- Ally Sloper’s Half-Holiday: The Geography of Class in Late-Victorian Britain
A regular feature of Ally Sloper’s Half-Holiday, an illustrated comic newspaper published from 1884 until 1923—though sporadically after 1916, is Ally Sloper’s travels in and around London and to the seaside.1 Ally’s journeys and their chronicling by his daughter Tootsie serve as kind of travel literature for the working-class and lower-middle-class readership of the paper. On one hand, Tootsie’s accounts of “Poor Papa” running afoul of Victorian ideas about social decorum, whether at the seaside, back stage at a music hall, at Ascot, at the Lord Mayor’s Ball, in the pit at Drury Lane, at the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, or countless other places, are mere back drop for the paper’s jokes and satires. On the other hand, the vast range of locales and events visited by Ally and his motley band of companions serves to give us a sense of the types of places the varied readership of Ally Sloper’s Half-Holiday (ASHH) may have visited in search of leisure. These travelogues tell us what the Victorian readership of the paper may have actually done (or hoped to do) while there. I emphasis the Victorian readership of the paper because even though ASHH continued publishing well into the twentieth century, I am largely concerned with the Victorian versions of the paper and have confined my discussion and examples to the 1880s and 1890s.
Beyond telling us where the paper’s Victorian readers may have gone on their holidays and showing us what they may have done once there, ASHH engages in a sustained critique of class. In short, ASHH operates as a satirical geography of leisure and class of the late-Victorian era in which physical and class boundaries are overcome with a degree of ease and even shown to be unimportant. In its critique of late-Victorian class, we can see the ways in which popular culture has the potential to [End Page 150] be as dynamic and richly layered as elite cultural forms like novels and poems. This is not to say that they are the same for they are not, but to say that because popular culture texts develop characters differently, structure their narratives differently, and appeal to their audiences differently than novels and poems does not mean popular culture texts are by definition shallow, dismissible, or incapable of doing serious cultural work.
Unlike the staid holiday specials and travelogues found in other Victorian periodicals, Tootsie’s accounts of Ally’s travels to the seaside, backstage trips at the music hall or patent theater, and other adventures invite readers to think of leisure not as something done as part of some self-improvement scheme but rather as something done for the sheer fun of doing it. Many of Ally’s adventures openly mock the very idea of self-improvement and the middle-class hegemony that underwrites self-improvement. ASHH’s implicit message is that it is through the enjoyment of life, not through self-improvement, that one gets ahead. Further, Ally’s travels remind us that the late-Victorian period was a time of increasing physical mobility and that along with the ability to physically transport oneself from one place to another (even if for only half a day) came the ability to transport oneself cultural and socially. That is, the poor clerk, shop assistant, schoolteacher, or typist could imagine himself or herself a Duke or Duchess while at the seaside, an important critic while at Drury Lane or while at the Canterbury Music Hall, or a heiress at Ascot. Thus, viewed through the pages of ASHH the ease of physical transportation brings with it a new sense that class boundaries can be overcome with relative ease. That readers are invited to laugh at Ally’s adventures and his thick headedness at not seeing how out of place he is does little to dampen the hope that real social mobility is within readers’ grasps. After all, Tootsie, herself a music-hall dancer, is engaged to an aristocrat and Ally becomes a Member of Parliament as well...