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  • Arthur Morrison and the Tyranny of Sentimental Charity
  • Adrian Hunter

Although little remembered now, Arthur Morrison's two works of naturalistic fiction set in London's East End slum, Tales of Mean Streets (1894) and A Child of the Jago (1896), were widely noted in their day. "We all read the books and shuddered over them," Jane Find-later would recall at the end of the decade.1 Alongside Stephen Crane, Morrison featured prominently in debates about the "New Realism," a label put about by the influential critic H. D. Traill, who was no admirer of either writer.2 While A Child of the Jago has remained fitfully in print and been an occasional presence in critical studies of the period since ("the most important work of the 1890s focusing on criminality," one study calls it3), Morrison's reputation faltered early and faltered badly. In part this was owing to the remarkable lack of conviction he showed toward his own achievement in those first two books. Initially quick (and more than able) to defend his unremitting portrait of the slum against its many detractors and naysayers, he seemed ultimately to take their criticisms to heart, abandoning first the naturalistic mode in which he excelled, and then the East End as a subject altogether. Another dozen works of fiction would follow in a publishing career that lasted almost as long as Kipling's, until 1933; but few would argue now that the later writing was undeserving of the obscurity into which it rapidly sank. As for the slum books, while they have fared better at the hands of literary critics, the suspicion has lingered that Morrison was fatally out of sympathy with his subject—that he "wrote from too far above his characters," as the novelist Alan Sillitoe would put it in 1965, and treated his imagined poor as though "they lived in a zoo."4

Sillitoe's hostility toward Morrison, and his refusal to grant him a place among the fraternity of working-class writers, may have its origin in some notorious remarks that Morrison made in response to H. G. Wells, and which have served to cloud discussion of his work ever since. Wells, in a review of A Child of the Jago, had taken issue with [End Page 292] the novel's portrayal of the slum as a "black inheritance" and of its inhabitants as, in the words of one middle-class observer in the book, "'a nest of rats, breeding, breeding, as only rats can.'"5 Neither ignorance nor "wrong moral suggestions" nor parasites were plights the poor inherited, Wells argued; rather, they were evidence of a "black contagion," of poverty and compound disadvantage, that might by thoughtful intervention be changed or altered. Morrison's determinism and apparent lack of interest in the slum as a man-made problem that could be unmade was for Wells both an artistic and a moral failing: artistic because, as he detailed, the fates of at least two characters in the story unwittingly gave the lie to deterministic thinking; and moral because it rested on the belief that slum dwellers were somehow "racially" distinguishable from "people who send their children to Oxford."6 A fortnight later, Morrison responded:

One of the critics in his notice of my book said that "neither ignorance, wrong moral suggestion, or parasites were hereditary," but he is wrong. Just look at this book of Charles Booth's, "Pictures of Pauperism," and see the influence of heredity. Look at these long lists of families going back to the third and fourth generation, and all criminals or lunatics. Now and again turns up a respectable artisan, but he is a freak, a "sport," to use the biological term, and he is so rare and startling an exception that he only goes to prove the point....

It is monstrous that the weak should be destroyed by the strong, but still more so that the strong should be destroyed by the weak.... For my own part, I believe, as Father Jay does, in penal settlements; it would be far cheaper than our present prison system. Why not confine them as lunatics are confined? Let the weed die out, and...


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pp. 292-312
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