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  • Comprehending the Slum-Dweller:Affect and A Child of the Jago
  • Arlene Young (bio)

With the growth of industrial cities in England during the nineteenth century came an inevitable corresponding growth of slums. And while soi-disant respectable members of Victorian society were prepared to acknowledge that the poor would always be with them, they were less accepting of the actual poor congregated in overcrowded and squalid neighbourhoods where dirt and crime abounded and where the dictates of bourgeois culture held no sway. The slums of England’s cities were terra incognita to the dominant middle classes. Early forms of investigative journalism and sociological [End Page 39] analysis adopted metaphors of foreignness in their discussions of the poor. Henry Mayhew defines costermongers as “a distinct race” in London Labour and the London Poor (1851) (6); William Booth titled his analysis of the plight of the English poor In Darkest England and the Way Out (1890), a direct allusion to Henry Norton Stanley’s account of his African expedition, In Darkest Africa (1890). These works and many others like them are clearly intended to influence or even to shock middle-class readers into comprehending and ultimately alleviating the misery of the poor. Sympathy for the poor is often tempered, however, by an underlying assumption that though the poor may be with us, they are not of us. The poor remained a race apart that the Victorian middle classes only dimly comprehended.

Depictions of slums and of the very poor in the fiction of the period are similarly equivocal, notably in the works of Charles Dickens. Jacob’s Island, in Oliver Twist (1838), is filthy and forbidding, the haunt of criminals; Fagin is evil incarnate, and Sikes is brutal. Nancy is more sympathetic, only because she respects the middle-class virtues of Mr. Brownlow and Rose Maylie. Jo, in Bleak House (1853), is pathetic. Oliver and other seemingly outcast characters in Victorian novels (e.g., John Halifax, in Dinah Mulock Craik’s John Halifax, Gentleman [1856]) are sympathetic not because of their poverty but because of their inherent unfitness for the worlds into which they were born or because of their innocence and vulnerability as children facing oppression. Arguably the most successful depiction of a slum and its inhabitants, one that made them comprehensible to sheltered middle-class readers, was Arthur Morrison’s A Child of the Jago (1896).

A Child of the Jago was recognized in its day as an accurate and searing depiction of life in a late-Victorian slum. To produce this sense of realism (a term with which he was uncomfortable), Morrison faced the challenge of making the culture of the Victorian East End comprehensible to the middle-class readership he hoped to influence. Morrison refuses to appeal by means of sentimentality, resisting Victorian expectations that in depicting the misery of the slum, he should “write ‘even weeping’” (6). His slum—the Jago—and its inhabitants are indeed almost devoid of emotional expression beyond responses to physical pain. Morrison’s representation of the Jago is, moreover, journalistic in its starkness and in its refusal to pass judgment on the crime and violence that flourish there. This version of the East End slum has a coherent culture in which “there are more social degrees” than in the West End (7). It is a culture that has an internal logic of social and familial relations, expectations, and rules of conduct—a structural coherence that Victorian middle-class readers would readily understand. But while the detached narrator of A Child of the Jago can reveal the details of such a world, he cannot make its inhabitants fully human and intelligible to a middle-class readership without some kind of emotional content, which would require at the very least the creation of a sympathetic character. [End Page 40]

Creating a sympathetic slum-dweller in a text as assertively unsentimental as Jago poses a number of problems for Victorian writers and readers. It is arguably through the conceiving (and rendering) of the narrative of a life that individual identity is constructed; however, as Regenia Gagnier has posited, members of the working classes did not have access to the “autonomous introspective ‘self’” that...


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pp. 39-43
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