A topic I keep coming back to when thinking about the Victorian period is that the wealthy and middle class saw the lower classes as inferior, lazy, and even wicked. That they were poor because of those traits and those traits made them poor, which is, of course, circular. We see this judgement numerous time in Oliver Twist, for example when the judge is convicting Oliver of being a thief because his shabby clothes make him look like one. Likewise, in A Child of the Jago, none of the merchants want to hire Dickie even when the Parson vouches for him. When he finally is hired, the merchant easily believes the lies told about Dickie–because they fit his interpretation of what Dickie should be like.
Among these preconceptions about the poor that seems like an obvious lack of observation, which was brought into great detail in our tour today, was about the poor being considered lazy. Our guide explained several things that proved the preconception wrong. First, they barely had food. They had bread and tea, and maybe a few herring to share for a whole week. Thus, they were malnourished. Second, the poor lived in areas that were highly unsanitary. They had no soap, so when they tried to clean their hands, they were more than likely actually spreading disease and bacteria, which would make them constantly sick if not worse. Third, though this list couldn’t dare to be considered exhaustive, they were sleeping ten to fifteen people in a room. No one could sleep well in those conditions. Thus, they weren’t lazy; they were hungry, sick, and tired, which may show outwardly as laziness, but a generous person might consider another’s situation before judging them. Unfortunately, that rarely happened.
Another topic that hit close today was education. The guide took us to a building that used to be a school in a poor neighborhood. This made me think of a few things. First, Dickens was educated, and that education brought him great unhappiness while working in the blacking factory, since all the other boys would bully him over it. Yet, he didn’t think less of the education. I believe the guide said, unless I’m just projecting this, that Dickens was an advocate for education reform, to bring more education to impoverished areas. Second, it’s the availability of education, and the ability of children to take advantage of that education that determines those children’s’ future. You can’t just have a school, you need to make sure the children are actually going to the school and not made to work instead in order for them to get the education. Unfortunately, as we still see today, there is no guarantee that someone will be able to lift themselves out of poverty, even with more resources available. It usually takes several generations to achieve that movement. And, also unfortunately, there have always been those in power, with massive wealth, who do want to see the so-called lower classes rise up, as it threatens their standing.
The play I saw tonight, Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, besides being a parody of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest is also a criticism of both capitalism and communism. I don’t have a direct connection to make, but it’s pretty obvious that the themes of wealth and poverty aren’t going away. The divide between rich a poor is growing every day, and that can’t be acceptable to anyone. Dickens, Morrison, and Levy–they documented the difficult living conditions of their time, and how people suffered. Just because we don’t see that suffering in East London doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. There’s money to cover London with skyscrapers, but what about Bangladesh, London’s former colony? It might be further than across the Thames, but maybe we should all consider this quote (I saw it on a building during the tour):”Nothing for myself that is not also for others.”