Arthur Morrison Morrison, Arthur (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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

The Bookman (essay date 1895)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 459 words.)

The Spectator (essay date 1895)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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 entire section is 2499 words.)

H. G. Wells (essay date 1896)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine (essay date 1896)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1942 words.)

V. S. Pritchett (essay date 1947)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2121 words.)

Vincent Brome (essay date 1965)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Michel Krzak (essay date 1979)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 12820 words.)

Derek Severn (essay date 1980)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Roger Henkle (essay date 1992)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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John L. Kijinski (essay date 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 223 words.)