Traveller in the Poor Man’s Country

New post for the Wordsworth Blog

As the freelance journalist is never off the clock, William Thackeray was, like friend and rival Charles Dickens, a born people watcher. In a short piece for Punch entitled ‘Waiting at the Station’ written in March 1850, Thackeray thus turns the everyday experience of killing time at Fenchurch Street into an essay on the unknowable gulf between the working class and his own, notionally inspired by a group of obviously poor women who are emigrating to South Australia:

But what I note, what I marvel at, what I acknowledge, what I am ashamed of, what is contrary to Christian morals, manly modesty and honesty, and to the national well-being, is that there should be that immense social distinction between the well-dressed classes (as, if you will permit me, we will call ourselves) and our brethren and sisters in the fustian jackets and patterns.

But this isn’t just wool-gathering. Thackeray is, in fact, responding to an explosive series of articles about the London poor in The Times’ main competitor:

What a confession it is that we have all of us been obliged to make! A clever and earnest-minded writer gets a commission from the Morning Chronicle newspaper, and reports upon the state of our poor in London: he goes amongst labouring people and poor of all kinds – and brings back what? A picture of human life so wonderful, so awful, so piteous and pathetic, so exciting and terrible, that readers of romances own they never read anything like it; and that the griefs, struggles, strange adventures here depicted exceed anything that any of us could imagine … But of such wondrous and complicated misery as this you confess you had no idea? No. How should you? – you and I – we are of the upper classes; we have hitherto had no community with the poor (Thackeray: 1850, 92).

Feigning complete ignorance of the plight of the urban poor is a bit of a reach, however – as is describing himself as ‘upper class’ – albeit a good ‘hook’ for the article. Dickens had by then been writing about the subject for well over a decade and, as his commercial nemesis G.W.M. Reynolds wrote in The Mysteries of London, ‘The most unbounded wealth is the neighbour of the most hideous poverty; the most gorgeous pomp is placed in strong relief by the most deplorable squalor; the most seducing luxury is only separated by a narrow wall from the most appalling misery’ (Reynolds: 1848, 3). Similarly, the middle class reading public were well aware of the reports of Kay Shuttleworth and Edwin Chadwick, although Thackeray is citing something much more vivid than the standard tone of early-Victorian social investigation.

Instead, what Thackeray is really noting is an ongoing and complete indifference: ‘We never speak a word to the servant who waits on us for twenty years; we condescend to employ a tradesman, keeping him at a proper distance, mind’, while ‘of his workmen we know nothing, how piteously they are ground down, how they live and die, here close by us at the backs of our houses; until some poet like Hood wakes and sings that dreadful “Song of the Shirt”; some prophet like Carlyle rises up and denounces woe; some clear-sighted, energetic man like the writer of the Chronicle travels into the poor man’s country for us, and comes back with his tales of terror and wonder’ (Thackeray: 1850, 93).

The ‘writer of the Chronicle’ was, of course, an old friend from Thackeray’s mis-spent youth in Paris and the early days of Punch, the 37-year-old Henry Mayhew; and this series of articles, begun in 1849, were the foundation of his epic social study, London Labour and the London Poor…

To read the full post please click here

To read Part Two please click here


The 19th Century Underworld

The Author Who Outsold Dickens

Shark Alley

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