- Edition of A Child of the Jago
WHEN ARTHUR MORRISON’S NOVEL A Child of the Jago was first published in 1896, it prompted a number of vigorous debates: on the success and failure of Victorian London slum reform, on the morals of the poor, even on the very nature of realist fiction itself. Notorious for its naturalistic depiction of the indigent and desperate, of sweated labor and vicious crime, A Child of the Jago was both hailed as a radical intervention into socioeconomic debates around slum life and vilified for a relentlessly unredemptive representation of a subterranean world ignored by many middle-class London readers.
In his crafting of the environs of the Perrott family and other denizens of the Jago, Morrison drew heavily on a number of sociological texts, particularly Charles Booth’s Life and Labour of the People in London (1889) and Arthur Osborne Jay’s Life in Darkest London (1891); Jay was a model for the tough-minded, clear-eyed yet compassionate vicar Father Sturt in Morrison’s novel, and there were so many echoes between Jay’s memoir and Morrison’s novel that suggestions of plagiarism emerged. Yet A Child of the Jago has a number of other correspondences, including the neighborhood that functions almost as a character itself. The Jago is modeled on Old Nichol, a slum that was torn down by housing reformers between 1893 and 1899 in one of the earliest cases of slum clearance. Morrison deftly captures the public houses, back alleys, neighborhood boundaries and territories defined by gangs, and shadow economies created by thieves, pawnshops, and slum landlords.
In the midst of this depredation we find Dicky Perrott; he is believed to be about eight (although he appears to be five due to malnourishment and poor environment, one of the many comments about the degeneration of the poor throughout the book) and we follow him until about the age of seventeen or eighteen. Over the course of his short, squalid life, we see him burdened with the care of a helpless, torpid mother, responsible for the small children she cannot take care of, and terrorized by a brutish father for whom he maintains some admiration for his ability to steal and fight seemingly with impunity. Dicky is the center of our sympathies; he wants better than the Jago but cannot free himself from its bonds. He steals a clock in order to feed his pathetic siblings, but then feels guilty so steals a music box with which to surreptitiously replace it. He has a respectable job as a shop boy, gotten [End Page 439] for him by Father Sturt, but then loses it when the local fence, Mr. Weech, for whom he has worked in the past betrays him. He has some schooling (one of the contexts is the passage of the 1870 Education Act, calling for universal literacy), affection for his family, loyalty to his friends, and native cunning. When a neighborhood fixture—perennially wearing a hat with the words “Hard up” chalked upon it—says to Dicky, “Learn to read and write, learn all you can, learn cunning, spare nobody and stop at nothing. … [D]o your devilmost, or God help you, Dicky Perrott—though he won’t; for the Jago’s got you!” the boy’s path is set.
While some reviewers noted a failure on Morrison’s part to adequately draw believable characters, Dicky’s plight, familiar to readers of naturalist fiction in the mode of Emile Zola, nonetheless calls upon our sympathy and humanizes the sordid world of the Jago. Even if characterization is not a strength of Morrison’s, the vividness of his depiction, particularly in his use of locale and of slang, as well as his commitment to social engagement, makes this novel a significant work of late-Victorian fiction of reform, crime, and urban life.
And Diana Maltz’s new edition from Broadview is itself a substantial intervention into the study of such fiction. Maltz provides extensive scholarly scaffolding. The book opens with a thorough introduction covering biographical and contextual information such...