Morality and Victorian London

Much more than any tour previously, our tour with Kim was the most relevant to our study of the selected novels this semester, especially Oliver Twist and Dickens in general. Kim was familiar with the texts more than any other guide we had, and effectively connected the sites she showed us to specific scenes in Oliver Twist. While she did dabble in some specifics, I think the best quality of the tour was Kim’s ability to paint such a vivid scene of what life was like in the area around Borough Market during the Victorian era. The levels of poverty during that time were so extreme, by “modern” standards, they’re unfathomable. Though the area itself was different, the conditions which Kim described bore such strong resemblance to that of the Old Nickel, the Gutter, Jago.

We learned about the Mudlarks, who were small, young children who would wait for the tide of the Thames to ebb, and then they would scavenge the mud banks of the riverside in the hopes of finding anything worth even the tiniest bit of money, so that they could contribute to their family’s income. However, because most of these children were so small and did not know how to swim, drowning deaths were incredibly common. Because of the poverty of the area, no one could really afford to bury a child, especially because infant and child mortality was so high, so the family of the deceased child would retain the body, and once an adult died, the child would be buried with that adult. While the gravity of the situation was certainly shocking, I find myself thinking back to Great Expectations, when Pip helps Magwitch at the end. I can’t help but wonder if Pip hadn’t taken him in, is this the sort of life which he would have lived? Granted, Magwitch was a criminal, a violent one at that, but the question which then arises comes down to morality: How can we judge who is deserving of help? Do we believe that these types of situations are fate, or some kind of otherworldly or godly intervention of punishment and consequence?

There is a strong question of morality throughout the Victorian period, and something Kim said put this best. This was a “broken population.” Regardless of any kinds of religious bearings or anything along those lines, everything these people did was a matter of survival. People engaged in deplorable activities not because they sought some kind of adrenaline rush or thrill, but because as far as they knew, they had no other options, and this was the only way that they would survive. Dickens illustrates this in his portrayal of Fagin in Oliver Twist. Fagin is quite plainly stereotypically evil for his teaching young boys to be criminals, but Fagin does help Oliver a lot throughout the novel. Dickens has a habit of writing novels which are at minimum somewhat autobiographical, and Oliver Twist is no exception. Arguably the most traumatic period of Dickens’s life was when he worked in a shoe-blacking factory while his family was incarcerated at the debtors’ prison. While working at the shoe-blacking factory, Dickens was often mistreated by the other boys working there, until one day, a young man there helped him, and his name was Bob Fagin. This anecdote alone convinces me that there are more layers to Fagin than his criminal life. Though he encourages Oliver and the other boys into treacherous habits, he still looks after them very much so, because once again, survival is the top priority at this point.

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Quintessential London: By Day and By Night

By Day

Though our tour didn’t directly pertain to any of our studies for the class, we toured Westminster Abbey and the surrounding areas with Ulla, and got some good information in regards to the history of London outside of the Victorian era. Even though it wasn’t quite focused on the Victorian era, getting earlier history as well as more modern history was nice because (including our knowledge of the Victorian era) we get a well-rounded picture of what created the social and political conditions which enabled and influenced the creation of the texts we’ve engaged with.

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Like most of the things in London, Westminster Abbey is old. It has a rich history built into every stone, and it shows. The most interesting points for me were the chair which was displayed inside of the chapel. While the portrait which was displayed beside it, picturing one of the Richards (Richard II or Richard III, I can’t recall exactly) suggested some artistic liberties had been taken, it was still incredible to see the efforts to preserve the chair. The chair dates back to the early 1000s-1100s, long predating Shakespeare or Queen Elizabeth I. For me, this was important because the most precious value I’ve observed in the UK is their efforts to retain as much of their history as possible for educational purposes, which is something that doesn’t really take place in the US. Granted, the history of the US is much shorter than that of England, but even then, the preservation of original structures and artifacts is rare, and when it does occur, there is often limited access to the public. One of the most mind-blowing things for me is the fact that just about all of the museums we went to, housing such precious artifacts, had no admission cost. To me, that shows an emphasis on the importance of education, with particular emphasis on history and understanding the growth of the country.

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After walking through Westminster Abbey, we passed several of the quintessential “I went to London” landmarks. We saw the Victoria Tower, the Houses of Parliament, the House of Lords, the tower housing Big Ben (side note: I had no idea Big Ben was actually just the gigantic bell you hear, and has nothing to do with the building that’s always displayed; this really shook my world and all I thought I’d known of London prior to visiting.), St. James’s Park, Downing Street, and Buckingham Palace. From certain points, I could even see the London Eye too. Overall, we saw a majority of the typical London tourist sites, and despite how cheesy they are, I couldn’t be happier.

By Night

One of my favorite parts of the trip was when we went out for dinner as a group, then went to see the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Much Ado About Nothing, held at the Royal Haymarket Theatre. Honestly, I’m not sure which I enjoyed more, the dinner or the show. First, we had an interesting turn of events with our dinner plans. Because of a power outage that wouldn’t be resolved in time for us to eat and get our seats at the theatre, we had to leave the Mint Leaf, a nice Indian restaurant where we had dinner reservations. Then, we scrambled as a group, searching for someplace nearby that could accommodate our group of ten on such short notice. Luckily, we came upon Spaghetti House, a local Italian restaurant. The dinner was lovely. Food was delicious—from what I heard, everyone enjoyed their meals and drinks, but more importantly, we got to spend some time together as a group, simply enjoying each other’s company, rather than taking furious mental notes about tours in anticipation of our blog posts later, and the final paper rapidly approaching. It was enjoyable because overall, I never felt like there was any animosity among anyone in the group; we all got along well, and that made all the difference for the trip. For me, in that moment, we all felt like family.

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Being the Shakespeare enthusiast I am, I was thrilled when Dr. McLeod told us that she’d been able to get us tickets to a show. Much Ado is my favorite of the comedies, and RSC’s production did not disappoint. While I do love when productions play with the temporality of the show, I was somewhat confused by this one. Rather than a typical Elizabethan period production, RSC adopted what appeared to be a WWI/Roaring 20s theme, reflected in the costumes and props. While I enjoyed it greatly, I never did quite grasp the purpose of resituating the time period (while maintaining the original Elizabethan vernacular) for this production. That aside, I was in love. If I had to choose the aspect of the production I enjoyed the most, it would be the casting, particularly with Hero and Beatrice and Benedick. First, the actor who played Hero was everything I’d imagined Hero to be in my initial reading of the play. She captured Hero perfectly—slightly ditsy, but not annoyingly so, carefree, and so eagerly focused on love, for herself and for her dear cousin, Beatrice. Second, the chemistry between the actors playing Beatrice and Benedick was astonishing. The banter between the two of them flowed effortlessly and naturally. Overall, I was completely blown away by the production—not to mention the ice cream for sale at intermission. My only regret is that I didn’t have the foresight to plan to attend more shows, like the thirtieth anniversary production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera.

 

Gentrification of the Jago

Though we toured Wilton’s Music Hall last night, I find that the underlying themes of the tour are more compatible with today’s tour of the London’s East End. Throughout the tour, our guide, Anne-Marie, made several comments about the disheartening amount of gentrification taking place throughout the East End. The amount of history in the small area that we toured was overwhelming, and Anne-Marie and I had the same concerns, one which she made a point to voice consistently. Both tours’ guides had similar points. With Wilton’s, the idea was to conserve, rather than restore, meaning that keeping whatever changes occurred to Wilton’s as a way to prolong its history. Similarly, with the East End, there were some instances where the original Victorian fronts were left, but buildings had been rebuilt behind it or elsewhere, and the idea was more about preservation of the original history. While slightly different, both ideas relate to the retention of each building and landmarks’ history. Unfortunately, that history is in jeopardy, particularly in the East End.

 

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Though I have no personal ties to the city of London, I was very affected by the gentrification because of Anne-Marie’s reaction to it (as a Londoner) and also the parallels I was able to draw between it and a lot of the gentrification taking place in various points of Atlanta. Much like East End, residents from lower income areas (much like the Jago) were displaced while the area was built up, but they weren’t allowed to return to their homes. The same happens in Atlanta, however, rather than there being Victorian behavioral and etiquette rules, residents of Atlanta are being priced out of their neighborhoods; the rent pricing is being elevated so much that original residents cannot afford their homes.

Bearing in mind the East End, I have mixed feelings. While I’m glad that beautiful, historical regions of London such as the East End are gaining momentum and foot traffic not seen for quite some time, it comes at a grave cost. I don’t take issue with the new businesses coming to East End. In fact, I think it’s a wonderful idea to bring more people out to see all of the stunning history of the area. However, I am incredibly uncomfortable with the renovation work being done when these new businesses arrive. Rather than maintaining as much of the original architecture as possible, the new businesses are completely demolishing and rebuilding the areas to suit their fancies, taking away from the rich history of the East End.

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Unsettling “Acquisitions” and the Romance of a Shop

In the Victoria and Albert Museum, one thing was truly unsettling about our tour, and that was the fact that in response to various South Asian (specifically Indian) artifacts, our guide consistently referred to them as being “acquired.” In fact, I wrote down a quote directly from our guide in which she said, “They weren’t stolen, they were acquired.” Overall, though I thought the artifacts were absolutely stunning,  found it rather troubling the way that non-European culture was fetishized, while the people of those very cultures were still very much oppressed.

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Another thing I found particularly striking about the tour was our guide’s mention of the way that paintings were highly idealistic, favored views, more often than not. While these scenes captured much of the geographical essence of a place, they often presented a sanitized reality, rejecting and denying the truly gruesome reality that was. While passing through the galleries, we paid some extra attention to the bits of Victorian photography there. Naturally, I thought of Amy Levy’s The Romance of a Shop. Our guide explained that wealthy women often adopted photography as a hobby; for them, photography was purely a leisure activity. This is a stark contrast to Levy’s The Romance of a Shop, in which the Lorimer sisters begin their photography business because their only other option would be for the four of them to split up.

For me, the pervading theme of the day was denial of reality. Many English people (according to an employee at the Dickens Museum and what I observed from our guide) seem to resist England’s imperialistic past. This is somewhat good, in that it shows an awareness of prior wrongdoings, but it is still largely dangerous because of the egregious lack of accountability.

Yay, it’s Dickens Day!

(First, I’d like to apologize for that painfully cheesy title. But I needed something that would adequately express my excitement because today was Dickens day!!!)

Part I: A Dickensian Path

There is a lot to be said about our walking tour. First, our tour guide was excellent. Ulla was incredibly knowledgeable and energetic. Sometimes, she did get a little carried away on small tangents, but she seemed to be very excited when she did so, so I enjoyed her genuine enthusiasm. Second, the tour was much longer than I had anticipated. I’m almost certain we were walking for a grand total of about three and a half hours. My body is aching, especially from the stairs I climbed yesterday at St. Paul’s Cathedral. At nearly every stopping point we took, we could see St. Paul’s Cathedral, showing just how central to Christianity it is in the city of London.

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For me, one of the most resonant parts of our walking tour was walking down by the Old Curiosity Shop, Gray’s Inn, and Smithfield Market. These three locations had the greatest impact on me because each had a certain level of grittiness to them which created the visual of how grueling the lifestyle was for anyone who was not of particular nobility, but also what influenced Dickens in his upbringing and shaped him into the writer so many people now know him as. I also felt a significant impact from Lincoln Inn, especially in the chapel. The chapel undercroft was interesting because despite the rain, it was still relatively light out while we visited, and the masonry was absolutely beautiful. In fact, the undercroft was so beautiful that visualizing the pain of mothers who had abandoned their children in such a fashion made me uncomfortable that I could enjoy a place with such a dark history.

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In the chapel itself, I was emotionally mixed as well because as a former chorus girl, I have spent my fair share of time singing in chapels, but none of them had the wealth of history which Lincoln Inn Chapel did. Aside from the time when the choir was singing, I was incredibly uncomfortable. Granted, I have my personal afflictions when it comes to organized religion, much like Dickens’s, but I still felt incredibly disconnected from what was happening. I felt like such an outsider, wearing casual street clothes and sneaking out after a few moments, while others were dressed in their Sunday Best and presumably stayed for the duration of the service. I’ll never forget the face of the greeter/usher who’d handed us our prayer books and hymnals upon entering the chapel, when we left the chapel. It was a combination of disappointment, disapproval, and betrayal, and it riddled me with guilt.

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Part II: House of Dickens

Being the Dickens fangirl I am, I was incredibly excited to visit the Dickens Museum. Honestly, I was mostly indifferent to the non-literary artifacts. I wasn’t enthralled by the place settings at the dining room table, nor was I taken aback by the wine cellar. Some items were of more interest to me, such as the portion of the prison gate on display in the nursery and some of his personal belongings that allow us as museum spectators to get a further glimpse into Dickens’s life and character. Mostly, I mean his grooming tools which were displayed in his bedroom. The placard beside it explained that Dickens was a man who prided himself on his appearance, so he kept several grooming tools in his possession.

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What really struck me was his study. In Dickens’s study, there are several of his personal books as well as preserved copies of his various publications. His study also houses his desk and chair where he was often depicted (in drawings which are also on display here) writing. I had a slight internal freak-out. I was completely awestricken by what the room had to offer. Although A Tale of Two Cities (which is my favorite Dickens work that I’ve read and one of my all-time favorite novels) was not written here, it was still breathtaking to think that someone created masterful writing in that very space. I had similar feelings when I lifted the little flaps, which kept the sunlight off of the sensitive manuscripts beneath the glass, to see the Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby manuscripts. In that same portion of the bookcase, there were also some of Dickens’s personal books, the most dazzling being his copy of a Shakespeare anthology. I was completely enamored by this room, as much as a person could reasonably be. It was like I was starstruck, except rather than encounter a person, I had encountered significant artifacts from their life, and somehow, that was enough for me.

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Our Somewhat Visit to the Black Cultural Archives

Brandy Williams and Alexis Campbell

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After spending a good chunk of time at St. Paul’s Cathedral, we took a few minutes to refuel with coffee and pastries, then continued on our journey to the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton.

First things first, when we stepped out of the Tube station for Brixton (which is the terminal station for the Victoria line), we heard a lot of ruckus. In fact, trying to get out of the Tube station was pretty chaotic. Once we got out, we saw a street performer with a mic and an amp so loud, you’d have thought he was an announcer for a football area. We watched for a moment, then carried on. A few unintended detours later, we got on the correct walking route to the Archives. On the way, we passed the busiest (pedestrian-wise) streets either of us had seen since arriving, a lot of homeless people, another street performer, and an Evangelist with the same mic and amp setup as the first performer we’d encountered.

By the time we actually made it to the Black Cultural Archives, they had closed; we missed it by (literally) a minute. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to go inside, but we got to see a little of one portion through the glass, and we saw a bright, geometric sculpture out front. Because of England’s rich colonial history, there is a lot to look at in terms of postcolonial influence, and that’s largely what the focus of the Archives is meant to be. We cannot yet confirm how effective this is, but we were intrigued enough by what we saw on the outside to want to find our way back, that is, if we can manage through the crowds.

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Even though we didn’t make it into the Black Cultural Archives, we got to see a decent bit of Brixton, which has a very distinct character from Kensington, so it was nice to see another side of London. Brixton didn’t seem nearly as touristy as St. Paul’s Cathedral did on the inside. Another upside: we got to see this really cool tribute to David Bowie and both were pretty excited.

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