Monday, May 25, 2015
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“A CHILD OF THE JAGO” by Arthur Morrison (first published 1896); and “THE HOLE IN THE WALL” by Arthur Morrison (first published 1902)
I’m always intrigued by the term “minor classic”. What exactly does it mean? Does it mean a book that is a classic, but somehow not in the top league of classics? Or does it mean a book that retains its power after many a long year, but tends to be known only to a small and restricted group of readers? I’ve never been sure.
If we go for the latter definition, then Arthur Morrison’s A Child of the Jago is certainly a minor classic. There were many fictional and documentary depictions of the poorest and most unruly of London’s working class (or – often enough – unemployed class) in the nineteenth century. They range from Dickens (Oliver Twist to Our Mutual Friend) to George Gissing (especially his grinding and intentionally awful The Nether World, published in 1889) to Jack London’s dyspeptic documentary The People of the Abyss, published in 1903 [look up my take on it via the index at right]. But of all 19th century English proletarian works, the one that strikes the most perfect balance between righteous reforming outrage, and real insight and empathy with the poor, is Arthur Morrison’s A Child of the Jago. I regard this as the best English “slum” novel I’ve ever encountered, and the one that deserves a much wider audience.
A few words about the author, as is my wont on this blog. Arthur Morrison (1863-1945) came from a humble “respectably poor” East End London family background (his father was an engine fitter). He made his way into journalism after a false start in the civil service, worked hard on a number of daily papers, and broke into fiction with short story collections about East End life. He also invented a detective called Martin Hewitt, featured in many short stories, who functioned as a kind of proletarian response to Sherlock Holmes. As far as I can work out from the few sources I’ve been able to access, Morrison’s literary life was largely confined to the 1890s and 1900s, well before the First World War. Thereafter he seems to have passed from public view and devoted himself to Oriental and especially Japanese art, about which he wrote a number of specialist books. The novels A Child of the Jago and The Hole in the Wall are apparently the two of his works that have been republished most often, and probably more than all his other works combined.
Published in 1896, when Morrison was in his early thirties, A Child of the Jago has much documentary realism, but would not live as the minor classic it is if it were only documentary. Morrison’s narrative skill and care with characterisation make it a true novel.
A Child of the Jago covers approximately ten years in the life of its eponymous character, Dicky Perrott. He is about seven or eight when we first meet him (though so lean and undernourished that Morrison tells us he could be taken for five). By novel’s end he is a young man of seventeen or eighteen. This novel is not a chronicle, however. Its action divides into three periods of Dicky Perrott’s young life, each separated by four or five years.
Dicky’s father Josh Perrott is an out-of-work plasterer who really lives by crime – petty theft, pilfering, occasional burglary. When times are especially hard, Dicky’s mother Hannah Perrott has to take in piecework, which pays starvation wages – sewing up sacks and bags for a few halfpennies per five hundred. Compared with most of their neighbours, who don’t even pretend to have legitimate employment, the Perrotts are almost respectable. In fact their semi-respectability puts them under suspicion. An ironical passage about Hannah Perrott tells us that she was “ no favourite in the neighbourhood at any time. For one thing, her husband did not carry the cosh. Then she was an alien who had never entirely fallen into Jago ways: she had soon grown sluttish and dirty, but she was never drunk, she never quarrelled, she did not gossip freely. Also her husband beat her but rarely, and then not with a chair nor a poker. Justly irritated by such superiorities as these, the women of the Jago were ill-disposed to brook another: which was, that Hannah Perrott had been married in church.” (Chapter 5)
In the Jago live what antique sociologists called “the criminal classes” and, with an equally patronising tone, Marxists called the Lumpenproletariat. Socially, “the Jagos” are the lowest of the low of the East End. Early in the novel a genuinely respectable working class family called the Ropers – with father in honest work – move into rooms near the Perrott family. “The Jagos” are so outraged at the Ropers’ respectability, moderate habits, failure to engage in crime and the tidiness of their rooms that, instinctively seeing them as snobs, they gang together, threaten to pillage the Ropers’ rooms, and drive them from the neighbourhood. After all, “anything savouring of moderate cleanliness was resented in the Jago as an assumption of superiority.” (Chapter 5)
The novel opens with a brilliant descriptive passage of the Jago’s inhabitants attempting, on a hot summer night, to sleep outdoors on the pavements, to escape the sweltering flea-infested and rat-infested hovels that they inhabit. They really are hovels and slums. A later scene in the novel has the floor collapsing, with loss of life, under revellers in a sordid tavern. Their environment dominates “the Jagos”. This is a world where children and the weak are routinely mugged, beaten up and robbed, for “whosoever was too young, too old or too weak to fight for it must keep what he had well hidden in the Jago.” (Chapter 10) There are also regular tribal brawls between people from different neighbouring streets.
The arc of the story has young Dicky drawn into becoming a thief, partly corrupted and groomed for the role by a weaselling receiver of stolen goods called Aaron Weech (he is more-or-less Fagin to Dicky’s Oliver Twist, but this is a tale with no Dickensian caricature or sentimentality). At first, Dicky has a spark of conscience. He attempts to atone for the ill he has done to another boy by stealing something to repay him. A sturdily “muscular Christian” Anglican pastor, the Reverend Henry Sturt, sees the potential in Dicky and steers him towards honest employment as a shop boy. For a brief time Dicky seems set on the path to a better life. But Aaron Weech, fearing that Dicky might inform on his “fencing” to the police, deliberately sabotages Dicky’s honest employment, throwing Dicky back into a life of petty crime. And while this is going on, things get worse for Dicky’s father. Josh Perrott is involved in a burglary, is sentenced to a long stretch in jail, and comes out intent on revenge on the man who informed on him.
I will not synopsise further, save to say that that it ends wretchedly for the main characters – probably a more uncompromisingly tragic ending than any other Victorian slum novel. One thing that still startles is the frank and non-euphemised nature of this novel. Violence is both frequent and graphic. There is no finger-wagging reproof directed at the character of “Pigeony Poll”, who is clearly a whore. She is simply part of the scene, providing one of the expected services in the Jago.
It’s important to note that there is a clever structure and real narrative drive to this novel. Of course there is inbuilt suspense in two sequences of burglary (one involving murder). Of course the documentary revelations are part of what keeps one turning the pages. But Arthur Morrison knows how to dovetail and connect what could in other hands be a mere parade of events – the way, for example, he uses recurring episodes involving a stolen music box and a stolen clock to mark the development of Dicky’s character and his sympathies.
The role of the Reverend Henry Sturt is interesting. As a figure of some authority (but not enough to totally transform lives) he sometimes acts like an unofficial keeper of the peace, as when he prevents the pillage of the Ropers’ quarters. But he is not naïve or unrealistic about the prospects of his parishioners. In fact he keeps his ear to the ground and knows exactly what criminal activities they have been up to. I am mindful that, ten years after this novel was published, George Bernard Shaw made fun of the more gullible members of the Salvation Army, in his play Major Barbara (1906), showing cunning Cockney lowlife characters weaselling favours out of them by pretending to be great sinners who had been “saved”. In Chapter 14 of A Child of the Jago, Morrison shows that the Reverend Sturt is fully wise to such tricks and never takes at his word any wretch who pretends to have suddenly seen the light. His sermons are practical advice and reproof. He repeatedly tries to set youngsters like Dicky straight. But he is under no illusions about his success rate.
Obviously this is a novel that deplores the degradation of people in such slum conditions. In general terms, as an expose, it could be called reformist. Yet there is an odd undercurrent to the novel. Morrison is also aware that the people who live in the Jago have their own codes, to which they stick. It may be no more than the “honour among thieves”, but it gives their wretched society some sort of cohesion. For example:
“To rob another was reasonable and legitimate, and to avoid being robbed, so far as might be, was natural and proper. But to accuse anybody of a theft was unsportsmanlike, a foul outrage, a shameful abuse, a thing unpardonable. You might rob a man, bash a man, even kill a man; but to ‘take away his character’ – even when he had none – was to draw down the execrations of the whole Jago; while to assail the pure fame of the place – to ‘give the street a bad name’ – this was to bring the Jago howling and bashing about your ears.” (Chapter 10)
This may say no more than that informing (to the police) is despised. Nobody is allowed to “nark” or “peach”. Later, however, we have the wretches getting up a collection so that Josh Perrott can have a defence counsel when he is tried for burglary, and the whore Pigeony Poll looks after the Perrott children when both Perrott parents are involved in the trial. There is some sort of morality at work here.
Even more interestingly, one of the novel’s big set-pieces is a long bare-knuckle fight between Josh Perrott and the toughest neighbourhood thug Billy Leary (Chapter 14). It is sordid. It is graphic in its violence. Yet, as the mobs howls for their favourites, it also allows us to share their feral joy.
Thus the novel as I have experienced it, without calling upon any critics or commentators for help. Now, however, a little background and cogitation. I discover that “the Jago” is a fictitious name, which Arthur Morrison gave to the real fifteen acres of filth that were the Old Nichol area of Shoreditch and Spitalfields. Morrison carefully researched this area because he had been directed to, by a Reverend A. Osbourne Jay, who was the model for the Reverend Henry Sturt.
I am also aware now that there has been some controversy about how pessimistic this novel is. In the end, is Morrison saying that the slum-dwellers are incapable of improvement and are doomed, by their inherited customs and social conditioning, to be no more than a destructive criminal force? Indeed, is there a hint of that destructive Nietzschean idea that some people are sub-human? In one scene, as the Reverend Sturt and a doctor emerge from a birth in a slum dwelling (Chapter 28), they appear to agree that some people should not be allowed to “breed” like rats. This malign idea was to dominate much of the eugenics movement in the early 20th century. Apparently the real Reverend A. Osbourne Jay came to the conclusion, after years of slum work, that the “criminal classes” were so beyond repair that the only solution was to deport the lot to a big penal colony. O dear!
Yet, while some of these ideas might have been congenial to Arthur Morrison (and I am only speculating that they were), they in no way blunt the force of this novel, or make us any less aware that its characters are human beings.
Informative footnote: This isn’t the major focus of A Child of the Jago, and it certainly will not get in the way of your appreciation, but there are passages of this concise and vigorous novel which use authentic but antique Cockney slang and thieves’ cant. Some of this would now be quite impenetrable to us if the context didn’t usually make the meaning clear. “Click”, we soon understand, means petty theft. To be “rotted” is to be caught out in a lie. A “bust” is a burglary. Some of the slang is both cynical and imaginative. In the big fight scene between Josh Perrott and Billy Leary (Chapter 14), we learn that to be “in chancery” means to be held helplessly in a headlock by a rival pugilist, who is then able to pummel and pulp your face with repeated blows. This suggests that Dickens’ view of the Court of Chancery, expressed in Bleak House, was one that that percolated down to the masses. It was the institution that held people helpless while they were ruined. There’s another Dickensian echo when we are told (Chapter 24) that the art of “fencing”, as currently practised, originated with the Cockney Jew Ikey Solomons. He was the criminal, way back in the 1820s, who was the model for Dickens’ Fagin. Then there is the passage where Morrison tells us that a burglary victim is a criminal, but that he does not do the obvious crimes that can be detected: “He did no vulgar thievery: he never screwed a chat, nor claimed a peter, nor worked the mace.” (Chapter 24) Other passages of the novel suggest to be that “screw a chat” means committing burglary and “working the mace” means mugging, but I could be wrong about these. And I still don’t know what “claiming a peter” means. So there are probably moments in A Child of the Jago where you might scratch your head before the narrative carries you on.
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Coming from Arthur Morrison’s best-known work, A Child of the Jago, to his second-best-known work, The Hole in the Wall, is to come to a very different sort of novel, even if some of its concerns are the same.
Like A Child of the Jago, The Hole in the Wall is set among Cockney “criminal” classes who live in squalid circumstances and regard giving information to the police as the worst of crimes. It is also a novel with a number of murders and some other graphic violence. One lethal fight, in which a man is blinded by having lime rubbed into his eyes, is as chilling and feral as the bare-knuckle fight in A Child of the Jago. Yet The Hole in the Wall is more like a conventional thriller than A Child of the Jago, and it appears to be set some decades before the time it was written – probably the 1870s – so that it has none of the urgency of an expose. The dust-jacket of a 1972 reprint of it, which I have been reading, describes the novel as “a masterpiece of terror”. This is a silly overstatement. It is more an intriguing crime story, with some good suspense sequences.
Brief synopsis: the mother of the young boy Stephen Kemp has just died. Stephen’s father is a seaman who is away on the long voyage. So Stephen is taken in by his old grandfather, the former seaman Nathaniel Kemp (usually known as Captain Kemp). Grandfather owns a squalid pub in Wapping, called The Hole in the Wall, right on the banks of the Thames. At one point we learn that it has a room which leans right out over the river, in which there is a trapdoor ready for all manner of dirty work.
Grandfather Nathaniel is tough and wiry. He can break a man’s wrist as soon as grab it. Rough customers in his pub know his word is law. Most of his customers are sailors, whores, bargemen and the traders on the river. He is kind and grandfatherly to young Stephen and says he is trying to get enough money to buy the boy a good education. But we soon realise (even if the boy doesn’t) that Nathaniel Kemp’s main business is “fencing” stolen goods, although he does it in a cunning way that will not implicate himself should the police come sniffing.
At the heart of this story is a maritime insurance fraud, which has lethal consequences, and the rivalry of sinister characters to get their hands on ill-gotten loot that has found its way into The Hole in the Wall. This is where the murders come into the story – stabbings, bodies dropped mysteriously into the dark river waters at night, and so on. But I refrain from being more specific about the plot as it is a good thriller and its surprises about characters and their motivation are essential to its effect. I can say that the sinister characters include Blind George, a blind waterfront fiddler with one milky and sightless rolling eye, a complete thug called Dan Ogle, and various weaselish hangers-on, who collectively frighten the wits out of the boy Stephen. I can also say that the eventual fate of the pub is so over-the-top that it might have come out of an old Hollywood movie.
Major points of development are the way Nathaniel Kemp’s character and real priorities are slowly revealed to us, and the battle between his better nature and his criminal tendencies. Another is the odd relationship between boy and father-substitute “fence” grandfather, as the boy gradually realizes what sort of world he is living in. In some respects, this means The Hole in the Wall has something in common with two Victorian boys’ favourites, Stevenson’s Treasure Island (father-substitute pirate and boy) and J. Meade Falkner’s Moonfleet (father-substitute smuggler and boy).
But there is what I regard as a major stylistic flaw in the novel. About half the chapters are narrated, in the first person, by the boy Stephen, and the rest are told in the omniscient third-person voice. When Stephen narrates, we are apparently meant to see the irony of a kid not understanding some of the obviously criminal stuff going on in front of him. But this cannot be sustained, as so much of the plot concerns things that Stephen cannot possibly witness. So we switch to the third person. I do not know anything about how Arthur Morrison wrote the novel, but I do wonder if he originally intended to have Stephen narrate it all, and then discovered that this voice could not be sustained without some logical impossibilities. At the very least, the switch in voices is very disconcerting, and the irony of Stephen’s incomprehension is overplayed and becomes rather strained.
I should note, by the way, that while both the Hole in the Wall and A Child of the Jago are novels with a child as the central character, neither could be called a book for children.
One final point. The Hole in the Wall does have much Cockney slang, but it is not as impenetrable as parts of its predecessor. Two bright things that struck me as I read it. In an early scene, a silly relative is attempting to say something sententious at the funeral of Stephen’s mother. She says “In the midst of life we’re in the middle of it.” Genius! Then there’s the crim who describes a thick fog as “a blind man’s holiday”. Quite.