Arthur Morrison's novel 'A Child of the Jago' is a classic of slum-fiction, depicting the Victorian underworld and drawing attention to the bleak prospects for children living in such surroundings. Author Sarah Wise looks at the impact of the novel at the time and the social debates it aroused:
In November 1896, Arthur Morrison published A Child of the Jago — the Jago being a scarcely disguised Old Nichol, the slum that lay behind Shoreditch High Street. The furore the book provoked continued for two years in the press, and significantly longer on the ground, in Shoreditch.
Literary critic HD Traill led the charge – stating that Morrison had exaggerated the awfulness of life in the Nichol. Traill believed that by selecting some of the very worst aspects of East London life Morrison had done exactly what an artist should do — he had created a dense, undiluted composite that bore little relation to its factual inspiration: ‘the total effect of the story is unreal and phantasmagoric’, wrote Traill, and the reader feels like ‘one who has just awakened from the dream of a prolonged sojourn in some fairyland of horror’.
But Morrison would always swear that his novel was a faithful dramatisation of hard facts — facts that he had collected by more or less moving in to the Old Nichol, and using his journalistic skills to observe and record. A Child of the Jago
was less art than life, he claimed; and anyone who said otherwise was deluding themselves about the ‘social emergency’ that was about to explode and wreck civilisation. By which he meant — what are we going to do about the seething, breeding underclass that swarm at the heart of our great cities?
Many were perplexed that Morrison had decided to write a novel about a location that was on the cusp of being torn down. The Old Nichol was scheduled for demolition, in order that the Boundary Street Estate could be built — as the London County Council’s flagship housing scheme. But what most people of the day failed to spot was that by the period in which Morrison claimed to be semi-resident in the Nichol (October 1894 to March 1896) large swathes of the slum had been boarded up and some streets partially demolished. In January 1893 — a whole 20 months before Morrison turned up — one local newspaper proclaimed the area ‘The Land of Desolation’, declaring, ‘Half the houses are now closed by the orders of the County Council.’ It was not possible that Morrison was witnessing the ordinary everyday activities of the long-term residents of the Nichol.
So why did he do it? Why libel an entire district? The answers are likely to involve an infatuation, a deep sense of shame, and an author ill at ease with his own imagination and artistry. Morrison’s novel has been the most impressive of literary re-brandings of a district in London history, perhaps even in world history. ‘Arthur Morrison-itis’ has afflicted most 20th and 21st century commentators’ views of the Old Nichol. We fall in love with Morrison’s image of the Nichol because it is so powerfully presented; we assume that it’s true because no one wrote a similarly powerful novel that denies it.
You can hear Sarah Wise talking more about Arthur Morrison and his fictional account of the Old Nichol as part of our East End in Focus series on Tuesday 1 April 2014.
Exhibition at Eleven Spitalfields Gallery
East End in Focus series was inspired by the 1912 street photography of
C. A. Mathew. You can see for yourself the wonderful images that C. A.
Mathew took at Eleven Spitalfields Gallery from 7 March to 25 April 2014.
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