The documentary version of Dickens’s metropolis. Jun 29, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 40 • By EDWARD SHORT
During 1849-50, the author and journalist Henry Mayhew (1812-1887) set about anatomizing the lives of the London poor in a series of 82 articles for the Morning Chronicle, which would eventually lay the groundwork for the greatest study of the English poor ever written, the four-volume London Labour and the London Poor (1851-65).
In meeting with and interviewing hundreds of men, women, and children throughout the city and recording what William Makepeace Thackeray called their “wondrous and complicated misery,” Mayhew’s “earnest hope,” as he said, was “to give the rich a more intimate knowledge of the sufferings, and the frequent heroism . . . of the poor—that it may teach those . . . to look with charity on the frailties of their less fortunate brethren.”
In this latest abridgment, by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, we can see that “earnest hope” in all its large-hearted fellow-feeling. In one section, Mayhew meets with an elderly female street seller, whom he hears has been tending to her sick husband for many years:
The poor creatures lived in one of the close alleys at the east end of London. On inquiring at the house to which I had been directed, I was told I should find them in “the two-pair back.” I mounted the stairs, and on opening the door of the apartment I was terrified with the misery before me. There, on a wretched bed, lay an aged man in almost the last extremity of life. At first I thought the poor old creature was really dead, but a tremble of the eyelids as I closed the door, as noiselessly as I could, told me that he breathed. His face was as yellow as clay, and it had more the cold damp look of a corpse than that of a living man. His cheeks were hollowed in with evident want, his temples sunk, and his nostrils pinched close. On the edge of the bed sat his heroic wife, giving him drink with a spoon from a tea-cup. In one corner of the room stood the basket of tapes, cottons, combs, braces, nutmeg-graters, and shaving-glasses, with which she strove to keep her old dying husband from the workhouse.
Here was the sort of heroism that Mayhew had in mind. And yet, as Thackeray attested, the suffering that made it necessary “had been lying by your door and mine since we had a door of our own. We had but to go a hundred yards off and see for ourselves, but we never did.” Why? Thackeray could not have been more categorical: “We are of the upper classes; we have had . . . no community with the poor.”
Mayhew’s claim to be one of Great Britain’s best social historians has not always been acknowledged. Too often he is treated as a proto-sociologist whose real aspiration was to write the sort of pseudo-scientific history that came into vogue in the late 19th century. It is true that the author of London Labour can be excessively fond of statistics; but he was first and foremost a reporter who never let his regard for the quantifiable stand in the way of his deep sympathy for the poor.
Moreover, Mayhew was a truthteller. At a time when so many of his contemporaries were celebrating that paean to material progress the Great Exhibition of 1851, Mayhew was content to study the direst poverty imaginable, in rookeries and alleyways where respectable Londoners seldom, if ever, ventured.
What gives London Labour so much of its life are the voices that rise from its pages like ghosts, such as when the old woman caring for her husband tells Mayhew: “If God takes him, I know he’ll sleep in heaven. I know the life he’s spent, and am not afraid; but no one else shall take him from me—nothing shall part us but death in this world.” Similarly, when Mayhew encounters an old strumpet in the Haymarket, nothing he reports about her tragic life can match her own pungent account: “You folks as has honor, and character, and feelings, and such, can’t understand how all that’s been beaten out of people like me. I don’t feel. I’m used to it.”
Then again, when he falls among the “duffers,” or peddlers of pretended smuggled goods, an informant tells him:
It is really astonishing . . . how these men ever succeed, for their look denotes cunning and imposition, and their proceedings have been so often exposed in the newspapers that numbers are alive to their tricks, and warn others when they perceive the “duffers” endeavoring to victimize them; but, as the thimble--men say, “There’s a fool born every minute.”
Newman the educator, in theory and practice. May 18, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 34 • By EDWARD SHORT
In the debate about what needs to be done to make university education more coherent and more effective, no figure is cited more frequently than John Henry Newman, whose classic study The Idea of a University (1873) tackles educational questions that still exercise would-be reformers.
The complicated soul of the Irish capitalFeb 23, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 23 • By EDWARD SHORT
In 1732, Jonathan Swift wrote a friend that, while he had lost all hope of favor with those in power in Dublin, he had won “the love of the Irish vulgar” and inspired “two or three dozen signposts of the Drapier in this city.” Here, he was referring to Dublin’s gratitude for the eloquent stand he had taken against a debased halfpence, a stand that constituted one of the first stirrings of Irish nationhood—albeit a distinctly Anglo-Irish nation:
The English sermon as theology and social historyDec 15, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 14 • By EDWARD SHORT
In William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1848), Pitt Crawley, Becky Sharp’s first employer, “an old, stumpy, short, vulgar, and very dirty man, in old clothes and shabby old gaiters, who smokes a horrid pipe, and cooks his own horrid supper in a saucepan,” is given a characteristic by his creator that nicely rounds out his unusual character: The baronet has a taste not only
The tart, sweet, comprehending vision of Richard GreeneOct 27, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 07 • By EDWARD SHORT
This deft, revelatory collection opens with a poem about the poet’s mother, in which Richard Greene speaks of shapes of memory from which she can / never turn away. Integral to his own “shapes of memory” is familial love, and Greene, who has written a brilliant critical biography of Edith Sitwell (herself no stranger to this most consuming of themes), does full justice to the subject in a range of
Visions of life from encounters with deathSep 29, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 03 • By EDWARD SHORT
In this foray into what Hamlet famously styled the “undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveller returns,” Judy Bachrach looks at recent accounts of those claiming to have returned from the undiscovered country in order to suggest what her readers’—and, indeed, her own—“impending itineraries” might be like.
Titles, tangled webs, titillating journalismAug 18, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 46 • By EDWARD SHORT
In his preface to this well-researched and witty retelling of the famous Ampthill Succession case, Bevis Hillier recalls how he chose his subject after researching a proposed Oxford Book of Fleet Street.
The royal antidote to Victorian austerity.Jun 16, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 38 • By EDWARD SHORT
In 1871, when Albert Edward Prince of Wales (1841-1910) and his wife Alexandra lost their youngest child after a premature birth, Queen Victoria advised that they go into prolonged mourning. Bertie’s response exhibited one of the great differences between him and his notoriously woeful mother:
The Great War and modern poetry. Mar 24, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 27 • By EDWARD SHORT
In 1755, in the preface to A Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson declared that “the chief glory of every people arises from its authors.” Barely 160 years later, when England entered the First World War, the very notion of glory began to take a beating from which it has never recovered. Wilfred Owen was perhaps its most savage critic:
The revolutionary poet revealed in his letters. Dec 16, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 14 • By EDWARD SHORT
England produced some superb letter-writers in the 19th century: Lord Byron, Emily Eden, John Keats, Charlotte Brontë, and Sydney Smith gave an altogether new charm and expressiveness to the epistolary art. Smith’s letter to his young friend Miss Lucie Austin in 1835 is a good example:
The American Revolution as seen from the other side.Sep 30, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 04 • By EDWARD SHORT
In his groundbreaking history of the American War of Independence from the British standpoint, The War for America (1964), Piers Mackesy argued, “To understand the war, one must view it with sympathy for the Ministers in their difficulties, and not with the arrogant assumption that because they were defeated they were incompetent, and that all their actions proceeded from folly.”
The ‘last, best hope of earth’ goes global. Jul 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 43 • By EDWARD SHORT
If one thing distinguishes all of Conrad Black’s books, from his brilliant biographies of Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon to his impassioned 2011 apologia, A Matter of Principle, it is exuberance.
From the darkness of her existence, Elizabeth Jennings comes to light.Feb 18, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 22 • By EDWARD SHORT
When John Betjeman was charged with helping find a proper recipient for the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1977, he contacted Philip Larkin and suggested Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001), who had befriended Larkin and Kingsley Amis when they were undergraduates together at Oxford.
The Sitwell with, arguably, the main claim to genius.Jul 16, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 41 • By EDWARD SHORT
Does a biography bring any psychological insight to the portrayal of its subject? Does it place its subject in the context of his or her contemporaries? Does it have anything of critical substance to say about its subject? Is it well written? Is it entertaining? Is it animated by that sympathetic fellow-feeling without which biography too often is little more than prurient gossip?
‹‹ More Recent