Groupe de Recherches Anglo-Américaines de Tours

Editor-in-chief: Trevor Harris

Book Review Editor: Molly O'Brien Castro

(Literature, Civilization, Cultural Studies, Gender Studies, Linguistics)
GRAAT: Pronounce [greit]
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GRAAT: Getting to the bone
A peer-reviewed journal of Anglophone Studies


Sarah Wise, The Blackest Streets: the Life and Death of a Victorian Slum (London: Vintage Books, 2009). UK £9.99 (paperback), 11.75 €, 333 pages, ISBN: 978-1-844-13331-4–Trevor Harris, Université François Rabelais, Tours.

Just off Shoreditch High Street in London, sandwiched between Hackney Road and Columbia Road to the north, and Bethnal Green Road to the south, is a tight little network of small streets. At its centre is Arnold Circus (<>). Here, in the mid-nineteenth century, was “the Old Nichol”—fictionalised as “the Old Jago” by locally-born author and journalist, Arthur Morrison, in 1896—, a semi-concealed neighbourhood or “rookery,” reduced to the status of notorious slum as massive population growth/movement and economic change filled the area with people while at the same time removing most of their livelihoods: traditionally, the weaving of cloth—there is still a park called “Weavers Fields” a little further along Bethnal Green Road.

Sarah Wise pays tribute to Morrison [225-35] in a chapter devoted to works of fiction portraying the Nichol. At the end of the nineteenth century, it was indeed a natural choice in many ways for literary endeavours, providing a frisson for comfortable middle-class readers, a judicious mix of attraction and repulsion, fascination and fear of the dark continent which lurked just beyond the confines of the City. The Nichol was also a prime candidate for the interest of social investigators, as do-gooders descended en masse on the East End.

The atmosphere of these troubled streets, as one reads, becomes familiar and palpable. Wise’s well-researched social (micro-) history of the Nichol has an extensive scholarly apparatus: the appendices, notes and bibliography run to nearly sixty pages and have clearly benefited from painstaking research in various archives—the Booth archives, for example, those of the London City Mission, or the Royal London Hospital. The general atmosphere of the book necessarily puts us in mind of Kellow Chesney’s The Victorian Underworld (1970) which, curiously—although it does deal mainly with a different period–, does not get a mention in the bibliography.

The Blackest Streets is divided into four parts, each with its own (sometimes rather oblique) title. Part one (“Dead Letters”) describes the awful living conditions, the abject poverty of the Nichol, the virtual absence of any sanitation, the consequent illness, as well as the inertia, conservatism and corruption rife among members of the Bethnal Green “vestry” and its “slumlords” (including several peers of the realm), who merely perpetuated the poverty and ensured that the situation was extremely difficult to reform.

Part two (“The Secrets of a Strange Life”) develops a more detailed, and at times fascinating narrative on the day-to-day existence eked out by the six thousand or so people living in the Nichol, but does so mainly through the eyes of Arthur Harding, a local resident whose reminiscences—as Sarah Wise herself reminds us—were mercifully saved from oblivion by Raphael Samuel in the late 1970s. Harding’s account of how a young lad from the Nichol came to keep body and soul together by fair means or foul—but usually the latter—form an illuminating, if sobering narrative: dread of the workhouse, it would seem, was so intense that people were prepared to suffer the most ignominious hardships in order to avoid it. Reading Wise’s description of what went on in the workhouse (in the chapter somewhat ironically entitled “Help”), one can well understand why: it was indeed “less eligible” in all but the most desperate cases. Wise also shows us that physical, especially sexual, violence was commonplace in the Nichol; though she argues cogently that statistics on violence may have been exaggerated on occasions. Many acts of violence—including some of those committed against wives and children by inebriated spouses and fathers—seem to have benefited from a degree of police indulgence: this was truly a different world, and normal rules did not apply.

Part three (“Any Answers?”), the longest, looks at the various solutions–religious, philanthropic, political, legislative–which were put in place to attempt to solve the problems of the Nichol: though the mismatch between the slender means available and the scale of the difficulties faced meant that it was rather like “tickling [an] elephant” [131-53]. Anarchism, evangelicalism, radicalism, republicanism, secularism, socialism, trade unionism (the list is not exhaustive)...: the ideological assistance which mushroomed in the East End in the final decades of the nineteenth century was nothing if not varied and impressive. For all its frenetic energy, however, the intense colours of this mosaic of good intentions could neither inspire the drab indigent population to rise up against the “system” nor supplant the latter in any significant degree, notwithstanding a few ruling-class jitters. As Wise shows, communities like the Nichol often tend, in fact, to protect their way of life—in this case by resisting progressive attempts to impose compulsory education or vaccination programmes. This is one aspect of a much broader question: namely, the complexities of working-class political culture and Wise—writing of the community in search of its political “voice”—touches here on a more fundamental problem explored in detail by Alex Windscheffel (Popular conservatism in Imperial London 1868-1906, Royal Historical Society, 2007). The extensive success in the Nichol of “Father” Jay, moreover, underlines the appeal of High Church Anglicanism in a community one might otherwise have expected to be fertile soil for an exclusively radical non-conformism: but, as Wise points out, the “beauty of the ceremonial was highly attractive to many who lived in appallingly ugly conditions” [213] and the religious profile of the Nichol was very complex.

Part Four (the shortest), “Stripeland,” describes the process, from 1893 onwards, of slum clearance and redevelopment in London, the evictions, re-housing and reactions to it—most of it conducted under the aegis of the newly formed/elected LCC for whom the scheme was intended as a flagship enterprise. According to Wise, however, only eleven former residents of the Nichol actually moved into the new dwellings...

This is a well-documented study, but which is full of vitality and immediacy. It remains, above all, a good story to be recommended both to the general reader and the specialist, showing us the worst evidence for the spectacular and inhumane consequences of the “age of equipoise” and, in particular, the irretrievable breakdown of the Poor Law. There is a clear attempt to open the discussion out in the final pages to take in the context of late-Victorian social policy and the broader political context, too. In this sense, it highlights the essentially Burkean character of British Conservatism, inclined only to concede reform when not to would bring more serious consequences: and, in the case of the Nichol, only after the Great Depression had driven herds of destitute agricultural labourers to the capital and when the working class there had flexed its political muscle in large-scale, well-organised industrial action.

One crucial aspect of the social and political questions raised, and which is discussed at some length [especially 216-221], was the impact–on the perception of the working class and on the formation of social policy–of evolutionary theory and the emerging eugenicist discourse: as Wise puts it in relation to Morrison, “the foetid whiff of eugenics blows through A Child of the Jago” [229]. The biological determinism which characterised the “dogged adherence to a pessimistic view of human nature” [88] in Father Jay, for example [215 and ff.], was echoed by Charles Booth’s preference for “persistent dispersion” or even special encampments to corral and manage the poor. A non-partisan, and milder variant, but none the less shot through with paternalistic conservatism, was soon to surface in the form of the “national efficiency” movement (notably through the Coefficients club) which, for a time, saw Sidney Webb working alongside Alfred Milner.

Wise’s book, in the end, points up the life of that “Asia within,” as it were, a profoundly “other,” separate, primitive world of working-class wretchedness, an intense, almost grotesque social difference which generated much guilt: but also much anxiety, as Britain, along with several other “advanced” countries, seemed to slide inexorably into what has to be seen as the negative age of positivism.

©2009 Trevor Harris & GRAAT.











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