Mord Em’ly’s Late-Victorian Moxie

12 November 2011

Betty Balfour appeared in the 1922 silent film version of Mord Em'ly

Published in 1901, William Pett Ridge’s Mord Em’ly opens to a pitched battle between rival girl-gangs on the mean streets of south London. Hair is pulled, faces are scratched, and innocent hats are senselessly trampled. If you have ever succumbed beneath the tedium of a Dickens novel, here is something a bit more lively. 

The story follows its charismatic, working-class heroine, Mord Em’ly (“Maud Emily”), as she is arrested for shoplifting at the age of twelve and sent to an industrial school. Later, she escapes and returns to London only to find that her gang has moved on, and that the old neighborhood has lost some of its luster. In the intervening years, she has grown up a bit, and she continues to grow as she is forced to confront a new set of conflicts, including an abusive, heretofore absent father who turns up to demand money. 

Mord Em’ly is no damsel in distress, however, nor is she a hapless victim of social conditions. She has a strong, self-reliant personality, and an eviscerating, razor-wit that permit her to maintain her independence in spite of a cast of characters and institutions who are alternatively out to rescue or enslave her. Her story is colored by ironical descriptions and amusingly sharp, caustic dialog—as in this exchange between Mord Em’ly and an aggressive stranger who bullies her girlfriend, Ronicker, at a boxing match: 

“Make her shut her head, then,” said the lean-faced man aggrievedly. “I don’t want no truck with her. Make the—”

“Less language,” commanded More Em’ly. “Don’t forget you’re in the presence of ladies.” The lean-faced man laughed ironically.

You!” he said vehemently. “You call yourselves ladies! You’re what I call—well, I won’t say what I call you. I’ve got gentlemanly feelings beneath a ‘omley exterior, and I know how to be’ave as well as anyone.”

“You cert’n’y are ‘omley.”

“If I meet with ceevility,” said the lean-faced man, in a dogged way, “I give ceevility back. If I meet with inceevility, I give inceevility back. If I’ve got a single fault—”

“Who’s been telling you that?” 

Conventional wisdom might have it that strict Victorian social mores would have prohibited ladies from attending anything so vulgar as a Shoreditch boxing match, but Ridge, on the contrary, portrays Mord Em’ly and Ronicker as simply ignoring the silly gymnasium owner who tries to turn them away the door. This was probably not far from reality: as early as the 1850’s Jimmy Shaw had reported to Henry Mayhew that there were “noble ladies and titled ladies” quietly attending his rat baiting matches. 

Likely written with the fun-loving, music-hall crowd in mind, Mord Em’ly is not overly concerned with upholding the polite fictions of Victorian society, and as such it affords us a more honest representation of the actual behavior of ordinary, working-class Londonders, and the dilemmas they faced in the 19th century. While there certainly many lines of propriety that Ridge does not cross, he is not too shy, for instance, to portray domestic violence and stalking.

One of the more interesting threads concerns Mord Em’ly’s bid to support herself without going into domestic service, which is continually presented to her as the only sensible choice for a girl in her position. Early in the novel she is sent to a situation in Peckham, where she is met by a trio of middle-class sisters who insist upon calling her Laura (“We always call our maids Laura…It’s a tradition in the family”), and lead lives of respectable monotony where any short visits or outings are “occurrences so rare that they were looked forward to and spoken of for weeks, and afforded careful and detailed retrospect for a period of months.” Here are her impressions of Lucella Road:

It seemed to Mord Em’ly that the people in the road led lives that were ordered by some precise and stringent Act of Parliament. By half-past eight in the morning every man in every house had come out, had pulled the doors to, and had run off to catch the train to the City, an exodus which also used to take place (at an earlier hour) at Pandora Buildings; but, whereas there it signalled opportunity for free conversation, in Lucella Road it seemed that the women-folk remained indoors, and kept themselves in rigid seclusion; when they did come cut, they wore, Mord Em’ly noticed, a reserved air, which they put on for out-door walking, and they looked up at the sky with an air of disparagement, as though it was not at all the kind of sky that they had been accustomed to before they were married, and they sneered at the pavement; the other houses seemed to excite in them a feeling of boredom and contempt; their manner generally was that of people who are by no means pleased with the world. There were no disputes in Lucella Road; nobody came home late and noisy; it appeared to Mord Em’ly that everybody carefully abstained from giving entertainment. Even the delights of shopping were denied to her, because demure young men, with carts, called very quietly, and these, when they ventured to say a word outside the demands of business (being, in truth, in mortal fear of quick-eared mistresses), usually asked Mord Em’ly whether she favoured church or chapel. Mord Em’ly, getting through her housework briskly, and alone in her kitchen, had dark ideas of obtaining a pocketful of pebbles, and of rushing from one end of the road to the other, screaming loudly and breaking windows all the way.

“It’d ‘liven ’em up, at any rate,” said Mord Em’ly grimly.

These are contrasted by wistful, flowing reminiscences (worthy of full quotation) of Princes Street and Walworth Road:

…with the barrows stacked with yellow Lent lilies and scented violets, and giant bundles of wallflowers tied with twigs round their thick waists; pyramids of oranges, too, and huge cliffs of sweets, and men and women, their owners, exultantly calling attention to them; the slow crowd on the pavement stopping now and again to haggle, and, at infrequent intervals, to buy. There were two butchers with their shop fronts afire with red joints; the men were chaffing each other, and each shouted his opinion of the other man’s face. The drapery shop, selling off because it had nearly had a fire, or because its premises were not coming down, or on some other excuse, was frantic with placards; it had bargains in pale blue blouses and in gay bunches of linen flowers, that demanded attention, and would take no denial. In the roadway, the yellow and scarlet trams sailed along, with passengers continually boarding them and passengers continually disembarking; ‘buses rocked about and played games of cup-and-ball with their passengers, or danced recklessly over the roadway. On the other side of the road, in Princes Street, a piano-organ was playing, and two ridiculous men were waltzing and behaving to each other with preposterous courtesy. Through Princes Street, and there, with four white globes, arch-fashion, over its entrance, was the Mont.

Mord Em’ly gave a quick gasp as she thought of the Mont.

You paid twopence to an old lady seated in a little sentry-box, and you went through a passage which had swing-doors at the end, and on the walls of the passage there were portraits and a poster of a very fine lady in fleshings, called Miss Flo Macgomery, also known as Britain’s Brilliant and Beautiful Brunette. You could hear faint music before you reached the doors opening into the rear of the long hall, and when you pressed open one of these, the singing and the music boxed you on the ears in rather a jovial, agreeable way. You were at the very back of the hall, but the floor sloped a little, and, away through the smoke, and over the heads of people, you could see, on the stage, Mr. Pat Foley, who was Ireland’s Brightest Gem, and who, in view of that fact, might well have provided himself with a complete dress-suit, but had, up to the present, succeeded in obtaining the necktie only, and wore tweed trousers and a double-breasted jacket. No song of what is called questionable character was ever sung at the Mont., because the Mont.’s patrons had no appetite for that sort of thing; to vulgarity they had no deep-rooted objection, but even of this they desired less than did their similars in the West-end. They would always rather see a man dance intricate steps than watch furious whirling by girls; and damsels at the Mont. who kicked high and kicked often, and made themselves breathless in the effort, found their last ambitious skip received with casual interest; the hall allowed them to go in glum silence, with sometimes a few derisive whistles. If you were late, the best twopenny seats were occupied, but Mord Em’ly’s trick was calculated to meet the difficulty. It was this—You waited for the song to finish, and then called:

“Emily Ann! Emily Ann! your mother’s outside a-lookin’ for you.”

Whereupon, as the one or two girls whose name happened to be Emily Ann gave up their seats and slipped, eel-like, through the crowd, and went out by the swing-doors to circumvent mothers (who were not there), you took one of the seats thus left free. And then, when the red-faced chairman down in front of the stage knocked the table with his black hammer, and rose and said, ” La’i s and gen’lemen, Miss Patsie Sinclair will ‘pear next,” how the hall cheered—cheered because it knew that, although Miss Sinclair might come on first in a long baby-frock and sing:

     “Wandaring by the meel-stream,
         Close to the one that I love,
     Al’wys togaither, in all sorts of waither, 
         A-watchin’ the stars above”;

yet, this access of sentiment over, they were sure that she would reappear in an astonishing military costume and sing, “The Boys of the Knock-’em-out Brigade,” with two rollicking verses, and one dramatic, with the green light on her, and looking so serious that she made you hold your breath:

     “When Brittanier calls upon us
        To give our fitheful aid,
     The boys that die for glowry

Miss Sinclair, at lowered footlights, with outstretched arms, pointing two imaginary swords:

     “—the Knock-’em-out Brigade.”

You wish you could have been there, don’t you? London in the 1890’s must have been an amazing time and place.

It is no wonder, then, that Mord Em’ly flees back to the city, and away from the life of domestic servitude that is being arranged for her. She is not at all afraid of work, but she wants Sundays off, evenings free; the basic liberty to enjoy a social life that modern readers take for granted, at a period when society was not so eager to accommodate it. It is only after being made to feel frivolous and irresponsible by her childhood authority figures that she finds a job as a waitress, which affords her not only the independence she has sought after, but the means to aid her ailing mother. 

Mord Em’ly’s dilemma—the dilemma that generally faced Victorian women who aspired to something greater than servitude—is brilliantly encapsulated in a job-hunting scene that takes place at the registry office. After delivering a lecture on the merits of evenings spent alone in a kitchen, reading an improving book, a bespectacled lady steers Mord Em’ly toward the many local, domestic positions they have on offer. When Mord Em’ly, recalling her experience in Peckham, indicates that none of these are to her liking, the lady snaps:  “Some of you young women don’t know what you do want.”

“We know what we don’t want,” Mord Em’ly replies. 

Further Reading


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2 Comments to “Mord Em’ly’s Late-Victorian Moxie”

  1. “This was probably not far from reality: as early as the 1850′s Jimmy Shaw had reported to Henry Mayhew that there were “noble ladies and titled ladies” quietly attending his rat baiting matches.”

    I definitely believe this. How people really behaved back then was so different from how things were depicted in the novels of the time, which were so heavily censored. But you can get a sense of how fun and bawdy they really were when you consider the popularity of the sensation novels, cabinets of curiosities, and the Grand Guignol, to name only a few things they liked to attend.

    • Which is exactly what makes Victorian London such fertile ground for historical fiction. Any honest portrayal of the period is likely to be greeted as fresh and intriguing simply by virtue of the fact that our misconceptions about the Victorians are so deeply entrenched, and so seldom questioned.

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