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From Voyeurism to Feminism: Victorian and Edwardian London's Streetfighting Slum Viragoes Chris Willis The cover of the IllustratedPoliceNews of 21 July 1888 [Figure 1] shows two contrasting images ofworking-class women ofLondon's East End: the victim and the virago. In the main picture montage, skeletal workers are portrayed as victims of the sweated labour system, watched over by a Victorian 'fat cat' industrialist They are surrounded by germs and disease. Captions detail the low rates paid to them for piece work. Watching these exploited humans, their employers' dog thinks "I'm glad I was bom a dog". This picture is surrounded by images ofthe strike at the Bryant and May match factory in the East End, including a picture ofsupposedly starving strikers (who in fact look remarkably healthy and well-fed). Another inset shows two women "making matchboxes for 21AJd] a gross" in a dingy room with paper peeling off the walls. By contrast, the picture immediately above this montage shows three "factory girls" (who were not connected with the strike) violently assaulting a policeman who has been unwise enough to interfere in one oftheir personal disputes. The contrast between the two images vividly illustrates the popular press's Jekyll-and-Hyde conception of the East End female. She was seen as both a figure ofpathos and a threat, a virtuous victim and a vicious virago. These stereotypes were fundamental to late Victorian popular culture's view of slum women, and gained increasing currency as the middle-classes' fascination with the London slums grew at thefin de siècle.^ Women are often the central characters in slum fiction and slum 70volume 29 number I From Voyeurism to Feminism journalism written by men, and the stories are often told from a woman's viewpoint. The authors' frequently hostile portrayal of aggressive working-class women reflects contemporary male fears about female assertiveness and the growth of feminism, as well as more general fears about socialism, nihilism and trades unionism. Within the threat of Outcast London' lay another threat: that ofthe assertive working-class female, who had a fierce class loyalty and refused to conform to accepted norms of'ladylike' behaviour. Not only did she represent a class threat, but when taken together with the middle-class New Woman she represented a threat to established gender roles. The assertive New Woman and the aggressive slum virago can be seen as two sides ofthe same coin. Both present a challenge to the established patriarchal social order by refusing to 'know their place1 in a social order dominated by middle-class men. In this article I will concentrate largely on portrayals ofthe slum virago in slum fiction, a popular genre which sprang up in the wake ofsensational journalistic revelations about London slum life the 1880s. Authors aimed to shock by showing urban poverty linked with violence and immorality, while creating a tale full ofincident and excitement. These narratives were usually set in the East End, though some were set in other London slum areas, notably Lambeth. The slum virago offiction is strongly grounded in journalism and other forms ofostensibly factual reportage. In this paper I will be considering factual and fictional texts, arguing that the divide between the two categories is particularly fluid when dealing withfin-de-siècle slum narratives. Slum fiction and slum journalism were closely linked. Many slum novelists were journalists, and many journalists wrote articles in a similar style to that ofthe slum novelists. Both stressed the supposedly factual basis oftheir narratives. 'Non-literary' texts of reportage such as George Sims' Horrible Undon and Andrew Mearns' BitterCry ofOutcastUndon cover the same ground as slum novels. Impressionistic and subjective as they were, they laid down many ofwhat were to become the conventions ofthe genre in regard to setting, character and use ofpersonal observation to create a dramatic effect. Both fiction and fact deliberately highlighted the Victorian Review7\ C. Willis most sensational cases ofcrime and poverty. Although she is mainly afin~de-sièck phenomenon, the slum virago's origins can be seen in early Victorian writings about the slums. In Sketches by Bo^1 Dickens describes two archetypal slum viragoes brawling in a street in Seven Dials. ... a little crowd...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 70-86
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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