- London Labour and the London Poor: Selections by Henry Mayhew
Editing and abridging Henry Mayhew’s journalistic opus, London Labour and the London Poor (1861), is no enviable task. Mayhew’s ambitious project began with an unassuming, if colourful, stand-alone article for the Morning Chronicle, “A Visit to the Cholera District of Bermondsey” (1849), and led to a renowned series in the newspaper before the enterprise developed into its own micro-industry. The print history of the work is complicated by Mayhew’s numerous assistants, multiple publishers, and various disruptions to its publication, due largely to his fractious relationships with the publishers. Its more than two million words continue to mutate with every new edition. The initial series in the Morning Chronicle [End Page 641] (September 24, 1849–October 31, 1850) consisted of seventy-six entries intimately detailing the lives and livelihoods of the poor in London. The project was plagued throughout its decades-long history with accusations that inaccuracies, exaggerations, and deliberate manipulation of statistics and quotes portrayed a bleaker and more prurient vision of London life. Such accusations led to Mayhew’s unceremonious exit from the Morning Chronicle.
It would take another decade before the full four volumes appeared in print under Mayhew’s name in 1861, though the fourth volume had multiple authors. Between 1850 and 1861 the text was transformed into various formats and serialisations, including its own twopenny publication; incorporated into the serial novel Paved with Gold (1857), largely written by Mayhew’s brother but based on material garnered from the initial project; and adapted for two theatrical tours during which Mayhew performed gratuitous impersonations of his interviewees, emulating Charles Dickens’s treatment of his own fictionalised characters. Following Dickens’s model of journalistic success and industry was an obvious trajectory for a writer whose prose read anecdotally, despite Mayhew’s insistence on the accuracy of his information gathering and interviewing techniques. Mayhew created such vivid portraits of his subjects and their decaying surroundings that his readership remained loyal to the London Labour enterprise despite its chequered publication history. The work continues to draw parallels with Dickens’s Sketches by Boz (1836) due to their descriptions of a desolate economic underclass combined with endearing characters. Whilst Mayhew and his large roster of assistants attempted to position the project as a Blue Book survey, its novelistic writing style appealed to the masses. The writing endures as a prime example of the potency of narrative journalism.
Whereas recent editions of London Labour and the London Poor have offered a neatly edited version of Mayhew’s work with beautifully rendered illustrations of his subjects, Janice Schroeder and Barbara Leckie deliberately scale back the text to its rougher origins. Instead of a small selection of completed sketches, this edition provides a wider range of Mayhew’s subjects by cutting and abridging his work into bite-sized examples. The illustrations include several pages of Mayhew’s doomed twopenny paper, its packed double-columned pages laying out prices of stationery and the income of street stationers. The editors’ chronology provides an exhaustive list of the author’s misadventures in publishing as well as his eventual successes, and detailed appendices lay the groundwork for critical study of Mayhew and his methods. For example, the complete list of chapter titles across all four volumes of London Labour and the London Poor, including their expansive subcategories, indicates that Mayhew’s taxonomical approach veered toward the fanciful rather than the scientific. Contemporary [End Page 642] reviews from both quarterly and popular publications invite important questions about the writer’s agenda. Letters from Mayhew’s subjects highlight a complex relationship between interviewers and interviewees. This edition even extracts Mayhew’s limited contributions from the fourth volume of the series, which was largely written by other authors but marketed and sold under his name. Another appendix delineates what of Mayhew’s material was reconfigured for his brother’s novel.
This recycling of text into novel is reflected, as the editors note, in the London...