Introduction

Arthur Morrison (1863-1945), one of the most important slum novelists, was born in a working-class family in London’s district of the East End known as Poplar. The family often moved from place to place because his father, an engine-fitter, looked for employment. When Morrison became a recognised author, he tried to hide his working-class background and provided contradictory information about his early life. At the age of 23 Morrison, who was mainly self-taught, found employment as a secretary of the Beaumont Trust, the charity that administered the People’s Palace in the Mile End Road, a cultural and vocational centre for the lower classes. This position gave him a good opportunity to study the conditions of the poor living in the slums of the East End. Later, Morrison became an assistant editor of the People’s Palace Journal for about a year, during which he worked in close contact with its founder and chief editor, Walter Besant.

People’s Palace

The People's Palace. Mile End Road, London, designed by E. R. Robson. 1886.

He also contributed weekly sketches to the journal Cockney Corners, which introduced readers to the local colour of various locations in London, such as Poplar, Cherkenwell, Soho, Bow Street, Whitechapel, Jacob’s Island, Greenwich Park and Epping Forest. In 1890, Morrison left his job at the People’s Palace and, following Besant’s advice, took to journalism, joining the editorial staff of the Evening Globe. He also wrote as a freelance journalist for the National Observer, Macmillan’s Magazine, the Strand and Tit Bits. In 1891, he published his first book, a collection of supernatural tales entitled Shadows Around Us (1891). Subsequently, he began to write a new type of realistic fiction about sordid slum life.

Morrison’s slum fiction includes a collection of stories, Tales of Mean Streets (1894), and two full-length narratives, A Child of the Jago (1896) and To London Town (1899). Morrison also wrote a series of popular detective stories: Martin Hewitt: Investigator (1894), The Chronicles of Martin Hewett (1895) and Adventures of Martin HewettCunning Murrell (1900), dealing with pre-Victorian witchcraft in Essex; and The Hole in the Wall (1902), a novel of crime and terror set in London’s Dockland area called Wapping. After 1903, Morrison retired from writing fiction and became a well-known authority on Japanese art, especially prints and paintings. In 1911, he published a two-volume study, The Painters of Japan.

Although Morrison’s slum fiction fell into obscurity, every publication concerned with late Victorian literary history mentions him. According to P. J. Keating, Morrison “established the predominant tone of slum fiction in the nineties” (xiii). He created authentic lower-class protagonists and described realistically the squalor and brutality of life in London’s East End, “the sewer of England and of Christendom” (Mencken). Unlike his mentor, Walter Besant, Morrison did not look upon the slum paternalistically and expressed no hope that it could be regenerated by upper-class altruists like Angela Messenger and Harry Goslett, the protagonists of Besant’s slum novel All Sorts and Conditions of Men. Morrison saw the slum as a socially deviant culture that had to be radically eradicated. There are no respectable poor in Morrison’s slum fiction. All his protagonists are physically and morally mutilated.

Tales of Mean Streets

In 1891, Morrison published a documentary sketch in Macmillan’s Magazine entitled “A Street&rdquo, which attracted the attention of William Ernest Henley, the editor of the National Observer. It described a decrepit East End slum.

This street is in the East End. There is no need to say in the East End of what. The East End is a vast city, as famous in its way as any the hand of man has made. But who knows the East End? It is down through Cornhill and out beyond Leadenhall Street and Aldgate Pump, one will say: a shocking place, where he once went with a curate; an evil plexus of slums that hide human creeping things; where filthy men and women live on penn’orths of gin, where collars and clean shirts are decencies unknown, where every citizen wears a black eye, and none ever combs his hair. The East End is a place, says another, which is given over to the unemployed. And the unemployed is a race whose token is a clay pipe, and whose enemy is soap: now and again it migrates bodily to Hyde Park with banners, and furnishes adjacent police courts with disorderly drunks. Still another knows the East End only as a place whence begging letters come; there are coal and blanket funds there, all perennially insolvent, and everybody always wants a day in the country. Many and misty are people’s notions of the East End; and each is commonly but the distorted shadow of a minor feature. Foul slums there are in the East End, of course, as there are in the West; want and misery there are, as wherever a host is gathered together to fight for food. But they are not often spectacular in kind. [xiii]

Henley noticed Morrison’s keen observation skills and his power of description, and encouraged him to write more fictional stories that pointed to the state of social exclusion of the inhabitants of the slums. “A Street” (slightly revised) was included in the 1894 book publication of thirteen fictionalised stories entitled Tales of Mean Streets, which brought Morrison acclaim as a representative of the “new fiction”.

Morrison set his Tales in the impoverished and overcrowded East End in the time of Jack the Ripper murders, tenants’ actions against high rent and dockers’ strikes. He described poverty and squalor as the distinguishing features of slum life. Stephen Wade points out that unlike the popular fiction of the day, Tales of Mean Streets are characterised by austerity, restraint, frankness and documentary narration.

There is a modern documentary feel about the collection, but essentially the thirteen stories are strong, socially aware narratives hinging on varieties of love and attachment. But these patterns of urban relationships negate the norms of mainline popular fiction of the time. Seven stories deal explicitly with couples in marriage or courtship; four focus on lesser forms and influences of capitalism, and one in particular, “The Red Cow Group”, is political comedy. What the stories have in common is a constant inquiry as to the failure of a nascent society to comprehend and protect all its members. The close focus constantly reinforces the view that there is a distant system that excludes and callously discards those forgotten by mechanisms that lead to power through wealth. [68]

Morrison’s point of view is that of an impassionate observer with good inside knowledge who reports only facts and his fiction is a sort of social testimonial, which vividly describes the Victorian East End culture with its bleak tenement houses, domestic violence, unemployment, crime-ridden streets and mugging.

“Lizerunt”, one of Morrison’s most impressive stories, recounts a disastrous marriage and domestic violence in a slum setting. The protagonist, a working-girl of eighteen, marries a loafer who abuses her and eventually drives her to prostitution. The story opens with an unsentimental description of the title character.

Somewhere in the register was written the name Elizabeth Hunt; but seventeen years after the entry the spoken name was Lizerunt. Lizerunt worked at a pickle factory, and appeared abroad in an elaborate and shabby costume, usually supplemented by a white apron. Withal she was something of a beauty. That is to say, her cheeks were very red, her teeth were very large and white, her nose was small and snub, and her fringe was long and shiny; while her face, new-washed, was susceptible of a high polish. Many such girls are married at sixteen, but Lizerunt was belated, and had never a bloke at all. [1]

Lizerunt (a contraction of the name Liza Hunt) cannot escape her debilitating slum background. Her absent father and drunken mother do not care about her future, and she eventually is trapped into a loveless marriage with a man, a year older than her, who has never done any work.

When Billy Chope married Lizerunt there was a small rejoicing. There was no wedding-party, because it was considered that what there might be to drink would be better in the family. Lizerunt’s father was not, and her mother felt no interest in the affair, not having seen her daughter for a year, and happening, at the time, to have a month’s engagement in respect of a drunk and disorderly. So that there were but three of them; and Billy Chope got exceedingly tipsy early in the day; and in the evening his bride bawled a continual chorus, while his mother, influenced by that unwonted quartern of gin the occasion sanctioned, wept dismally over her boy, who was much too far gone to resent it. [11-12]

Slum poverty favoured male aggressiveness and female victimisation. At twenty-one Lizerunt, who has already born three children, is brutally abused by her husband, and eventually is forced to walk the streets in order to get money for Billy’s debts. As P. J. Keating pointed out, “Lizerunt” clearly owes much to Kipling’s “Badalia Herodsfoot”. (172) Both eponymous female characters are victims of male harassment and brutality.

A Child of the Jago

At the suggestion of the Reverend A. Osbourne Jay, a vicar of Holy Trinity Church on Old Nichol Street in Bethnal Green, Morrison decided to write a full-length narrative, which became a classic of late Victorian slum fiction. Father Jay, who had read Tales of Mean Streets, invited Morrison to visit the Old Nichol, where the conditions of living, according to him, were far worse than those described in Tales.

In 1895, Morrison paid frequent visits to the Old Nichol, a 15-acre slum area located between High Street, Shoreditch, and Hackney Road in the north, and Spitalfields in the south. When Morrison visited the place, it was already being demolished in preparation for the building of a new estate at Boundary Street. Morrison’s novel is set in the time when Old Nichol was still one of the most notorious slums in the East End. According to some estimates, the Old Nichol was then inhabited by some 5700 people living in rotting old houses in a maze of dark and narrow streets.

A Child of the Jago was published in 1896 and won an immediate artistic acclaim, although some contemporary reviewers thought Morrison’s portrayal of Old Nichol as an enclave of criminals, drunkards, and loafers was exaggerated. For example, the critic Henry Duff Traill wrote in the Fortnightly Review that Morrison’s picture of the Jago was not a realistic one, but a “fairyland of horror” (Maynard, 44). Traill criticised the new fiction of the turn of the century for its strong predilection to expose the murky aspects of contemporary urban life. After publication, A Child of the Jago became a bestseller, saw many reprintings in England and the USA, and appeared in translations. At the same time that the book was widely read and discussed as a new voice concerning slum life, it was also criticised for its scenes of violence and criminal acts.

The novel describes the miserable boyhood of Dicky Perrott in the Jago, a fictional name for the overpopulated criminal slum area called the Nicholl. The novel is regarded as the equivalent in fiction to William Hogarth’s representation of the London slum life. It gives an unsentimental account of slum dwellers — in particular the tragedy of children who suffered from poverty, abuse, and disease in slums. As Kevin Swafford writes,

The novel sought to convince its readers that “savages” were not limited to the “darkest” regions of the colonies but could be found just beyond the West End of London in the eastern sections of the metropolis. Through a direct and ironic narrative style, the novel portrays a culture of crime, degeneration, and deviancy through the details of filth, drunkenness, and violence (what Morrison describes as the values, norms, and realities of the Jago). [66]

Morrison’s narrative style differs significantly from that of his mentor, Walter Besant, who tended to romanticise his slum characters in All Sorts and Conditions of Men. Morrison, a superb observer of the East End underclass, based his austere narration on a keen observation of people and places and anticipates the British social realist fiction of the 1930s and the 1950s.

In the context of discussions on ’new realism’ strongly influenced by Zola’s literary naturalism, Morrison writes in the Preface to the third edition (1898) of A Child of the Jago about the social role of a writer (artist):

It is the artist’s privilege to seek his material where he pleases, and it is no man’s privilege to say him nay. If the community have left horrible places and horrible lives before his eyes, then the fault is the community’s; and to picture these places and these lives becomes not merely his privilege, but his duty. It was my fate to encounter a place in Shoreditch, where children were born and reared in circumstances which gave them no reasonable chance of living decent lives: where they were born fore-damned to a criminal or semi-criminal career. It was my experience to learn the ways of this place, to know its inhabitants, to talk with them, eat, drink, and work with them. For the existence of this place, and for the evils it engendered, the community was, and is, responsible; so that every member of the community was, and is, responsible in his degree. If I had been a rich man I might have attempted to discharge my peculiar responsibility in one way; if I had been a statesman I might have tried another. Being neither of these things, but a mere writer of fiction, I sought to do my duty by writing a tale wherein I hoped to bring the conditions of this place within the apprehension of others. [xi]

The narrative opens with an evocative description of the setting. Old Jago (i.e. Old Nichol) was regarded as the worst slum in Victorian England unfit for human habitation.

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 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 foul earth and the grimed walls a close, mingled stink — the odour of the Jago. […] 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. Old Jago Street, New Jago Street, Half Jago Street lay parallel, east and west: Jago Row at one end and Edge Lane at the other lay parallel also, stretching north and south: foul ways all. 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. [1]

At the outset of the novel Dicky is a boy of eight but he looks as if he was five. Dick’s father is a thief, and Dick grows in the culture of destitution, deviance, crime, and vice. In Chapter 2, Morrison ridicules the charitable attempts of the upper classes to elevate the conditions of slum dwellers by organising lectures, activities, and amusements for them in an institution which resembles the People’s Palace, where Morrison was employed for some time.

The triumphs of the East End Elevation Mission and Pansophical Institute were known and appreciated far from East London, by people who knew less of that part than of Asia Minor. Indeed, they were chiefly appreciated by these. There were kept, perpetually on tap for the aspiring East Ender, the Higher Life, the Greater Thought, and the Wider Humanity: with other radiant abstractions, mostly in the comparative degree, specifics all for the manufacture of the Superior Person. There were many Lectures given on still more subjects. Pictures were borrowed and shown, with revelations to the Uninformed of the morals ingeniously concealed by the painters. The Uninformed were also encouraged to debate and to produce papers on literary and political matters, while still unencumbered with the smallest knowledge thereof: for the Enlargement of the Understanding and the Embellishment of the Intellect. And there were classes, and clubs, and newspapers, and games of draughts, and musical evenings, and a brass band, whereby the life of the Hopeless Poor might be coloured, and the Misery of the Submerged alleviated. The wretches who crowded to these benefits were tradesmen’s sons, small shop-keepers and their families, and neat clerks, with here and there a smart young artisan of one of the especially respectable trades. They freely patronised the clubs, the musical evenings, the brass band, and the bagatelle board; and those who took themselves seriously debated and Mutually-Improved with pomp. Others, subject to savage fits of wanting-to-know, made short rushes at random evening classes, with intervals of disgusted apathy. Altogether, a number of decently-dressed and mannerly young men passed many evenings at the Pansophical Institute in harmless pleasures, and often with an agreeable illusion of intellectual advance. [9]

Dicky, who attends one of such gatherings organised at the Institute, observes calmly the Bishop who commends the East End dwellers for their spiritual and moral uplifting, and skilfully steals his gold watch.

The good Bishop, amid clapping of hands and fluttering of handkerchiefs, piped cherubically of everything. He rejoiced to see that day, whereon the helping hand of the West was so unmistakably made apparent in the East. He rejoiced also to find himself in the midst of so admirably typical an assemblage — so representative, if he might say so, of that great East End of London, thirsting and crying out for — for Elevation: for that — ah — Elevation which the more fortunately circumstanced denizens of — of other places, had so munificently — laid on. The people of the East End had been sadly misrepresented — in popular periodicals and in — in other ways. The East End, he was convinced, was not so black as it was painted. (Applause.) He had but to look about him. Etcetera, etcetera. He questioned whether so well-conducted, morally-given, and respectable a gathering could be brought together in any West End parish with which he was acquainted. It was his most pleasant duty on this occasion — and so on and so forth. […] Then the amiable Bishop, beaming over the tea-cup six inches from his chin, 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?’ There hung three inches of black ribbon, with a cut end. The Bishop looked blankly at the Elevators about him. Three streets off, Dicky Perrott, with his shut fist deep in his breeches pocket, and a gold watch in the fist, ran full drive for the Old Jago. [12-13]

After a successful initiation to crime, Dicky is trained to become a pickpocket by a local shopkeeper Aaron Weech, who resembles the Fagin character in Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist.

’W’y Dicky Perrott,’ quoth Mr Weech in a tone of genial surprise, ’I b’lieve you could drink a cup o’ cawfy!’Dicky, wondering how Mr Weech had learnt his name, believed he could. ’An’ eat a slice o’ cake too, I’ll be bound,’ Mr Weech added. Dicky’s glance leapt. Yes, he could eat a slice of cake too. ’Ah, I knew it,’ said Mr Weech, triumphantly; ’I can always tell.’ He rubbed Dicky’s cap about his head, and drew him into the shop, at this hour bare of customers. At the innermost compartment they stopped, and Mr Weech, with a gentle pressure on the shoulders, seated Dicky at the table. He brought the coffee, and not a single slice of cake, but two. True, it was not cake of Elevation Mission quality, nor was it so good as that shown at the shop in High Street: it was of a browner, dumpier, harder nature, and the currants were gritty and few. But cake it was, and to consider it critically were unworthy. Dicky bolted it with less comfort than he might, for Mr Weech watched him keenly across the table. And, indeed, from some queer cause, he felt an odd impulse to cry. It was the first time that he had ever been given anything, kindly, and ungrudgingly. He swallowed the last crumb, washed it down with the dregs of his cup, and looked sheepishly across at Mr Weech. ’Goes down awright, don’t it?’ that benefactor remarked. ’Ah, I like to see you enjoyin’ of yerself. I’m very fond o’ you young ’uns: ’specially clever ’uns like you.’ Dicky had never been called clever before, so far as he could recollect, and he wondered at it now. Mr Weech, leaning back, contemplated him smilingly for some seconds, and then proceeded. ’Yus,’ he said, ’you’re the sort o’ boy as can ’ave cawfy and cake w’enever you want it, you are.’ [26-27]

Dicky, an unsuccessful thief, wants to reform himself following the advice from the local clergyman, Father Sturt, who is modelled on Father Osbourne Jay, but he is unable to get a decent job and thereby escape his degenerative social environment. Eventually, he is fatally injured in a bloody gang fight.

A Child of the Jago is not only a record of depravity but also a portrait of wasted childhood. Although Morrison was accused of sensationalism, his slum novel revived the Condition-of-England debate and a concern for the deprived lower class residents of slums.

In A Child of the Jago Morrison described suggestively the dreariness and brutality of life in the East End. The matter-of-fact tone of the narrative lends credence to Morrison’s views steeped in Social Darwinism and French Naturalism, but it should also be emphasised that Morrison owed a lot to Walter Besant, who was the first to tackle the perplexing problem of the East London slums. Unlike George Gissing, who focused in his slum fiction on the degeneracy and boorishness of the urban poor, Morrison wrote with humane sympathy about his victimised juvenile character.

Conclusion

Arthur Morrison did not glorify or sentimentalise the urban poor in his slum fiction. He demonstrated that the low classes were not merely victims of idleness, intemperance or misfortune, but above all they were victims of poverty imposed on them by the Victorian social system, and slums were the disreputable places of social exclusion, degradation and vice. Morrison’s slum fiction is evidence of the rising social awareness of imaginative literature at the end of the Victorian era.

References

Henkle, Roger. “Morrison, Gissing, and the Stark Reality”. NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 25 (Spring 1992): 302-20.

Keating, P. J. Working-class Stories of the 1890s. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1971.

Maynard, Jessica. “Arthur Morrison, the Floating World and the Pictorial Method in A Child of the Jago: Painters of the East”. English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920. 51.1 (2008): 44-56.

Morrison, Arthur. Tales from Mean Streets, with Preface by H.L. Mencken. New York: Modern Library, 1924 (also available on Project Gutenberg).

__. A Child of the Jago. With Introduction by Anita Miller. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1995.

Swafford, Kevin. Class in Late-Victorian Britain. The Narrative Concern with Social Hierarchy and Its Representation. Youngstown, New York: Cambria Press, 2007.

Wade, Stephen. In My Own Shire: Region and Belonging in British Writing, 1840-1970. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002.


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Last modified 14 October 2011