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"Born fore-damned": An Examination of Futility and Charity in the Slum Fiction of Arthur Morrison

Updated on January 20, 2013

Confronted for the first time with a work of slum fiction, a reader might well find herself perplexed as to the attitude the author intends us to have toward the unfortunate characters who populate his work. Although stricken with pitiable circumstances, characters like “Elizabeth Dobbs”—the purportedly true-life subject of Annie Wakeman’s The Autobiography of a Charwoman—or Lizerunt in Arthur Morrison’s story of the same name often undermine our sympathy for them through what might seem to be an inherent inclination toward poor judgment. Both women display a remarkable shallowness that can be witnessed in their judgment of potential partners, with Elizabeth Dobbs preferring Harry—a lover who rejects her—to the clearly decent Jim Jakes on account of his “class” and Lizerunt rejecting the comparatively respectable Sam Cardew for the brutish Billy Chope, apparently on account of impatience with the former’s temporary injuries and desire for a particularly eye-catching hat that the latter offers to buy her (33). However, whereas Elizabeth Dobbs is referred to as “A Gentlewoman of the Slums” in the subtitle to her autobiography, Lizerunt is more clearly an abject figure. Rather than elevating her with a title such as “Gentlewoman,” Morrison employs the opening line of his story to bestow upon her a sort of degenerate variant on her original, respectable given name: “Somewhere in the register was written the name Elizabeth Hunt; but seventeen years after the entry the spoken name was Lizerunt” (29). This new title, used henceforth throughout the story, evokes a sort of low, creeping, subhuman creature—especially in its shortened form, “Lizer,” a near-homonym to the word “lizard.” Moreover, the ending “runt” seems an unkind description for a woman whose economic position leaves her vulnerable to malnourishment. Finally, this last syllable also seems an onomatopoetic suggestion of guttural, grunting noises. Taken together, these perceptions render Lizerunt’s very name an efficient means of dehumanizing her—of making her seem animalistic, small, insignificant, and even less-than-capable of meaningful verbal communication.

As consistent as this seemingly unsympathetic portrayal of Lizerunt seems to be, perhaps nowhere are we led to feel more alienated from her than in the moment just after the birth of her first child, when she assaults a medical student for attempting to come to her aid against the abuses of the violent Billy Chope. “A fourth-year London Hospital student of many inches”—and thus presumably a larger man than Chope, the student drags and punts him into the street for his unconscionable assault upon his incapacitated wife (36). However, as much as the student may have “failed to comprehend the scene” of Chope’s abuse, more perplexing still—perhaps to him as well as the reader—is Lizerunt’s response:

When he returned to the room, Lizer, sitting up and holding on by the bed-frame, gasped hysterically: “Ye bleedin’ makeshift, I’d ’ave yer liver out if I could reach ye! You touch my ’usband, ye long pisenin’ ’ound you! Ow!” And, infirm of aim, she flung a cracked teacup at his head… “Keep auf! if you come near me I’ll corpse ye. You go while ye’re safe”… And he went: leaving the coast clear for Billy Chope to return and avenge his kicking (37).

More than anything, this scene illustrates for us the futility of charitable intervention in the lives of such “mean” and lowly characters as Lizerunt and Billy Chope. Although much of Morrison’s oeuvre—and indeed the dominant thrust of his overtly stated personal philosophy—might lead us to believe that his writing was intended to inspire such intervention in the lives of the unfortunate poor, a closer examination of “Lizerunt”—along with his popular slum novel A Child of the Jago and related correspondence—reveals that Morrison thought many of the poorest Londoners to be beyond the possibility of redemption. While A Child of the Jago—and to a lesser extent, “Lizerunt”—make some call for the elevation of the worthy poor, both works also firmly establish a significant portion of the lower class as inherently lowly and therefore beyond even the most well-intentioned help.

Perhaps the clearest literary expression of Morrison’s ideas about the inevitability of suffering—in spite of any attempts at charitable intervention—comes from the oft-noted prophetic advice of Old Beveridge to the young protagonist Dicky Perrott in A Child of the Jago. More than anyone, Beveridge seems to understand the sinister hold that the Jago—a neighborhood based closely on the Old Nichol, a notorious slum Morrison believed to be the worst in the East End of London—has upon its residents. As the two observe well-dressed members of the local “’Igh Mob,” the dangerous, criminal aristocracy of the slums, Beveridge counsels him:

“Now, Dicky Perrott, you Jago whelp, look at them—look hard. Some day, if you’re clever—cleverer than anyone in the Jago now—if you’re only scoundrel enough, and brazen enough, and lucky enough—one of a thousand—maybe you’ll be like them: bursting with high living, drunk when you like, red and pimply. There it is—that’s your aim in life—there’s your pattern. Learn to read and write, learn all you can, learn cunning, spare nobody and stop at nothing, and perhaps—” he waved his hand towards the Bag of Nails. “It’s the best the world has for you, for the Jago’s got you, and that’s the only way out, except gaol and the gallows. So do your devilmost, or God help you, Dicky Perrot—though He won’t: for the Jago’s got you” (51-2).

Although considered a bit “balmy” by the other Jagoites, Beveridge proves himself a veritable slum oracle by the end of the novel, as Dicky finds himself repeatedly thwarted in his attempts to “turn honest” (84). As Beveridge notes, self-improvement in the Jago—through education, cleverness, and determination—has no purpose but for criminal use. Those born into the Jago—or who happen to fall into it through some misfortune, such as a disadvantageous marriage, as seen with Dicky’s mother Hannah—are almost never able to climb out, whether by their own merit and determination or through the assistance of a well-meaning and similarly determined intercessor.

Most notably, even when the novel’s hero, the well-intentioned Reverend Henry Sturt, sees potential in the young boy, finding him decent employment in a local shop (84-5), forces beyond both his and Dicky’s control conspire to keep the young Jagoite from rising to respectability. Immediately, Dicky is alienated from all his old, less-than-savory connections. While this is in some ways a blessing, with the boy finding himself gratefully relieved at the criminal Kiddo Cook’s “obvious fear of compromising him” by acknowledging their acquaintance, it is in other ways traumatic, as Dicky also finds himself abandoned by erstwhile close friends like childhood companion Tommy Rann, who are both uncomprehending and disappointed in his refusal to take advantage of his new situation by stealing sweets for them (88). Most damning, however, is the ill-will of his old connection Aaron Weech, a crooked shopkeeper and purveyor of stolen merchandise who fears that the reformation of the young former thief might make him inclined to “talking inconveniently among his new friends about the business affairs of Aaron Weech” (88). Born into an impoverished, criminal environment, Dicky finds his dreams of eventually becoming an honest, independent tradesman through faithful service to his employer (87) shattered when Weech drags him back into the gutter, insinuating to the boy’s employer that he has actually been stealing merchandise and selling it to other shopkeepers at rock-bottom prices (89-91).

Although Morrison seems clearly to see potential in Dicky Perrott, portraying him as clever, ambitious, and genuinely proud and excited to be set on a path to legitimate prosperity through the earning of an honest living (84-7), others within the Jago are clearly irredeemable. Father Sturt’s efforts in particular seem to be wasted on the vast majority of Jagoites. While, at his insistence, church attendance becomes an occasional habit amongst some of them, this is largely a result of the revelation of the material comforts that it can provide rather than the engendering of any spiritual or moral inclination among their semi-criminal ranks. On rainy Sundays, the poor are gratified to find “a clean room, with pictures on the wall, where there were often flowers, [and] where there was always music” (78). Although some find themselves listening to Father Sturt’s “address… which nobody ever suspected of being a sermon,” this is largely out of a suspicion that the reverend will notice inattentiveness, and many sleep away the morning regardless of this fear (78). Additionally, at Father Sturt’s announcement that property has been purchased for the construction of a new church to service the Jago area, residents are dismayed at this seeming misuse of funds, which they would rather have had “distributed amongst themselves”—an act that every previous indication suggests would merely result in a massive influx of gin to the neighborhood and a corresponding increase in drunken street brawls (80). Further, they fret that it is “a grave social danger that Jago Court should be extinguished. What would become of the Jago without Jago Court?... Where would the fights come off, and where was so convenient a place for pitch and toss?” (80). Finally, their strongest objection is the fear of increased police presence, as a restructuring of the mazelike configuration of the Jago will make it easier for the authorities to pursue fleeing criminals without fear of entrapment and assault by the residents (80). It is clear enough from this reaction that the Jago is not merely an impoverished area populated by unfortunate victims, but a nest of criminality—violent, largely outside of the bounds of civilization and governmental authority, and quite firmly determined to stay that way. Even when other, honest options openly present themselves through attempted benefactors such as Father Sturt, most Jagoites seem both disinclined from and incapable of comprehending or accepting them.

Beyond even this, Morrison seems to suggest that, for many Jago residents, this inclination toward criminality is not merely the result of environmental factors, but a natural tendency toward baseness, violence, and dishonesty. Perhaps the clearest indication of this is in his depiction of street violence in the Jago, where he draws a clear distinction between the different sorts of women who reside there. On the one hand, there is the typical Jago woman, vicious, dirty, and inclined to gossip, violence, and drink. Of these, Sally Green is the most extreme example. The most barbarous of the women amongst the Leary clan, Sally Green’s participation in the brawl is portrayed in terrifyingly vivid detail, as she appears:

red-faced, stripped to the waist, dancing, hoarse and triumphant. Nail-scores wide as the finger striped her back, her face, and her throat, and she had a black eye; but in one great hand she dangled a long bunch of clotted hair, as she whooped in defiance to the Jago. It was a trophy newly rent from the scalp of Norah Walsh, champion of the Rann womankind (20).

Sally Green’s ferocity, her indecent immodesty, and her defiant “whoop” fly in the face of traditional femininity, a defect that perhaps finds some representation in the unusual, possibly masculine size of her “great hand[s].” Additionally, specific details such as her red face, semi-nudity, and predilection for scalping her enemies—along with accompanying victory dance—are suggestive of negative American Indian stereotypes, linking her to popular, racialized images of savagery with which Morrison’s audience was likely familiar. The use of such imagery renders this passage simultaneously shocking and distant; while readers are meant to be horrified at the Jago’s violence, they are also led to see it as something foreign, removed from civilization, alien from true femininity and real Englishness. Sally Green is not an unfortunate Englishwoman pushed to extreme measures by dire circumstances, but someone inherently—even physically—base and other.

In contrast, the Jago’s more apparently civilized women—such as Hannah Perrott and the “harlot and outcast” Pigeony Poll (21), are portrayed as more human figures, unfortunately crushed by their appalling environment and therefore worthy of some sympathy. While hardly respectable, these women are seen as different by the other Jagoites—and, it would seem, by Morrison himself. This distinction is strong enough that these women find themselves ostracized, and Hannah Perrott in particular is “no favourite[s] in the neighbourhood” (22). Beginning the novel “sluttish and dirty” but also sober and disinclined to gossip and quarrelling, Hannah is regarded as an “alien who had never entirely fallen into Jago ways,” not least because of her neutrality in conflict, her legal marriage, and the rarity with which her husband beats her (22-3). Although a prostitute, Pigeony Poll is also resented for her difference from more typical Jagoites, who “despised [her] for that she neither fought nor kept a cosh-carrier,[1] like a respectable married woman, slunk and trembled in corners and yards, and wept at the sight of bleeding heads” (21). Within the Jago, adherence to even the barest vestiges of conventional morality—or simply human empathy—is a liability rather than an asset. Therefore, those Jago women that the reader is most likely inclined to sympathize or identify with are exceptions to the generally savage rule and therefore neighborhood outcasts.

In this dichotomous description of Jago women, Morrison relies on a trope common in slum fiction, which Chris Willis describes as a “Jekyll-and-Hyde conception of the East End female… seen as both a figure of pathos and a threat, a virtuous victim and a vicious virago” (70). While the savage, semi-human virago, figured most clearly in the example of Sally Green, is able to thrive, women of a gentler nature are unable to cope with their horrific environment. Although Pigeony Poll, in marrying a reformed Kiddo Cook at the end of the novel, provides us with a rare example of a person finally able to extricate herself from the depravity of the Jago, Hannah Perrott is gradually destroyed by her residence there. Physically assaulted by the iron-jawed, sharp-nailed Sally Green early in the novel, Hannah Perrott sees her respectability gradually beaten away, eventually “fill[ing] her place in the Jago better than of old,” having fallen into gossip and drink, and entirely ceasing to discriminate in the company she keeps (73). This characterization of Jago women seems to clearly demonstrate that some Jago residents are naturally inclined to viciousness, and that these beastly, almost certainly irredeemable figures create an environment within which those of a more decent nature are barely able to survive—not to mention thrive in an honest lifestyle.

A similar, although far subtler distinction between the worthy poor and the brutish, savage, degenerates who keep them in such abject circumstances can be found in “Lizerunt,” with the differences between Billy Chope and Sam Cardew serving as its most helpful illustration. The former is a clear parasite, living with his mother at the story’s outset and extorting as much of her income as he requires through bullying or even, as necessary, through outright violence (29-30, 32-3). He initially expresses interest in Lizerunt through violence, “twisting her arm” and “bumping her against a wall” (29), and continues their courtship through escalating degrees of aggression, assaulting both her and his rival for her affections (31-2), and culminating the process with an outright act of bribery by purchasing her a hat with “the reddest of all plushes and the bluest of all feathers” (33). In contrast, Sam Cardew earns a living through his own labor and is “a smarter fellow than Billy” (30). Although he rises to the occasion when assaulted by Billy Chope at Wanstead Flats (31), he does not appear to be unduly violent, never initiating a confrontation and never assaulting Lizerunt herself. While Billy Chope—a bit like Sally Green—is able to survive and perhaps even thrive to a greater extent than his milder counterparts, through bullying and foul play, the worthier Sam Cardew finds himself finally beaten—both literally and figuratively—by local criminal elements. Jumped by Billy Chope’s gang, he is laid up at home with his injuries, where Lizerunt remains by his side for only a short amount of time before being coaxed away by Chope’s bribe (32-3).

Based on this evidence, it would seem that Morrison considers the slums to be a place of contamination by degenerate elements, where the otherwise decent working poor are kept back, corrupted, or even destroyed by their criminal counterparts. The influence of the corrupt poor is so pervasive that even the intervention of well-meaning intercessors such as Father Sturt or the medical student who serves as Lizerunt’s would-be rescuer is powerless to help. Weaker figures like Lizerunt, Hannah Perrott, and Billy Chope’s mother find themselves at the mercy of more powerful, criminal abusers, while stronger characters who perhaps even show signs of moral strength and determination, such as Dicky Perrott and Sam Cardew, are constrained through the inescapable interference of ever-present violence and fraud. Pigeony Polls and Kiddo Cooks, characters fortunate enough to escape from their foul environments, are rare in Morrison’s work. Rather, the overall representation of the Jago—and even Lizerunt’s more vague “Mean Street” origin—is of a bleak world, populated largely by criminals and weak-willed, unthinking victims who are often bullied or manipulated into supporting them, but in cases such as Lizerunt’s, accept the yoke of their abusers to the extent of defending them violently should an outsider attempt to intervene. It is perhaps neither these bullying criminals nor their weak-minded victims with whom Morrison intends us to sympathize. Instead, it would seem that works like A Child of the Jago are intended to draw our attention toward the exceptional among the poor, the Dicky Perrotts who in spite of resistance, intelligence, and determination, are unable to escape the circumstances into which they were born. For most others, it would seem that intervention is not only unwelcome, but also futile and meaningless.

While the futility of charity may seem an odd theme to be found in literature of such an apparently reformist bent, it seems a notably common theme in many late Victorian works, with perhaps the most obvious example being Oscar Wilde’s short story “The Doer of Good.” Here, as in “Lizerunt,” the “Doer of Good”—clearly intended to be Christ—finds his acts of charity to have unintended results: The leper he has healed uses his newfound health to live a life of gluttonous extravagance, the blind man he has cured uses his sight to look upon women with lust, the woman he has forgiven of her sins continues to sin, and the man he has raised from the dead weeps. This last instance shows that, beyond merely unintentionally propagating further sin, Jesus’s ministrations actually bring misery on their recipients. Less obviously, other works including novels like Esther Waters and The Odd Women and poetry such as Mary Coleridge’s “The Witch” often contain—or even center themselves on—instances of failed charity. In each of these works, we find that well-intentioned intervention is at best misguided or useless—failing to have its intended effect—or at worst, harmful—leaving either the benefactor, the recipient, or both in distress. Monetary assistance is misspent, offers for help are politely refused or even spurned, and occasionally, well-intentioned intercessors are left perplexed or deeply hurt—as Jesus in “The Doer of Good” and Mary Barfoot in The Odd Women—or even bereft—as Esther and her husband William are after paying for their friend Sarah’s legal defense in Esther Waters and the second speaker is by the arrival of “The Witch” in Mary Coleridge’s poem.

This prevalence of failed acts of kindness seems somewhat in line with the rise of naturalism in the late nineteenth century. As Elliot L. Gilbert indicates, “scientific investigations” such as Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species turned many novelists away from the portrayal of the human spirit as a powerful force, able to trump circumstance and nature and therefore bring about positive change (64). Therefore, while earlier Victorian novels such as Dickens’ A Christmas Carol endowed their protagonists with the ability to transform their own lives and the world around them through sheer force of will, later works such as Hardy’s Jude the Obscure would portray protagonists doomed by circumstances from which no amount of resolve will help to extricate them (48-51). Consistent with this philosophy is the idea that many Jago residents—like Sally Green, or even the simple-minded Lizerunt and the meek and unresisting Hannah Perrott—are inherently destined for lives of squalor and violence. Due perhaps to a combination of circumstances and the inferior biology implied to produce the kind of brutish, violent, or simply weak and unintelligent figures who populate Morrison’s slums, we do not see these characters put up any great struggle to change their fate. However, instead, the ineffectual attempted reforms propagated by virtuous figures such as Father Sturt illuminate for us the futility of interfering in Jago lives.

This leaves us with an obvious question: Why write such an alarming account of the Jago—or of Lizerunt’s “Mean Streets”—if the alleviation of its residents’ poverty, violence, and general vice is seen as an exercise in futility? At first glance, this bleak idea seems directly in contradiction to Morrison’s own statements in defense of his work in the Preface to the Third Edition of A Child of the Jago. His comments place personal responsibility for conditions in the slums upon all Londoners and seem to indicate a belief that increased awareness of this problem—and the concerted effort toward reform that awareness might bring about—can do some tangible good:

It was my fate to encounter a place in Shoreditch, where children were born and reared in circumstances which gave them no reasonable chance of living decent lives: where they were born fore-damned to a criminal or semi-criminal career… For the existence of this place, and for the evils it engendered, the community was, and is, responsible; so that every member of the community was, and is, responsible in his degree. If I had been a rich man I might have attempted to discharge my peculiar responsibility in one way; if I had been a statesman I might have tried another. Being neither of these things, but a mere writer of fiction, I sought to do my duty by writing a tale wherein I hoped to bring the conditions of this place within the apprehension of others (xi).

Although perhaps a degree of hopelessness is expressed in this statement, by the suggestion that children of places like the Jago are born “fore-damned to a criminal or semi-criminal career,” the implication is that this can be changed, or else Morrison’s “discharge [of his] peculiar responsibility” to the slums through fiction would be virtually meaningless. It is also worthy of note that although Morrison does refer to children of the slums as “fore-damned,” he describes them as such due to their “circumstances,” rather than their biology—or any term that may seem to serve as some kind of substitute or euphemism for it, such as “physiology,” “blood,” “parentage,” “character,” or even “fate.” This description appears somewhat at odds with the overall message of Morrison’s work, which often seems to place many poor Londoners completely outside of the possibility of help or redemption.

An answer to the apparent conundrum raised by comparing Morrison’s overt description of his purpose with the consistent theme of futility evident in his work can be found—although only subtly expressed—through a closer reading of his stated purpose. At the end of his Preface, Morrison counters the argument raised by some of his critics that his damning account of the “Jago” comes so late as to be irrelevant, since the Old Nichol neighborhood on which it was based had been demolished by the time of the novel’s publication (xiv). This optimistic belief was, according to Morrison “a foolish fancy,” because although “The Jago, as mere bricks and mortar is gone… the Jago in flesh and blood still lives, and is crowding into neighbourhoods already densely over-populated” (xiv). In this final note, it becomes apparent that Morrison does not define “the Jago” or perhaps even “Mean Streets” as merely a geographic location; rather, it is a demographic of people amongst whom it is impossible for the decent to thrive. Using the language of “flesh and blood” to describe the Jago, Morrison perhaps takes on the same subtly eugenicist note that seems to be employed in describing some of the most vicious and irredeemable amongst his characters. Viewed in this light, A Child of the Jago becomes not a plea for the total reform of its titular neighborhood, but the extrication of the worthy eponymous character—and those like him—from the influence of its residents. Both this novel and the shorter “Lizerunt” drive home the conviction that, held in a check by the brutal, sinister, and criminal influence of figures like Billy Chope, Aaron Weech, and Sally Green, more vulnerable people—such as Lizerunt and Hannah Perrott—or even otherwise promising young men, such as Dicky Perrott, cannot hope for anything more than condemnation to a life of poverty and victimization.

Works Cited

Gilbert, Elliot L. “In the Flesh: Esther Waters and the Power of Yes.” NOVEL: a Forum on Fiction 12.1 (1978): 48-65. JSTOR. Web. 30 October 2012.

Gissing, George. The Odd Women. Ed. Arlene Young. New York: Broadview Press, 1998. Print.

Moore, George. Esther Waters. Ed. Stephen Regan. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012. Print.

Morrison, Arthur. A Child of the Jago: A Novel Set in the London Slums in the 1890s. Ed. Anita Miller. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1995. Print.

---. “Lizerunt.” Tales of Mean Streets. 1894. Print.

Wakeman, Annie. The Autobiography of a Charwoman. London: John Macqueen. 1900. Print.

Wilde, Oscar. “The Doer of Good.” The Poetical Works of Oscar Wilde. Ed. Nathan Haskell Dole. New York: Thomas Y. Cromwell Company, 1913. Print.

Willis, Chris. “From Voyeurism to Feminism: Victorian and Edwardian London’s Streetfighting Slum Viragoes.” Victorian Review 29.1 (2003): 70-86. JSTOR. 26 November, 2012.

[1] This Jago practice refers to luring men into residences—often with the promise of sex—to be assaulted and robbed by a male partner.


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