Introduction

Among Walter Besant’s varied interests was also his genuine concern for the condition of the poor dwellers of London’s East End. He was one of the pioneers of slum fiction which tried to alert the comfortable and affluent upper classes about the need to improve the deplorable conditions of the life and work of the lower classes in late-Victorian England. In his voluminous literary output, Besant's slum novels outweigh his earlier fiction in many respects. Mark Spilka remarked aptly that Besant “was probably the most popular author of his day in England, partly for his shallow romances but more notably for his East End novels which roused considerable sympathy for the poor” (103).

Unlike another pioneer of slum fiction, George Gissing, Besant did not intend to portray naturalistically the poverty, squalor and depravity of slum dwellers in East London. According to P. J. Keating, in his two slum novels, All Sorts and Conditions of Men and Children of Gibeon, “Besant attempted to express something of the romantic feelings the East End inspired in him. His aims were frankly propagandist; his goal was the middle-class conscience.” (93) Besant's slum novels were successful in raising the awareness of the public opinion on the problems of social exclusion and economic discrimination in slum areas.

All Sorts and Conditions of Men

In 1882, Besant published his first slum novel, All Sorts and Conditions of Men, in which he described his utopian scheme for a cultural centre in London's East End in order to promote education, culture and arts among the labouring classes. In a way Besant shared Dickens’s belief that benevolence and good-heartedness may help overcome social ills and contribute to cross-class co-operation and solidarity. The purpose of his novel was to encourage members of the upper classes to overcome the fear of the lower classes and contribute to the acculturation of the labouring classes to middle-class values and mores.

Besant's descriptions of the East End revealed to the reading public the existence of a vast area of social exclusion in the affluent capital of the British Empire. The East End, writes Besant, “is less known to Englishmen than it were situated in the wildest part of Colorado, or among the pine forests of British Columbia.” (47)

Two millions of people, or thereabouts, live in the East End of London. That seems a good-sized population for an utterly unknown town. They have no institutions of their own to speak of, no public buildings of any importance, no municipality, no gentry, no carriages, no soldiers, no picture-galleries, no theatres, no opera — they have nothing. It is the fashion to believe that they are all paupers, which is a foolish and mischievous belief, as we shall presently see. Probably there is no such spectacle in the whole world as that of this immense, neglected forgotten great city of East London. It is even neglected by its own citizens, who have never yet perceived their abandoned condition. They are Londoners, it is true, but they have no part or share of London. [47-48]

Besant's greatest concern in the novel was not poverty and squalor of the East End but above all its dull and depressing monotony and the joyless lives of its working-class inhabitants.

Mile upon a mile of streets with houses — small, mean, and monotonous houses; the people living the same monotonous lives, all after the same model. [80]

Like Dickens, Besant believed in benevolent paternalism which could contribute to the acculturation of the urban poor by creating free cultural and community centres in disadvantaged slum areas. Far from being a socialist, Besant rejected the notion of class antagonism and called for an active participation of the members of the upper classes in the task of the improvement of the wellbeing of the poor slum dwellers.

The novel’s fictional plot recounts a slumming experience of two wealthy “do-gooders” who decide to live temporarily in the East End in order to get acquainted with the problems of the working classes and implement an important community project. Angela Messenger, the Cambridge-educated heiress to a large brewery and owner of several tenement houses in the East End, disguises under the name of Miss Kennedy and sets up a dressmaker's shop in Stepney. She offers her employees fair wages with additional benefits, such as free meals and longer recreation breaks during which they can even play tennis. Her overall aim is to upgrade the quality of life and work of disadvantaged female slum workers.

The other character, Harry Le Breton, a young gentleman, who has learnt that he is a son of a low-born army sergeant adopted by a wealthy aristocrat, decides to seek his true roots in disguise under the name of Harry Goslett in the East End. Working as a modest cabinet maker, he wants to get a taste of life in the world of labour. When Angela and Harry get to know each other in the lodging house in Stepney Green, they realise that they share a common passion for social work and are determined to improve the quality of life for slum dwellers by providing free access to culture and education.

The heroine of All Sorts and Conditions of Men, who is described as the “richest heiress in England,” represents a socially conscious New Woman, who is committed to benevolent community work. She is intent not to lead a parasitic life of the leisure class, but wants to be socially useful and provide respectable amusements to the people from whom she descends (her grandfather was born in Whitechapel): “I belong to the People — with a great big P, my dear — I cannot bear to go on living by their toil and giving nothing in return ” (9).

Angela recognises that wealthy people have a moral obligation to contribute to the welfare of the poor and help them improve their condition. When Harry tells her of his dream to build a cultural and education centre for Eastenders in order to regenerate the disadvantaged district, she decides enthusiastically to create a “magnificent place of entertainment.” (186)

Angela resolved, therefore, that on this spot the Palace of Joy should stand. There should be, for all who chose to accept it, a general and standing invitation to accept happiness and create new forms of delight. She would awaken in dull and lethargic brains a new sense, the sense of pleasure; she would give them a craving for things which as yet they knew nothing. She would place within their reach, at no cost whatever, absolutely free for all, the same enjoyments as are purchased by the rich. A beautiful dream. To cultivate the sense of pleasure is to civilise. With the majority of mankind the sense is underdeveloped, and is chiefly confined to eating and drinking. To teach the people how the capacity of delight may be widened, how it may be taught to throw out branches in all manner of unexpected directions, was Angela's ambition. A very beautiful dream! [166]

Angela, like Besant, believes that access to high culture and education will awaken members of the labouring class from social apathy and lethargy and allow them to shape their lives according to their aspirations and abilities. She generously bestows the new centre on the inhabitants of the East End, emphasising that that community ownership is pivotal to her social strategy of enlivening the slum areas.

Now it is yours, with all it contains. I pray God that it may be used worthily, and for the joy and happiness of all. I declare this Palace of Delight open, the property of the people, to be administered and governed by them and them alone, in trust for each other. [408]

The novel climaxes with the establishment of the fictional “Palace of Delight” which provides education, recreation, entertainment and social improvement for the East End inhabitants. Besant was aware that his idea of a cultural centre was utopian and, therefore, he added a subtitle to his novel, “An Impossible Story.”

1title1

The People's Palace. [Click on image to enlarge it and to obtain more information]

In fact, the vision depicted in the book materialised into the actual People's Palace in the Mile End Road, a centre of culture, amusement and recreation for Eastenders, which was built thanks to a generous public subscription initiated by the Beaumont Trust five years after its publication, and opened by Queen Victoria on May 14, 1887. The complex had a library with a reading room, swimming pool, gymnasium, picture gallery, technical college and a winter garden. It provided music and art entertainment as well as educational opportunities. Over 6oo,ooo people visited the Palace in the first six months. (Boege 268) Besant actively supported the establishment of the People's Palace and edited the weekly Palace Journal, whose circulation at one time reached 4,000 copies. He remained a trustee of the Palace from 1887-1891. In an article published in 1888 in The North American Review, he described the early success of the People's Palace:

The place is always well filled. On Sundays, especially, when the librarian's work is done by volunteers, it is crammed with orderly and quiet readers, who find here a place for rest and reading. The opening of the place on Sunday, although fiercely resisted by local bigots, has proved an unmixed blessing and boon to the people. [56]

However, Besant's scheme for the elevation of the labouring classes was only partly successful. The cultural influence of the People's Palace was quite limited and controversial in the subsequent years. It failed to attract the poorest residents of the East End and did not help workers to develop their own cultural activity, as Besant had envisaged in his novel. The Draper's Company, which took the administration of the People's Palace, changed its principal goal: it was turned into a technical education school for the manual working class which became part of the University of London in 1907. Today it is called Queen Mary College, University of London.

All Sorts and Conditions of Men differed radically from Besant's earlier novels; it blended the Condition of England and the New Woman themes with elements of romance, fairy tale, utopia and sensationalism. In spite of its artistic weaknesses, the novel raised a vivid public debate about the problem of the monotony and dullness of slum life. Besant envisaged the necessity of creating centres of culture and learning for the respectable labouring class. His paternalistic ideas derive from the social thought of Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, and Matthew Arnold's belief in the civilising influence of culture on the lower classes.

Children of Gibeon

The fictional plot of Children of Gibeon (1886) is as extravagant and melodramatic as that of All the Sorts and Conditions of Men, but the novel is interesting for the social problems it raised. Set mostly in Hoxton, an area in the East End of London, the novel recounts the miserable lives of three young women working under the sweating system. Besant criticises the exploitation of female labourers, comparing them to the Biblical children of Gibeon who became slaves of the Israelites. He also provides examples of cross-class interaction and solidarity, and points to the increasing role of women not only as a labour force but also as social investigators and an influential part of the public opinion.

The story focuses on the benevolent and eccentric widow from London's West End, Lady Mildred Eldridge, who adopts a washerwoman's daughter and brings her up with her own. She has a deliberate plan to find out whether or not upbringing can level class differences. Therefore, she gives the two girls new names, Valentine and Violet, but does not disclose their true identity. When the girls reach maturity, one of them, Valentine, comes to believe (wrongly) that she was adopted from the poor family. She decides to renounce her luxurious home and moves to live in the East End in order to seek her roots and get acquainted with the problems of the labouring class. Valentine and Violet befriend Melenda and two other girls who rent a modest room in a tenement house in Hoxton and toil as seamstresses from sunrise to sundown. Besant explains to his middle-class readers some basic laws of the sweatshop economy which affected mostly young unskilled women.

It is the Law of the Lower Limit, which will be better understood by being named after an outward and visible sign, the most obvious and best-known result of its beneficent operation. I have therefore ventured to call it the Law of Elevenpence Ha'penny. It has been found, in fact, by the employers of woman's labour, who are one and all the most humane, the most considerate, and the most unselfish creatures in existence, that there is a limit of wage below which human life cannot be sustained. It is highly to their credit that they seldom try to get below this limit, which is exactly marked by the wage of elevenpence ha'penny a day. Therefore no working-woman, of those who work at home, is allowed to make more, because this would be a flying in the face of the Eternal Laws. And it would be clearly inhuman to offer less. To be sure the women sometimes get less because they are often out of work: but the employers cannot be blamed for that. The Law of Elevenpence Ha'penny, or the Law of the Lower Limit, is the only law that humanity is called upon to obey, and the conscience of those who pay the girls at this rate of wages is calm and easy. [55]

Late-Victorian capitalism increased the demand for female labour, particularly in garment industries. The girls in the novel were ruthlessly exploited by manufacturers because they were hired to perform only one simple job; they sewed buttonholes in garments and were never trained to do other jobs. Besant emphasises that rapacious garment manufacturers deliberately created low-skilled jobs so that they could pay only subsistence wages to their unskilled female employees.

There are bead hands, feather hands — who are subdivided into curling hands, improvers, mounters and aigrette hands — mantle hands, skirt hands, bodice hands, mob-cap hands, children’s pinafore hands, cape-lining hands, bead hands, butterfly hands, and tie hands, who are again divided into flat-work hands, back-stitchers, band hands, slip stichers, and front hands; they are black borderers, braiders and a hundred others. [102]

Slum women employed in sweatshops could hardly find other employment because they lacked required skills and, therefore, they were subjects of extreme exploitation in late-Victorian England. In fact, Besant's novel succeeded in raising public awareness about the slave wages for female employees in garment industries.

Besant sought ways to eliminate class antagonism. Valentine discovers that the division of people into classes is artificial and unjust. She claims that there is no essential difference between a West End and an East End resident. “She just began by being interested in a group of three working-girls, from whom she was rapidly learning the one lesson most worth learning, namely, that the People are, in all essentials, exactly the same as the Other People” (34). As a Victorian liberal, Besant believed that the working class would be able to absorb the mores and lifestyles of the genteel middle class if their conditions of work and pay were improved. Thus, eventually, the lower classes and the upper classes would blend into a classless universal humanity which would develop according to the principles of social solidarity and co-operation. To help accomplish this goal, Valentine and her adopted sister's brother Claude, who received a gentleman's education thanks to Lady Mildred, devote themselves to the amelioration of the conditions of life and work of the lower classes. They establish an Earthly Tract Society which publishes simple tracts for common people on the peaceful reform of social relations and a civil society. Next Besant dives into a highly utopian vision of Hoxton which, after transformation, looks like a working-class paradise.

The houses are as beautifully clean as a Dutch village, the blinds are white, the little chapel has become a Concert and Dancing-room, the Adelaide Tavern is the Street Club; there are flowers in every window, and these are clean; within, the floors are scrubbed, walls are dusted, water is filtered; the men have quite left off getting drunk; they never swear unless the situation demands strong and plain words; they do not beat their wives; the women do not scream and fly into rages; quarrelling among them is almost unknown; all alike have grown critical over their meat, their beer, their tea, their coffee, their bread, and their dress; every family saves something every week; [214]

Although not a great literary novel, Children of Gibeon remains an important social document which exposed patterns of the exploitation of unskilled women workers in the late-Victorian period in England. The book prompted a public debate on the improvement of the conditions of work and pay in sweatshops. A report by a committee of the House of Lords led to the passing of the Factory and Workshops Act and the Public Health Act in 1891, which consolidated and extended safety and sanitary regulations and introduced some measures to control conditions of “outworkers,” i.e. people who sewed garment pieces from their homes. The novel also contributed to the development of working women's trades organisations.

Conclusion

Walter Besant challenged the stereotypical image of late-Victorian London's East End as an environment of degrading poverty, depravity, vice and violence. Instead he presented a sympathetic vision of the area inhabited largely by a respectable labouring class which awaited help and guidance from benevolent members of the upper classes in order to reduce social inequality and bridge the gap between the two 'nations' in England, the rich and the poor. Besant’s slum novels called upon the conscience-ridden upper classes to eliminate the social, cultural and economic exclusion of the labouring class and to build a basis for cross-class co-operation, solidarity and general welfare.

References

Besant, Walter. All Sorts and Conditions of Men. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1882.

___. Children of Gibeon. London: Chatto & Windus, 1887.

___. "The People's Palace," The North American Review, 147, 380 (1888), 56-63.

Boege, Fred W. “Sir Walter Besant, Novelist.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 10 (1956): 249-280, and 11 (1956): 32-60.

Hamann, Cathleen J. West End Ladies in an East End Town: The Social Novel in Late-Victorian London. Ann Arbor, MI: ProQuest, UMI Dissertation Publishing, 2008.

Keating, P. J. The Working Classes in Victorian Fiction. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971.

Koven, Seth. Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London. Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2004.

Spilka, Mark. “Henry James and Walter Besant: 'The Art of Fiction' Controversy,” Novel, 6 (1973): 101-119.


Victorian Web Overview Authors Social History

Last modified 30 December 2012