The gallows, the workhouse and the pub
THE LITERARY COMPANION TO LOW LIFE edited by Fiona Pitt-Kethley Sinclair-Stevenson £17.99
No one doubts Pitt-Kethley's credentials for fashioning this kind of thing, of course, and she is even now at work on a study of the world's red-light districts. Unfortunately, the lack of any strong organising principle has produced a loose and discursive book. It is difficult to know what a Leigh Hunt poem in praise of smoking is doing in it, or even an Indian cavalry officer's encomium to his hookah pipe. Neither is it easy to explain the interest in domestic servants (after all, about a third of the Victorian adult population worked in service of some kind: they can't all have been low- lifers). Even stranger are some of the book's internal divisions. The famous disagreement between mesdames Gamp and Prig in Martin Chuzzlewit fetches up in a category headed "Poor but honest", when Dickens's point, surely, is that the whole midwifery and corpse-laying side of Victorian life was a kind of licensed charlatanry. Similarly, a heart-rending tale out of Mayhew about a teenaged prostitute who yearns for respectability is marshalled, along with passages from Dekker, Nashe and Tolstoy, as "Poor and dishonest".
Pitt-Kethley's liking for Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor is one of her strong points, and the extracts on queer Victorian trades such as toad- and snail-vending are endlessly readable. The introduction talks about the anthologist's duty "to bring lost or little-known examples of good writing back into circulation". Though this principle works well enough in the case of a George Macdonald or a Bret Harte, one could wish that it had been followed a little more rigorously elsewhere. Thackeray turns up with "Going To See A Man Hanged" a fine sharp sketch, certainly, but there are other pieces of early Thackeray, "Captain Rook and Mr Pigeon", for example, which better convey his absorption in the early Victorian twilight. In the same way, it is good to see a complete version of George R Sim's "Christmas Day In The Workhouse", one of those sentimental late- Victorian laments of which nearly everybody knows a line or two, but Sims was also the author of some crusading stories about East End life which a little further research could have turned up.
The Literary Companion to Low Life has an ominously narrow focus: Shakespeare, the odd Graeco-Roman classic, some gloomy Russians. The great tradition of the English slum novel is almost completely absent. No Charles Kingsley, no Gissing or Arthur Morrison. Nothing from Stephen Rey-nolds's A Poor Man's House or Clarence Rook's Hooligan Nights. The blurb claims that the British are "world leaders in writing about lowness". A trawl through some of the early 20th- century American hobo novels (Nelson Algren's Somebody In Boots, for instance) or any amount of big-city kerb-hopping by Dreiser, Farrell, Sinclair and others might have shown otherwise. Copyright permissions presumably kept out Henry Miller and Hubert Selby Jnr, but Pitt-Kethley might have found a place for Albert Cossery, whose portraits of Cairo slum life outdo Miller's in their gallows humour.
Here and there something sharp and original shines up, in particular a piece on the sign language of tramps which turns out to have been written by Pitt-Kethley's grandfather. At 250 pages, though, the whole is insubstantial, and any averagely well-read purchaser with a library ticket and access to a photocopier may be forgiven for thinking that he could have done the job himself.
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