Victorian London Walking Tour

I set the tone for my day at around 9:30 a.m., when I missed the train the rest of the group was riding out from Earl’s Court station. I caught the next train, and it didn’t take too After the tour—which was excellent, and which I’ll get to shortly—I accidentally got separated from the group again in Borough Market, and spent the bulk of the rest of the afternoon taking wrong turns, walking down the wrong streets, getting off at the wrong tube stops, etc. This might sound like a complaint, like I had a frustrating experience, but on the contrary, it was a lovely day, full of unexpected moments (and, uhhm, a lot more exercise than I intended, since I had to double back so many times). I think getting lost can be productive.

I think of Debord’s ideas about the derive: once we’re unencumbered by any clear sense of where we are, where we’re going, etc., we can develop a stronger feeling for a city’s unique ambiance. Debord was writing about wandering around cities he was already familiar with, though, not simply getting lost in a new place. You can’t really defamiliarize a place you don’t know very well in the first place, obviously. I’m probably just making highfalutin theory references to distract from my own slight(-ish) embarrassment at getting lost. But I did have a good time, all the same.

The Victorian London walking tour this morning was wonderful. We started out near Southwark Cathedral, which was a beautiful building (and a useful landmark for catching up with the group after our initial separation). As with a few of the tours this week, there was so much to process that I’m having a bit of trouble sorting through it—but our guide made a point of connecting the sites we visited to Victorian-era literature, which made it a bit less overwhelming than some of the other tours we’ve gone on. (Not that the other tours’ overwhelming-ness was a bad thing, of course.)

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The clearest impression from the tour was similar to the impression I get from reading Dickens and other 19th century writers: life was almost impossibly brutal for the poor in Victorian England. When she told us about William Gladstone’s approach toward dealing with the pervasive sex work in London’s poorer areas—taking sex workers aside, feeding them dinner, and reading Bible verses to them before putting them back out on the street—I couldn’t help but think of Mr. Bumble from Oliver Twist. The idea that piety and propriety and good taste can overcome economic desperation was as ludicrous then as it is now. For people from the middle and upper classes, it was easy to think of sex work as a product of the workers’ own moral deficiency, not as a last resort to feed themselves and their families. To clarify: I’ve known people who were perfectly happy doing sex work because it’s what they wanted to be doing, and more power to them. But people should be able to make that choice for themselves, and most sex workers in Victorian London didn’t have any other opportunities. For the most part, they were forced to do work that put them at constant risk of infection, arrest, and death. That’s what makes it unconscionable. And bourgeois society’s reaction to that problem—a problem that was mostly a symptom of widespread poverty—was to assume the women involved were doing it out of, what, their own inherent “wickedness”?

It was also a haunting experience visiting the site of the Marshalsea prison in Southwark, where Dickens’s father was imprisoned for a few months in 1824. Debtors’ prisons were another bizarre, horrifyingly hypocritical product of economic inequality. Among other things, the debtors’ prison essentially punishes the poor for being poor, on top of making it harder to get out of debt. Like the workhouses, which took in people who were too weak or too sick to work “proper” jobs, only to thrust them into conditions that invariably made them weaker and sicker and more infirm, debtors’ prison just perpetuates and intensifies the cycle of economic oppression. It’s especially bizarre to me that we didn’t even really have the vocabulary to talk about these systemic problems until later. People can talk about Marx and Engels being misguided quixotic idealists all they want—though I would, um, disagree with that interpretation—but the fact that we’re even having conversations about Victorian poverty as a systemic problem illustrates the lasting potency of at least some of Marx’s ideas. Obviously there’s not anything wrong with the people who live in poverty. Poverty breeds poverty. Once you’re poor, it’s obscenely hard to stop being poor—and even then, that takes at least as much luck as effort. How was that not obvious from the start?

John Dickens was only able to get out of prison after such a short time because his mother died and he unexpectedly inherited a decent sum of money. It’s funny: I wonder if this experience gave Charles Dickens the idea for Pip’s mysterious inheritance in Great Expectations. It seems just as likely that the “mysterious benefactor” was just an easy plot device, a way to get Pip from one social stratum to another. But knowing Dickens’s autobiographical proclivities, it seems possible at least.

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