Ellen E Jones: Some authentic Victoriana is, sadly, still with us

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The Independent Online

Tate Britain's Pre-Raphaelite exhibition draws to a close next week, but the Victorians are with us still, like an ex-wife we've locked in the attic for her own good. Or an escaped convict who's been benevolently stalking us since we first met him in a graveyard. Or the ghost of a childhood sweetheart who floats over the Yorkshire moors to moan at our window.

It must have been a tax break that induced the makers of Ripper Street, BBC One's eight-part police procedural set in late Victorian Whitechapel, to shoot abroad, in Ireland. As a local resident, I can confirm that the real Whitechapel retains the requisite atmosphere. Recognisable landmarks such as the Royal London Hospital (where Joseph "Elephant Man" Merrick spent his final years) and the Freedom Press anarchist publishing house (founded in 1886) still stand on Whitechapel's streets. So too do prostitutes, as I discovered on a 5am run – one, in fact, by ghoulish coincidence, on the spot where the body of the Jack the Ripper's first victim was found in 1888.

If you find that echo through the ages discomforting, consider the Victorian flavour of the current government. There's William Hague, obsequiously annexing distant lands to gift to the monarch, while David Cameron must be partying like it's 1899 over the enthusiastic tabloid embrace of his "workers vs shirkers" welfare rhetoric; a correlation between poverty and morality that's pure 19th century.

For women like the ones I saw on my Whitechapel run, parts of what used to be called "the industrial North", and many others, our modern relationship to the 19th century is not purely academic or cultural. It is palpable.

The comfortably off continue to be enthralled with this period because for Britain it was a time of technological invention, towering artistic achievement and world-beating greatness. But if still-standing engineering triumphs like Brunel's bridges are a reminder of what Victorian ambition could achieve, let re-emergent urban poverty remind us of the limits of that ambition.

Following the publication this June of figures showing a rise in the working poor, Oxfam's Chris Johnes said: "If we carry on down this path, the UK will return to levels of inequality not seen since Victorian times." Ripper Street has been pretty entertaining so far, and I enjoy John Everett Millais's use of colour as much as the next Victoriana-phile, but this, surely, would be a period detail too far.