Victorian London and its Literature

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.”





Westminster Abbey, Much A’do, etc.

Westminster Abbey is one of the main churches in England. It is the location in which royal coronations, weddings, and funerals are held. It also houses the tombs of my past English monarchs and other notable figures such as politicians and writers. Several significant figures who are not entombed there still receive recognition in the form of memorials. Since the Abbey contains these types of people, it was built with majesty in mind. The building is stunning. Every piece of space is uniquely ornate, or has been left open for a future dedication.

To me, though, what is most significant about the Abbey is the union between religion and monarchy. In the past, of course, the monarch had to be confirmed by a religious leader to become king or queen. These were the days of divine right, or the king or queen is the king or queen because god willed it to be so. The monarch is the ruler on earth, and the church gives the monarch the okay. The problem with divine right is that it is no longer law. Currently, the monarch is simply the monarch because they inherited from a family member. Granted, the monarch is now merely a figurehead without any actual governing power, but they are still considered a monarch. They are the head of state, if not the head of government, whereas in the U.S. the President fills both roles. Since I first learned about divine right and its abolishment I’ve wondered why countries still have monarchs. I know some people feel pride in the monarchy, for a sense of history or nationality, but it is uncomfortable for me. Granted, I come from the U.S., which gained freedom from a monarch through what is called here the “colonial insurrection,” so I may never fully understand why anyone would still want to acknowledge a monarch, even if only for show, since, at this point, providing resources for the monarchy is just another national expense that could be put to better use elsewhere.

I’ve mostly completed my entry at this point, but I’d like to make a brief comment on the play we saw, Much A’do About Nothing. I’m a fan of this play–it’s not my favorite but I like that it has some drama to go with the heaping dose of comedy. I do wish Don John was given more motivation to be a villain that merely being a bastard. I don’t like bastard=villain. That’s weak plot. The best part of the play is obviously the verbal sparring between Benedict and Beatrice. The wit is delicious, and the characters are able to easily become humorous when caught off guard (while eavesdropping). A sophisticated character falling is always funnier than a fool falling. Equally, this version of the play had a powerful moment of tragedy for Dogberry, which I had not seen in other interpretations. It might have been the most moving single moment in the play. He’s left alone in his cramped room saying to himself that he is an ass as the scene closes.

The biggest problem I have with this play, besides Don John’s lack of motivation, is how easily everybody believes the worst about Hero. I’ve seen depictions of the play in which you can see Don John’s flunky with Margaret, who’s wearing Hero’s clothes, and he is calling her Hero. That helps us accept Claudio and the  Prince’s reaction. What’s worse is when Hero’s father so easily accepts the lie. Maybe I’m complaining about the reality of the lack of faith men have in women, which Shakespeare wanted to portray. Maybe it’s not a plot flaw, but just a societal flaw. I’m not sure it’s gotten much better either. There are still so many double standards.




East End London Tour

The East End Tour took us around what used to be the poorer end of London where Miller’s A Child of the Jago took place. The neighborhood has consistently been home to recent immigrants to London, be they Jewish, Huguenot, or, recently, Bangladeshi. The neighborhood had a lot of interesting graffiti, which, while illegal, isn’t completely discouraged by the community. There was large, mural style, graffiti, which our guide told us is appreciated by some businesses, as it can give the buildings some style. However, there is also a lot tagging graffiti, which is both unartistic and territorial, suggesting gang activity. The tagging also detracts from the artistic level of the murals. We were lucky enough to see a few Banksy pieces, which were protected from tagging. There was also a Banksy lookalike called Bambi, of whom no one no one knows the identity. They say it could be anyone from Ginger Spice to Adele. Obviously.

The former housing estate of the Old Nickel, or Jago, is gone, replaced with housing that the previous tenants good not afford. They were also subjected to rules that they didn’t want to follow, so, in a sense, they were forced out without having to literally forcing them out. Londoners, generally, in the Victorian times didn’t care about the problems of destitute poor, preferred to not even know about their problems. Getting rid of them in a way that allows them to continue to condemn the poor for being lazy or lesser maintains the wealthy’s sense of righteous entitlement.

Current East End London is a mix of wealth and poverty. There are still some streets that seem run down, though certainly not to the extent to of the Victorian age. What’s interesting is seeing what could almost be called usurption of the East End by fashionable or posh businesses. I get wanting to be an innovator and finding or creating what’s new, but is it really authentic to put in a fashionable store or restaurant that couldn’t not price out the people who moved to the neighborhood because it had been affordable?

I’ll admit to being culpable for the gentrification I have discussed, as I today went to a restaurant today that I saw on TV. That made me feel pretty yuppie. It was Fergus Henderson’s St John outside Spitalfield’s Market. I had learned of the restaurant on one of food writer and travel program host Anthony Bourdain’s shows, either No Reservations or Parts Unknown. Henderson is famous for literally writing the book on bringing back using the whole animal in cooking, which he calls “nose to tail.” I say “brought back” because it became common for the the rich to have what they considered the best cuts of meat, like the sirloin or prime rib. The “lesser cuts” or innards, also called offal, went to the poor. Henderson is taking the complex cooking recipes cultivated by the poor who had no choice but to make the “lesser” meat good and presenting them as high cuisine. It used to be poor people food, now it’s fashionable. There’s an ethical gray area here. I’ll argue that Henderson doesn’t claim ownership of these dishes–he’s said they’ve always been there. I feel some guilt by contributing to the gentrification. My one consolation, or what I tell myself my contribution to gentrification, is that it is important to use the whole animal, for sake of life and the environment.


Tate Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum

The Tate Museum had the interesting arrangement of taking the fewer on a chronological tour of British. The styles of art obviously change, but what feels even more important is that the subject matter and theme that is considered worthy of great art changes with the times. Whereas once, the great works were limited to classical Greek and Roman themes, monarchs, and scenes of Christian importance, later works show the common person. At first “common”meant nobles who could afford to have their portrait painted. Later, however, we see farmers and farms, cities and laborers. While we still haven’t reached and egalitarian society, the change in what is “appropriate” to something more representative is always a move in the right direction.

That said, my favorite works, from a purely aesthetic point of view were “The Lady of Shalot” and the “Ophelia.”I feel like too much of a romantic with those favorites, but I’m also drawn to them because of the sense of story within them. I also loved Rosetti’s religious works which show more conflicted figures than we typically see, as well as one of the few artists who depicts Christ as a redhead.

The Victoria and Albert Museum was a glorious structure. It’s obviously expertly curated, both in terms of acquisition and layout. I could see in each area what the tour guide said about the exhibit space reflecting the aesthetic of the epoch and locale. My favorite room was the Japanese exhibit. Samurai armour is like nothing else, and even the pacifist in me gets giddy when seeing swords that are such works of art even while being instruments of death.

Which leads me to my main point…all the beauty and grandieur of the museum, all the works of art, and, on the other hand, all the talk of empire.  If were me, I would have to keep apologizing: “We know colonization of India was terrible, but….at least we got these nice fabrics,” or something like that. The tour guide was careful to once point out that the treasures weren’t stolen: “they were acquired.” Right. Keep telling yourself that. Being under militaristic rule had nothing to do with the colonized people forking over their treasures.

On the theme of equality, it was frustrating to see Queen Victoria’s wealth, which, of course, coincided with the poverty Dickens wrote about in Oliver Twist or Morrison wrote about in A Child of the Jago. None of this was a surprise to me. Maybe my issue  was the way the tour was framed. The purpose of a museum isn’t simply to admire the beauty of the collected objects. Sometimes it might be important to consider that the people who owned these objects shouldn’t have owned them or that the objects shouldn’t have existed at all. Maybe the queen could have less jewels and a smaller palace. Maybe then orphans wouldn’t have to beg for more gruel.


Dickens Walking Tour and Museum

The theme of the Dickens tour is one I think I will be repeating whenever I discuss London: there is so much old and new interwoven in a massive tapestry of architecture, religion, and technology, and on top of all that there are people living normal lives who don’t have time to stop and “ooh” and “aah” at what seems novel to we American tourists. Many, if not the majority, of buildings have different functions than the began with, which may not seem extraordinary, but it seems noteworthy when what used to be poor neighborhoods are now expensive and what used to be a royal residence on the river is now a modern art gallery.  The only buildings that seem to consistently retain their original use are churches. A reverence is held for them that wouldn’t be for law offices, and certainly not for businesses.

The most striking and probably memorable spot on the tour was the Chapel at Lincoln’s Inn. The memory might be enhanced by the frankly uncomfortable experience of sitting in on a service and leaving after five minutes. It’s not my religion, so I didn’t feel offended, but I felt rude to the few people who were there in earnest for the service. The chapel itself was gorgeous, and I’d never been in a cloistered compound like that before, so it was interesting. I connected that location to the type of place Oliver was left by his mother.

As I side note, the ushers or whatever they were with the staffs reminded me of the beadle.

The Charles Dickens House was what I expected. Maybe it was a let down after seeing the real-life Ms.Havisham house he bought after he was a famous and successful author–from the documentary we watched in class. The importance of this house, over his later mansion, is that we got to see where he developed his concern for the poor. This concern is always what’s most important to me about Dickens–he’s writing with a cause in mind.

More than the furniture, what moved me within his house was the room that displayed quotes about his advocacy for author copyright. As someone trying to become an author, this hit close to home. His dinner sets were nice, but I enjoyed even more being ensconced in his passion of justice.