Posts Tagged poverty and social conditions

Margaret Hale: The Morbid Homemaker

23 March 2012
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Daniela Denby-Ashe Portrays Margaret Hale in the BBC Adaptation of “North and South.”

Margaret Hale is a good and proper English lady who confronts angry rioters and challenges men on questions of industrial labor relations. Her brother is a mutineer living in exile in Spain. Her father is former vicar turned non-conformist who has relocated his family from an idyllic southern village to a bleak northern industrial town where her mother’s health promptly begins to fail. At nineteen years old she has to contend with death, civil unrest and the police, but along the way she grows  enamored to her dynamic new way of life in the North of Britain.

Published as a weekly from 1854-55, Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South takes an unflinching look at the fault lines in British society in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution. Weaving contemporary social issues into an elegant coming-of-age story, Gaskell takes a frank yet even-handed view of the cultural differences between the industrial North and agrarian South, and the emergence of labor unions. She portrays religious intolerance, the injustice of courts martial, and the entrapment of women. She takes on all of these issues and more with a combination of clarity, nuance and sophistication that is rare among social critics of any century.

North and South is a veritable treasure trove of historical detail and nuance of the sort beloved by social historians and period writers alike. Here the cultural norms that form the background of more conventional works are brought into the forefront, contrasted across regional and class lines, made the topics of passionate debate, and—best of all—transgressed. It is also a good story. One of its most poignant features consists in its portrayal of ritual mourning and compassion toward dying as wellsprings of social cohesion.

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Arthur Boyd Houghton’s City of Strangers

25 February 2012

Arthur Boyd Houghton Itinerant Singers

Arthur Boyd Houghton, Itinerant Singers, c1860 (detail). Click to Open Full Image in New Window.

Arthur Boyd Houghton was known to paint glowing images of happy families on seaside retreat and beneficent old men at play with their grandchildren, but in 1859-1865 he also produced a series of weirdly unsettling London street scenes. Their composition is chaotic and fragmentary, depicting complex scenes of urban bustle. His figures, though densely intermingled, appear eerily disconnected from one another.

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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?” 

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The True Story of the Lowood Institution

17 September 2011

Like most writers, the Brontë sisters drew upon their own life experiences in composing their novels and particularly, it is sad to say, in their more tragic elements thereof. The most striking example is the story of Jane Eyre’s experiences at the Lowood Institution, and the heart-breaking death of Helen Burns. 

“Lowood” was Cowan Bridge, a Clergy Daughters’ School that was attended by the Brontë sisters, where they were referred to as “charity children,” fed burnt porridge, and made to wash in freezing water. The character of Mr. Brocklehurst was inspired by William Carus Wilson, a Calvinist reverend and moral tyrant who operated the school. Something of his doctrines can be gleaned from a magazine he published, The Children’s Friend, which has been described as “part of a wholesale attempt to christianize fairy stories,” filled with tales of punishment, deathbed conversion and evangelism. 

The character of Helen Burns was based upon Charlotte’s older sister Maria Brontë, who, like her other sibling Elizabeth, was not fortunate enough to survive the “cold, implacable cruelty of Mr. Brocklehurst.” Something of their story is related in James Parton’s 1886 book Daughters of Genius:

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The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon

1 July 2011

On July 4th, 1885 Pall Mall Gazette editor W.T. Stead issued a “frank warning” to his readers. Due to public inattention, the Criminal Law Amendment Bill—an item of legislation drafted to suppress child prostitution and raise the age of consent in the United Kingdom from thirteen to sixteen—was once again languishing in the House of Commons. This could not be allowed to stand. The Gazette would be taking swift, decisive action to open the eyes of the public to the enormity of the crisis at hand, but it was not going to be pretty. “We have no desire to inflict upon unwilling eyes the ghastly story of the criminal developments of modern vice,” he wrote, “Therefore we say quite frankly to-day that all those who are squeamish, and all those who are prudish, and all those who prefer to live in a fool’s paradise of imaginary innocence and purity, selfishly oblivious to the horrible realities which torment those whose lives are passed in the London Inferno, will do well not to read the Pall Mall Gazette of Monday and the three following days.”

What followed was the Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon; a shocking, four-part exposé of child sex trafficking that sent London spiraling into moral panic. In spite of boycotts, harassment and threats of prosecution for obscenity, the Northumberland Street offices of the Gazette were literally besieged by eager newsboys and hungry runners desperate to obtain valuable new copies of the controversial paper. Meanwhile, Stead openly dared the authorities to press charges against him, threatening to subpoena almost half the Legislature to prove his allegations if such a case were brought to trial. The fiery reformer would not be silenced.

The report of a “secret commission,” the Maiden Tribute derived its title from the tribute that conquered Athens is said to have paid to King Minos: seven maidens and seven youths who were made to wander the Labyrinth of Daedalus, where they would inevitably encounter the deadly Minotaur. Truly, it was a terrible price to pay, and yet modern London was willingly offering up multitudes of its own maidens to meet their doom in the maze of brotheldom. “The maw of the London Minotaur is insatiable,” Stead wrote, “and none that go into the secret recesses of his lair return again.”

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Who was Madame Restell?

18 June 2011
Ann Lohman arrested by Anthony Comstock

Click to Enlarge

The cover of The New York Illustrated Times for February 23rd, 1878 depicts the arrest of the notorious abortionist Ann Lohman, alias “Madame Restell,” by the moral crusader Anthony Comstock. Flanked by reporters and deputies, the statuesque crime-fighter is pictured with a search warrant in hand, which he reads to the lady villain in the attitude of a holy messenger, banishing evil by its sacred words. Comfortably situated amongst the opulent furnishings of her Fifth Avenue mansion, Madame Restell wears a cool, appraising expression, as if to say “Ah, Comstock, my nemesis—I have been expecting you.” Her right hand is clenched into a fist, which overlaps the womb of a veiled woman who weeps with shame in the background.

Dubbed the “wickedest woman in New York,” Madame Restell built an empire of cruelty; promoting vice, and profiting upon the mistakes of married women and wayward girls. She plied her trade openly, publicizing her services through thinly-veiled advertisements in the penny press. Though she was object of perennial public scandals and outbursts of moral outrage, she shamelessly flaunted her wealth, parading about the city in a showy carriage with four horses and a liveried coachman. She evaded justice by bribery, by clever legal maneuvering, and by threatening to expose the identities of her wealthy clientele—or so, that’s how the story goes.

Ann Lohman and her relations left no journals or correspondence to offer us insight into her true actions, personal feelings or motivations. She has been the subject of two modern biographies, Allan Keller’s Scandalous Lady and Clifford Browder’s The Wickedest Woman in New York. Each of these, in weaving its narrative, has been forced to rely heavily upon hostile newspaper accounts, courtroom transcripts, police memoirs, and anti-abortion tracts, as these are virtually the only sources available. History has recorded the story Madame Restell almost exclusively in voice of public condemnation—a circumstance that immediately begs the question: who was she, really?

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The Witches of New York

21 May 2011

In the 1850’s the humorist Mortimer Thomson, writing as Q. K. Philander Doesticks, set his sights on the fortune-tellers, clairvoyants, and astrologers of New York City. Under the pretense of wanting their services, he visited a cross-section of his local oracles and documented his experiences in a series of newspaper articles that became the 1856 book The Witches of New York; a volume that is one part humor, one part skepticism, and one part anthropology.

Thomson was a colorful figure whose obituary credits him with having been expelled from Michigan University for “too much enterprise in securing subjects for the dissecting room.” His prose is highly comedic. In one chapter he impersonated a woman in order to obtain an interview at a ladies-only establishment; a “Crinolinic Stratagem,” as he put it, that afforded him the opportunity to glimpse an image of his future husband.

Much of the humor in The Witches of New York plays upon the contrast between expectations and reality. One by one, the mysterious oracles advertising themselves in local newspapers are revealed to be unassuming alcoholics and former prostitutes who recite vague, boilerplate fortunes, employ cheap parlor tricks and make poor attempts at cold reading. Here is typical example in which a well-established sorceress named Madame Prewster attempts to divine the name of Thomson’s true love:

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