The slum in the late Victorian period became a Condition of England theme, which found expression in newspapers, documentary accounts, photographs, and last but not least, in the novel. The preoccupation with the question of slums in the last two decades of the nineteenth century attracted a growing readership. Slum fiction, as it came to be called, emerged not only to provide a forum for the Condition of England debate, which was raised in the Hungry Forties, but it became quickly an independent sub-genre with a distinct aesthetics. Slum novels shared many features of naturalistic fiction, i.e. they tended to be concerned with the murky aspects of contemporary urban life; their typical settings were the slums, i.e. overcrowded urban areas characterised by substandard housing and squalor. Clearly, as Patrick Parringer points out, “[s]lum novels were not written by slum dwellers. However authentic and convincing they might seem, they necessarily conveyed an outside view” (104.)

Contrary to early- and mid-Victorian social novelists, the authors of late Victorian slum novels were also concerned with commercial success. Many slum novels had consciously sensational and melodramatic modes which appealed to the “new” middle class as another disreputable amusement. David Trotter remarks that

a number of writers sought to emulate their heavyweight Victorian predecessors by combining a didactic intention with healthy sales figures. For them the novel was diagnostic. They set out to analyse the ’ condition of England’. [83]

Trotter claims that slum fiction was pioneered by Walter Besant and George Gissing in the 1880s and later developed by the young Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Morrison and Somerset Maugham. (116) The slum novels were much indebted to Charles Dickens’s social novels, but they were free of their sentimentality and Gothic extravagance. The working class described in the slum novels represented the “other nation”, abhorred and feared by the leisure class. As Ian Haywood writes, “it reminded readers that Benjamin Disraeli’s two nations were more polarised than ever” (13). The majority of these novels, set in London as a rule, can be seen as contemporary contributions to the Condition of England debate, which was extended to the fin de siècle period. Like the novelists of the Hungry Forties, the slum novelists combined fact and fiction. As Herman Ausubel and Louis L. Snyder convincingly argue,

at times they wrote under the influence of Emile Zola’s naturalism. More often, they simply continued in the tradition of such earlier proletarian novels as Disraeli’s Sybil, Mrs. Gaskell’s Mary Barton, Charles Kingsley’s Yeast and Alton Locke, Dickens’ Hard Times, Charles Reade’s It Is Never Too Late to Mend, and George Eliot’s Felix Holt, the Radical. Generally, they wrote as reformers. They considered it a function of imaginative literature to expose abuses, and they certainly found many to expose. [30]

The first of the three significant slum novelists, Walter Besant (1836-1901) was one of the most influential critics and writers of the late Victorian period. In 1882, he published a slum novel, All Sorts and Conditions of Men (1882), which relates a romance between two wealthy “do-gooders” who decide to live temporarily in the East End in disguise. The upper-class protagonists dream of the cultural regeneration of the disadvantaged district by creating a utopian “Palace of Delight”. In fact, Besant’s idea had given rise to the construction of the People’s Palace in Mile End Road, in 1887, where East End dwellers could have an access to popular entertainment, education, recreation and social improvement. The complex had a library with a reading room, swimming pool, gymnasium, picture gallery, technical college and a winter garden.

The People's Palace by E. R. Robson — now the Queen's Building, QMLU (Queen Mary University of London, Mile End Road, London, designed. 1886; rebuilt by Campbell-Jones and Smithers after a fire in 1931

The second early slum novelist, George Gissing (1857-1903) wrote naturalistic and exclusively urban novels which deal with the life of the lower classes. Workers in the Dawn (1880), The Unclassed (1884) and The Nether World (1889) portray in the naturalistic way urban poverty, squalor and the depravity of the life of slum dwellers in London. Gissing was a perceptive, well-informed observer of the working-class life. He knew poverty better than Disraeli and Gaskell because he had lived among the poor in his youth, but he described the poor with little or no sympathy. His slum characters are generally repulsive, unwashed, uncultured and brutish. Being critical about the progress of industrial society, Gissing saw little hope of the amelioration of the life of the lower classes. As Daniel Born has written, “[a]n attitude of pessimism and passivity creeps into Gissing’s books.” (70)

The third classic of Victorian slum literature, Arthur Morrison (1863-1945), was a writer with working-class background. According to P. J. Keating, “more than any other author it is Arthur Morrison who establishes the tone of slum fiction in the nineties” (167), Morrison described realistically the poor living conditions and street violence in London’s East End in Tales of Mean Streets (1894) and in his full-length narrative, A Child of the Jago (1896). The novel gives a pathetic account of slum life, and particularly, it shows the tragedy of children who suffered from poverty, abuse and disease in slums. It should be mentioned that Morrison was inspired by the young Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), who wrote a realistic short story about slum life, “The Record of Badalia Herodsfoot” (1890). Set in the East End, it recounts the tragic fate of a young, honest woman who has become a sort of relief worker in the slums after she has been deserted by her abusive husband.

The growing popularity of slum fiction prompted a number of writers to continue the genre. Somerset Maugham’s (1874-1965) first novel, Liza of Lambeth (1897), is often compared to Morrison’s slum fiction. The novel deals with the theme of adultery among the working class. Jack London (1876-1916) also contributed to this genre. He lived for seven weeks in the summer of 1902 in London disguised as a stranded American sailor, sleeping in cheap doss houses with the poor and destitute, and as a result of his literary investigative journalism he wrote the slum non-fiction novel, The People of the Abyss (1903), which was a first-hand critical account of life in the East End, the disgraceful underbelly of the Empire.

In the last two decades of the nineteenthth century there was a growing influx of Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe to Victorian England. These immigrants, who often fled the pogroms in their homelands, were generally very poor; they spoke Yiddish and differed significantly from Anglo-Jewry. They had to compete with the local poor for jobs and accommodation. They were religiously orthodox and tried to maintain their Jewish identity living in a close-tied community. Israel Zangwill (1864-1926) was an important chronicler of London’s Jewish East End. His most famous novel, Children of the Ghetto (1892), relates the life and experiences of East European Jewish children in Whitechapel at the end of the Victorian era.

Slum fiction was written almost exclusively by male writers. Margaret Harkness (1854-1923), now almost forgotten, was one of a few women writers (including Constance Howell and Emma Leslie), who were concerned with the exposure of slum life. A radical journalist, a cousin of Beatrice Webb, and a friend of Eleanor Marx, Harkness published her works under the pen name of John Law. Harkness lived in the East End for a few years in order to have a first-hand view of the slums. As a result she published the slum novel, In Darkest London (1891), originally titled as Captain Lobe: A Story of the Salvation Army, which was dedicated to a number of volunteer social workers (often young upper-class women) who brought relief to the “down-and-outs” in the East End slums.

Slum fiction aroused shock, sympathy and a peculiar fascination with the culture of poverty and squalor. Gruesomely vivid depictions of slum life revealed serious flaws in late Victorian capitalism and democracy. Today slum novels are mostly forgotten although a number of them has been recently republished by e-book publishers. They deserve to be rediscovered and reread as interesting social documents that chronicled the deplorable conditions of the life and work of the lower classes at the turn of the century. They are also interesting for their rendering of working-class speech.

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Last modified 4 November 2011