances may make her, in an odd way, more comforting to the reader, for she enacts the myth that says that the lower class share bourgeois English traits and are resigned to exercise them in even the most unpromising of circumstances.
Rook's and Maugham's novels belong to the line of late nineteenth-century literature that Peter Keating categorizes as the Cockney School of novel. These novels generally dealt with the urban lower working class, and only occasionally with the hard-core poor, but they proved to have a greater influence on the nature of the fiction of the lower class than Morrison's graphic accounts, largely because they provide a means of appropriating the lower classes into formulas recognizable to the upper strata. The writers of the "cockney school" such as Henry Nevinson and Edwin Pugh created an individual subject that could be brought within the hegemonizing of middle-class English culture. "Because of [the cockney's] determination to remain free," Keating writes, "he has developed the ability to take whatever life has to offer without complaint; take it wittily, cheerfully or philosophically. Such a man is of inestimable use to a democratic society. So long as his wit, drunkenness, violence, sentimentality and love of freedom are expressed in individual terms, he is socially harmless; so long as these qualities are viewed from a distance he is even attractive and picturesque." He epitomizes, in Regenia Gagnier's words, the optimistic liberal view that the lower class individual is "an apparently autonomous and universal human spirit." The cockney is typecast as the English "common man" individualistic, spirited, jingoistic, hard-playing, blunt, beef-eating, beer-drinking, and for all that, ultimately law-abiding. Certainly the portrait has its truth value—all the visitors to the working-class areas in the East End attest to its vital popular culture and to the remarkable resilience of the people—but one is reminded of the critique by the Frankfurt School that mass culture transforms originally realistic accounts into representations that one can read as repetitive diversions which present no danger to the dominant system.
The separation of depictions of the lower orders of London that we noted before thus takes place. On the one hand, the Cockney Novel reiterates the redeemable nature of the working class; it can be hegemonized through its own yeoman image. While the culturalistic programs of Besant and the settlement house workers sought to absorb working-class popular culture into a more refined expression, the Cockney Novel makes use of the more raw versions of that culture to achieve the same ideological objectives. On the other hand, Morrison's Jago and Mean Streets … and George Gissing's The Nether World confront the reader with an essentially alienated domain.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4680
SOURCE: "Ethnography in the East End: Native Customs and Colonial Solutions in 'A Child of the Jago,'" in English Literature in Transition: 1880-1920, Vol. 37, No. 4, 1994, pp. 490-501.
[In the following essay, Kijinski explicates the connection between London's nineteenth-century poor and native peoples of Africa in the time of colonization and the anxiety both groups produced in the English upper classes because of their foreigness and "degradation."]
One sign of the anxiety that many British citizens felt at the end of the nineteenth century about England's future position as an imperial power was the widely shared concern over how poverty and urban living conditions were debilitating the working classes. Recruiting problems during the Boer War had been unnerving: an alarmingly large number of working-class recruits were found to be unfit for service. In 1904, an Interdepartmental Committee on Physical Deterioration was established to investigate this problem. The question had to be asked: had conditions in urban England created a generation of men unfit to protect the interests of the overseas empire? Worse than this, the homeland itself was placed in jeopardy; it appeared that within the very heart of the British Empire an alien and almost invisible group of "sub-standard" urban dwellers was coming into existence by a reverse process of evolution. As Harold Perkin comments, the presence of this group posed "a covert and insidious threat from poverty itself to the physical, intellectual and moral fitness of the nation."
One of the most important novels that allowed the middle-class public to envision these aliens within their midst was Arthur Morrison's A Child of the Jago (1896). The novel presented an examination of inhabitants of a particularly poor section of London's East End. Morrison, who had already gained a reputation as a chronicler of East End life with his Tales of Mean Streets (1894), had first-hand experience—both personal and professional—of life in the less-fashionable parts of London. Born and raised in the East End, he worked first as an office boy and then as a third-class clerk for the architect's department of the School Board of London. In 1886 he was selected to be the secretary to the Beaumont Trust, which funded the People's Palace. Putting into concrete form Walter Besant's ideas about educating the poor, the People's Palace offered opportunities for recreation and self-improvement to residents of the East End. Under Besant, Morrison became sub-editor of the Palace's publication, the Palace Journal, which featured news and information about the cultural activities offered by this institution.
Morrison's Child of the Jago is a fictional counterpart of such factual reports on London's poor as Andrew Mearns's The Bitter Cry of Outcast London (1883), William Booth's In Darkest England and the Way Out (1890), and A. Osbourne Jay's Life in Darkest London (1891)—all written by men with a religious mission to the poor. Morrison, in fact, wrote his novel in response to a suggestion from Jay. Jay urged Morrison to use his talents as a literary artist to give the public as a picture of the Old Nichol, a particularly poor and violent East End neighborhood where Jay worked as a pastor. The Old Jago is the name that Morrison would give to this area.
As the titles of Jay's and Booth's books indicate, these investigations of life among Britain's poor build upon contemporary interest in African exploration and colonization, as does Morrison's novel. The value of the African/British comparison is suggested by Booth, who notes that ethnographic accounts of "degraded" African people had won the attention of British readers: "This summer the attention of the civilised world has been arrested by the story which Mr. Stanley has told of 'Darkest Africa' and his journeyings across the heart of the Lost Continent." Booth suggests, however, that this interest in a "native other" could be focused on populations much closer to home:
But while brooding over the awful presentation of life as it exists in the vast African forest, it seemed to me only too vivid a picture of many parts of our own land. As there is a darkest Africa is there not also a darkest England? Civilization, which can breed its own barbarians, does it not also breed its own pygmies? May we not find a parallel at our own doors, and discover within a stone's throw of our cathedrals and palaces similar horrors to those which Stanley has found existing in the great Equatorial forest?
Booth, Mearns, and Jay had alerted readers to the existence of this degraded and home-grown "native" through their compilation of factual reports on the lives of the London poor. Morrison, however, as a novelist, creates a fictional world that becomes a living urban jungle and presents his middle-class readers living subjects—"natives" who are surprisingly human but who live within a series of cultural structures that fall outside those norms taken for granted by the average British citizen of the late nineteenth century. Dwellers in the Jago are human and thus—like the inhabitants of the "prehistoric" world of Conrad's Heart of Darkness—particularly frightening, but they are also "natives," the regressive, devolving "other," living within a progressive, evolving culture, and thereby placing it in jeopardy.
Morrison's attempt to present middle-class readers with a vivid account of this alien population gained immediate—but controversial—popularity. H. G. Wells, for example, reviewing the novel for the Saturday Review, found it to be a powerful account of London slum life—although it was not didactic enough to satisfy Wells completely. The influential H. D. Traill attacked the novel as a representative of what he calls the "New Realism." Traill compares Morrison's novel to the work of another realist, Stephen Crane, and concludes that Morrison's work is much superior to that of Crane:
Above all, Mr. Morrison wields a certain command of pathos, a power in which Mr. Crane is not only deficient, but of which he does not even appear to know the meaning; and were it not for a certain strange and, in truth, paradoxical defect, of which more hereafter, in his method of employing it, he would at times be capable of moving his readers very powerfully indeed. In a word, the English writer differs from the American by all the difference which divides the trained craftsman from the crude amateur, and he deserves to that extent more serious and detailed criticism.
But in spite of this favorable comparison with Crane, Traill attacks what he sees as the programmatic realism of the novel because, he claims, the method paradoxically renders Morrison's account of the Jago too unreal: "What, however, has most astonished one of Mr. Morrison's critics fresh from a perusal of A Child of the Jago, is the impression of extraordinary unreality which, taken as a whole, it leaves behind it." Roger Henkle, in a recent article on late-Victorian fictional accounts of the urban poor, perceptively comments on why Traill is unable to credit Morrison's portrait of the Jago: "First, he rejects Morrison's premise that the urban slums constitute a fully fleshed-out subsociety, with its own set of codes so antithetical to bourgeois norms for the lower classes. Second, he recoils from the notion that there might be a place where people live who cannot be reached and redeemed by either sentiment or economic 'logic'." As Henkle argues, Traill is unable to credit the existence of subjects within the heart of London whose basic cultural norms are outside the middle-class sense of experience.
It should be remembered that during the time Morrison was working on A Child of the Jago, British interest in systematic methods for describing "exotic" populations was at an all time high, as evidenced by the appearance of increasingly professional studies in ethnology, folklore, and urban sociology. Al l of these fields shared in common a method which involved exacting observation by an expert who had qualified himself to present new and systematically organized knowledge on the group being observed. In addition to his long personal acquaintance with the East End, Morrison further qualified himself to write this novel by systematic study of the Old Nichol. Jay commented on how carefully Morrison prepared himself before he began writing die book: "Mr. Morrison's laborious and persistent care amazed me. He would take nothing for granted; he examined, cross-examined and examined again as to the minutest particulars, until I began to fear his book would never be begun. Till then I never realised what conscientious labour art involved." Morrison prepared himself to produce a portrait of a native population in much the same way as an ethnographer of the time would have. Morrison's (and Jay's) hope that the novel would help to bring about public awareness and reform was also in keeping with the general tendency of Victorian ethnography. As George Stocking has noted in his discussion of E. B. Tylor's Primitive Culture (1871)—a key work of late-Victorian ethnography—ethnographers of the time worked to aid progress and promote reform by exposing elements of contemporary society that had not kept up with the process of cultural evolution: "Active thus both in 'aiding progress and removing hindrance,' Taylor's science of culture was 'essentially a reformer's science'."
With the care and aims of a late-Victorian ethnographer, Morrison brings us into the world of this novel, a world so alien to the reader that the guidance of a professional is required from the very first chapter. The reader is given the precise boundaries of the region that will stand at center focus of the book; Morrison even includes a map of this foreign territory, a "Sketch Plan of the Old Jago." But more importantly the reader is made to see that the Jago—though in the heart of London—is as foreign to the average Englishman as any region in Africa. Here is the reader's first glimpse of the Jago:
It was past the mid of a summer night in the Old Jago. TTie narrow street was all the blacker for the lurid sky; for there was a fire in a farther part of Shoreditch, and the welkin was an infernal coppery glare. Below, the hot, heavy air lay a rank oppression on the contorted forms of those who made for sleep on the pavement: and in it, and through it all, there rose from the foul earth and the grimed walls a close, mingled stink—the odour of the Jago.
Morrison next places within this foreign atmosphere and geography a population which he describes in terms that place them outside any norms one would expect to operate in a civilized, modern city: "Old Jago Street lay black and close under the quivering red sky; and slinking forms, as of great rats, followed one another quickly between the posts in the gut by the High Street, and scattered over the Jago." Here and consistently throughout the novel, the natives of the Jago are referred to as rats, their neighborhood a network of breeding grounds. Nor does the language spoken by the Jagos do much to connect them to the middle-class reader. Here is the first dialogue that we are presented with in the novel:
"Ah—h—h—h," he said, "I wish I was dead: an'kep' a cawfy shop." He looked aside from his hands at his neighbours; but Kiddo Cook's ideal of heaven was no new thing, and the sole answer was a snort from a dozing man a yard away.
Kiddo Cook felt in his pocket, and produced a pipe and a screw of paper. "This is a bleed'n' unsocial sort o' evenin' party, this is," he said. "An 'ere's the on'y real toff in the mob with 'ardly'arf a pipeful left, an'no lights. D'y' 'ear, me lord"—leaning toward the dozing neighbour—"got a match?"
Indeed, the language of the Jago so differs from the dialect of the middle-class reader that Morrison consistently feels compelled to offer narrative commentary on its meaning and even provides the reader with a "Glossary of Slang and Criminal Terms."
Once these surface features of difference are established, Morrison goes on to examine the customary life of the natives of the Jago. What we find is a picture of the poor crucially different from those presented by mid-Victorian novelists—such as Dickens, Gaskell, Kingsley, and Disraeli—interested in the "condition of England" question. Morrison's poor are not simply normal people fallen on hard times. Instead, the very cultural structures by which they experience their lives put them outside the purview of all "advanced" norms of contemporary Christian culture. Morrison dramatizes this most emphatically through his exploration of what passes for normal domestic relations in the Jago. George Stocking notes that post-Darwinian Victorian ethnography focuses, far more than one might expect, on "two particular human institutions: religion and marriage. …" Further, he goes on to demonstrate Victorian ethnographers focused on native marriage customs and formalized relations between men and women as an index to the overall level of civilization of a people. As Stocking notes, Victorian ethnographers considered the treatment of women to be a key indicator of how far a given culture had traveled along the road of moral evolution:
… the pedestal of Victorian domesticity was the high point of evolutionary progress. As Herbert Spencer put it, "the moral progress of mankind" was in no way more clearly shown than by contrasting the "position of women" among savage and civilized nations: "At the one extreme a treatment of them cruel to the utmost degree bearable; and at the other extreme a treatment which, in some directions, gives them precedence over men."
Morrison makes use of this formula to assign the most primitive status to the Jagos, making it clear that the abuse of wives is not randomly committed by less admirable members of this society but rather that it is the norm—ritualized and even insisted upon. For example, the mother of Dicky Perrot—the boy whose development the novel chronicles—is, in part, an outcast from the world of the Jago because her marriage includes no ritualized violence: "A s for herself [Hannah Perrot], she was no favourite in the neighbourhood at any time. For one thing, her husband did not carry the cosh [an instrument used to bludgeon a victim who is to be robbed]. Then she was an alien who had never entirely fallen into Jago ways; she had soon grown sluttish and dirty, but she was never drunk, she never quarreled, she did not gossip freely. Also her husband beat her but rarely, and then not with a chair nor a poker."
The idea of what is normal behavior is crucial here. For the Victorian ethnographer, the existence of "criminal" behavior (as defined by middle-class standards) among a native people was not necessarily proof of the degraded state of that people. What marked a people as degraded was the acceptance of "criminal" or deviant behavior as normal. Ethnographers such as Tylor and Lubbock argued that the fact that what is seen as aberrant or criminal behavior in civilized nations is promoted as the norm in "savage" societies offers convincing evidence for the existence of moral—as well as material—evolution among European peoples. As Tylor notes, "a Londoner who should attempt to lead the atrocious life which the real savage may lead with impunity and even respect, would be a criminal only allowed to follow his savage models during his short intervals out of gaol." This is precisely what puts the Jagos beyond the pale: they have developed a society on savage principles within the very heart of metropolitan London. Consider, for example, this passage in which we are presented with what passes for a not only acceptable, but even admirable, domestic/business relationship between Jago men and women. A Jago denizen sees a young, respectable man being led into the district by a woman, and makes this comment: "There's Billy Leary in luck ag'in: 'is missis do pick 'em up, s'elp me. I'd carry the cosh meself if I' d a woman like 'er." The narrator then offers this explanatory comment:
Cosh-carrying was near to being the major industry of the Jago. The cosh was a foot length of iron rod, with a knob at one end, and a hook (or a ring) at the other. The craftsman, carrying it in his coat sleeve, waited about dark staircase corners till his wife (married or not) brought in a well-drunken stranger: when, with a sudden blow behind the head, the stranger was happily coshed, and whatever was found on him as he lay insensible was the profit on the transaction. In the hands of capable practitioners this industry yielded a comfortable subsistence for no great exertion. Most, of course, depended on the woman: whose duty it was to keep the other artist going in subjects. There were legends of surprising ingatherings achieved by wives of especial diligence: one of a woman who had brought to the cosh some six-and-twenty on a night of public rejoicing. This was, however, a story years old, and may have been no more than an exemplary fiction, designed, like a Sunday School book, to convey a counsel of perfection to the dutiful matrons of the Old Jago.
Thus, criminal behavior is more than tolerated; it becomes an ideal.
What seals the case of the Jagos as a dangerous "other" within the heart of an advanced civilization, what makes colonial action against them necessary, is that ritualized violence as a community response to the environment around them has made the Jagos true aliens, even in such basic matters as physicality and response to pain. Throughout the novel Morrison develops a picture of residents of the Jago as physically degenerate. As I have noted, he consistently refers to the Jagos as rats; even Dicky Perrot, the boy on whom the reader's attention is primarily focused, is viewed by the narrator as a "ratling from the Jago." According to Morrison, Jago rats so greatly vary from the physical norms of Englishmen that an outsider would not even be able to determine with any accuracy the age of a Jago child: "A small boy, whom they met full tilt at the corner, staggered out to the gutter and flung a veteran curse after them. He was a slight child, by whose size you might have judged his age at five. But his face was of serious and troubled age. One who knew the children of the Jago, and could tell, might have held him eight, or from that to nine." The outsider needs the ethnographer to interpret correctly even the bodies of these natives. The untrained observer must discover that even what one would think of as the universally understood sign of smiling needs reinterpretation in the Jago: "Now the Jago smile was a smile by itself, unlike the smiles in other places. It faded suddenly, and left the face—the Jago face—drawn and sad and startling by contrast, as of a man betrayed into mirth in the midst of great sorrow. So that a persistent grin was known for a work of conscious effort."
But even more important than the observable physical differences of the Jagos are the communal styles by which they inflict, observe, and endure violence to the body. The most memorable scenes of the novel present the ritualized violence which is part of the pattern of existence in the Jago. We see the continually smoldering feud that goes on indefinitely between two leading Jago clans—an example of native tribal warfare. Another source of communal violence is the ongoing war the Jagos wage against residents of neighboring Dove Lane. Morrison comments on the ritualized, normalized character of these sources of violence: "The feud between the Jago and Dove Lane was eternal, just as was that between the Ranns and the Learys; but, like the Rann and Leary feud, it had its paroxysms and its intervals." The narrator then goes on to examine the customs of violence among the natives. One of the most striking passages describes a woman warrior, much admired for her prowess as a street fighter:
Once a succession of piercing screams seemed to betoken that Sally Green had begun. There was a note in the screams of Sally Green's opposites which the Jago had learned to recognise. Sally Green, though of the weaker faction, was the female champion of the Old Jago: an eminence won and kept by fighting tactics peculiar to herself. For it was her way, reserving teeth and nails, to wrestle closely with her antagonist, throw her by a dexterous twist on her face, and fall on her, instantly seizing the victim's nape in her teeth, gnawing and worrying.
Sally is fully described as a native warrior taking part in a ritual display of power:
Down the middle of Old Jago Street came Sally Green: red-faced, stripped to the waist, dancing, hoarse and triumphant. Nail-scores wide as the finger striped her back, her face, and her throat, and she had a black eye; but in one great hand she dangled a long bunch of clotted hair, as she whooped defiance to the Jago. It was a trophy newly rent from the scalp of Norah Walsh, champion of the Rann womankind, who had crawled away to hide her blighted head, and be restored with gin. None answered Sally's challenge, and, staying but to fling a brickbat at Pip Walsh's window, she carried her dance and her trophy into Edge Lane.
What is particularly damning, however, is not the existence of this woman, but the response of the Jagos to the violence that she embodies. What is absent in the Jago response to this violence is a normal fear of bodily pain or of any empathy for the physical suffering of others. Instead, periods of widespread violence are met with enthusiasm; members of the community become delighted observers or participants.
In this, and in many other ways, Morrison equates the residents of the Jago with natives of a "less advanced" culture. For example, he demonstrates that Jagos are able to work only for short periods of time, that they are unable to understand the laws of delayed gratification, and that they live exclusively in the present. He shows that the skillful "colonial" administrator—in this case an admirable Anglican pastor, "Father" Sturt, who actually lives and works among his poor parishioners—needs to treat the "natives" as one would treat large children. Through this procedure Sturt is able to keep order among the natives, when they enter the clubhouse that he has created for them, without their ever really understanding how completely they are under his control: they were "all governed with an invisible discipline, which, being brought to action, was found to be of iron." Morrison even demonstrates that, as natives, Jagos may be cunning but certainly not intelligent: "But it was the way of the Jago that its mean cunning saw a mystery and a terror where simple intelligence saw there was none."
It is not surprising, then, that Morrison, although attempting to present even this semi-criminal East End neighborhood with sympathy, offers the reader reasons to believe that drastic measures are to be taken toward places like the Jago, that the residents of these areas are not in any real sense English citizens but rather alien beings living according to alien cultural codes. Toward the end of the novel, Morrison records this conversation between "Father" Sturt and a young surgeon who has just overseen the birth of Dicky Perrot's brother:
Father Sturt met the surgeon as he came away in the later evening, and asked if all were well. The surgeon shrugged his shoulders. "People would call it so," he said. "The boy's alive, and so is the mother. But you and I may say the truth. You know the Jago far better than I. Is there a child in all this place that wouldn't be better dead—still better unborn? But does a day pass without bringing you just such a parishioner? Here lies the Jago, a nest of rats, breeding, breeding, as only rats can; and we say it is well. On high moral grounds we uphold the right of rats to multiply their thousands. Sometimes we catch a rat. And we keep it a little while, nourish it carefully, and put it back into the nest to propagate its kind."
Father Sturt walked a little way in silence. Then he said: "You are right of course."
One can almost hear muted echoes of "Exterminate all the brutes."
What is most troubling for Morrison is that the Jago cannot be destroyed simply by destroying the neighborhood. When the buildings making up the Jago are torn down, he comments on the ineffectiveness of simple slum clearance: "The dispossessed Jagos had gone to infect the neighbourhoods across the border, and to crowd the people a little closer. … And so another Jago, teeming and villainous as the one displaced, was slowly growing, in the form of a ring, round about the great yellow houses." Keating describes Morrison's bleak view of the possibility of reclaiming these marginal poor, and his chilling belief that, unless drastic measures were taken, they would simply continue to produce a criminal race: "That Morrison believed they could not be reformed is clear from A Child of the Jago and he later publicly endorsed Jay's proposal for the establishment of Penal Settlements which would solve the problem of heredity by wiping out the entire strain." Those sentenced to such penal settlements would remain there for life and would not be allowed to reproduce.
William Booth was particularly fascinated by Stanley's distinction between those African natives who would, and those who would not, conform to standards of industry: "O f these pygmies there are two kinds; one a very degraded specimen with ferret-like eyes, close-set nose, more nearly approaching the baboon than was supposed to be possible, but very human; the other very handsome, with frank open innocent features, very prepossessing. They are quick and intelligent, capable of deep affection and gratitude, showing remarkable industry and patience." In a sense, Morrison had given the middle-class reader the domestic equivalents of these two types of African native. In Tales of Mean Streets (1894) he had presented readers with portraits of mostly (but not exclusively) respectable East Enders. With A Child of the Jago he examines those who will not conform. Strangely human and at the same time alien, they pose a threat to the heart of the empire.
Morrison's ethnographic account of these natives that somehow have come to exist at home underlines the need for radical solutions on the colonial model. When we view this call for radical action in light of the lessons that the twentieth century has taught us about final solutions, the stance that Morrison takes toward the Jagos becomes particularly frightening. An d yet Morrison was convinced that he was writing in the best interests of the working poor of London. He would go on to write two more working-class novels—To London Town (1899) and The Hole in the Wall (1902)—which offer more positive accounts of how the effects of urban poverty can be overcome. It is in contrast to these more sympathetic portraits of the poor that Morrison's willingness to classify the Jagos as totally alien becomes most problematic. Although Morrison calls for sympathy for all the people whose lives he chronicles, his insistence on the Jagos' difference, even in matters that pertain to such basic cultural codes as responding to physical suffering, marks them as a problem that needs to be dealt with in ways that would not be appropriate for dealing with "non-natives." The novel is particularly urgent because it suggests that this native other, which has come into existence within a seemingly civilized country, is not a closed category. The existence of such "natives" can serve as a catalyst that allows the process of reverse evolution to begin to degrade the respectable poor. Through this fully realized dramatization of alien subjects on home soil, Morrison demonstrates the need for an active "colonial" policy to be put into effect within the very heart of England.
Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 223
Calder, Robert. "Arthur Morrison: A Commentary with an Annotated Bibliography of Writings About Him." English Literature in Transition 28 (1985): 276-297.
Comprehensive secondary bibliography.
"Review: A Child of the Jago." Athenaeum 108 (12 December 1896): 832-833.
Contemporary review, characterizing the novel as vivid but pointless and overly graphic.
Bleiler, E. F. Introduction to The Best Martin Hewitt Detective Stories, by Arthur Morrison, pp vii-xiv. New York: Dover, 1976.
Sketch of Morrison's literary career with particular attention to his detective fiction, which Bleiler claims was only a trivial distraction for Morrison.
"Review: A Child of the Jago!" Bookman 5 (January 1897): 464-465.
Praises Morrison's social responsibility and accuracy in A Child of Jago while deploring the novel's graphic violence.
"Review: Tales of Mean Streets." The Critic 605 (15 June 1895): 436
Contemporary American review summarizing the narratives of Morrison's stories in Tales of Mean Streets.
Greene, Hugh. Introduction to The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: Early Detective Stories, edited by Hugh Greene, pp 9-20. New York: Pantheon, 1970.
General introduction for the collection, which includes two Morrison stories, one involving Martin Hewitt, the other his anti-hero Dorrington. Greene presents Morrison's detective fiction within the broader context of the genre.
Krzak, Michael. Preface to Tales of Mean Streets, by Arthur Morrison, pp 7-17. Suffolk: Boydell Press, 1983.
Provides a summary of Morrison's early career as a journalist and critical commentary on the stories in Tales of Mean Streets.
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