Engel’s and Mearn’s Account of The Industrial culture in Britain – History Essay
In the year eighteen eighty-three amidst the turbulent late Victorian years termed as “The great depression”
there rose a particular article of literature by the
Reverend Andrew Mearns, entitled; “The Bitter Cry of Outcast London: An Inquiry into the Condition of the Abject Poor (October 1883). This pamphlet was published on behalf of the church in an attempt to highlight the plight of the neglected masses who were those living in England’s very worst urban slum districts. The article was absorbed by a middle class readership who would have on the whole never have known about or concerned themselves with the predicament of their socially inadequate neighbour.
The culture was such in England at the time that Mearns had to shock the socially censored Victorian middle classes into wanting to extend the hand of Christian charity to those who lived in as he described it, “the great dark region of poverty, misery, and immorality”. The form and content of the report that was given had to be chosen correctly with a view to informing but also to arouse a kind of morbid curiosity in the reader. The literary strategies that Mearns employs within his writing are a key element in doing so.
When reading Mearns article today as an independent piece of literature it is of vital importance to take into consideration what values and ideals would have been held up by the very people whom he was aiming his work to be read by. Late Victorian society (especially the middle class) prioritised the home as a place of cleanliness, high moral standards and as a basis to any “proper” family. However what Mearns is evoking in his article as a representation of home life to the working classes is about as far in opposition to the traditional ideal as you can get. This would have been shocking but at the same time strangely compelling to a contemporary audience. This is largely due to the type of language displayed in the article. He opens his enquiry with the statement; “There is no more hopeful sign in the Christian Church of today than the increased attention which is being given by it to the poor and outcast classes of society”. It is perhaps interesting to note that Mearns does not begin here with a condemnation or an attempt at apportioning blame for the situation of the poor instead he takes the strategy of highlighting one of the few hopeful aspects of this situation. This opening sentence sets the tone for the first few lines of the first paragraph it is a gentle description of previous work done Christian organisations, thus serving to put the Victorian readership at their ease after all no blame has been heaped at their door. Nevertheless the last lines of this introductory paragraph have a somewhat different agenda, the tone changes and the readers are reminded of the “ vast mass of moral corruption, of heart-breaking misery and absolute godlessness” that awaits them should they read on. It is here that Mearns uses a strategy of creating a mixture between revulsion and curiosity in his readership so that they will read on and he will achieve his ultimate purpose of bringing the plight of the destitute to the privileged and comfortable of society.
Although religion was an important force within Victorian life it was at the same time a religion that people chose selectively from. If it meant dressing in your finest clothes attending church and preventing your child from playing imaginary games on the Sabbath day then on the whole it was a religion that people wanted to embrace in their lives. However what Reverend Andrew Mearns was keen to access was the type of Christian attitude that would make those with any kind of religious conviction open their eyes to what was concealed as the misery of the working classes “by the thinnest crust of civilisation and decency”.
It is exactly this “Thin Crust” that Mearns attempts to destroy in his article. It has been documented that the privileged classes of society were so far removed from the problems of the industrial class that they were living virtually next to the slums in some areas such as London’s Belgravia and yet had no clue that these courts of death and disease existed anywhere near them. It is in this way that Mearns employs his literary strategies in order to lead his readership into the exploration and a greater realisation of the grimmest areas of London. Mearns does however set out “two cautions” when introducing his findings the first caution states that, “ the information given does not refer to selected cases” indeed this can be seen as more of a compounding of Mearns case rather than a warning for the unsuspecting reader. Although in general the article does not have the tone of a sermon about it there are elements utilised which would indicate that Mearns is preaching this can be particularly noted when he emphasises “THIS TERRIBLE FLOOD OF SIN AND MISERY IS GAINING UPON US. It is rising every day.” Thus reminding the reader that they are about to embark upon a kind of crusade against the sins of poverty itself by joining the Reverend in his compassion for the poor. This would also aid the reader in a feeling of worthiness and a justification of reading this type of literature to begin with.
It is an irony of the piece that in Mearns preliminary “caution” he is keen to point out that his article, “ is a plain recital of plain facts”. The irony derives from the fact that it is simply not just a stating of the facts and indeed much of the report is taken up with a deeply emotive humanistic element. This human element would have been well received by a Victorian readership due to the fact that although it may have been hard to relate to statistics it was more plausible to think about the situation in terms of people and compare it to their own lives.
Within his report Mearns states that the places that the industrial class resides should not be called “ homes” because he does not see it fitting that, “ those places be called homes”. Within this one simple statement Mearns is attempting to evoke a sense of unity to his readership. It is likely that whatever religious denomination or beliefs held it is probable that his Victorian reader would have a deeply ingrained sense of the home, a home that to them would offer protection and would be a cause of much pride. Not the type of non-home dwelling which Mearns describes as “ pestilential human rookeries”. The furniture within these homes is dismissed as nothing more than, “rubbish and rags”. This is a deep contradiction to the mental picture conjured of a typical Victorian home. The image was very much more prevalent in late Victorian decades of “The all embracing Mother bustling over a nest of piety, warmth, cleanliness and comfort”1. For the section of the working class that Mearns documents this ideal was simply unobtainable. By forcing the readers to examine their own surroundings of comparative luxury Mearns is encouraging empathy through his literary strategy.
It is not only the traditional Victorian home that the reader is forced to re-examine it is also the placing of the roles within that home which Mearns represents in a sometimes shockingly frank subversion of the norm. Even by today’s standards of less rigorous moral structure Mearns findings of “immorality” would be somewhat disturbing. Therefore by the strict moral code of the Victorian era the supposed “depravity” described would have been particularly dreadful. However once again Mearns has utilised his literary skills to ensnare rather than repel the reader. He does so by keeping his report on the precipice of decency he errs on the side of caution when referring to immorality and sin. Preferring to prepare for what is in store. He also deems some material too shocking to relate to the reader to ensure that “the eyes and ears” of the readers do not become “insufferably outraged”. This has a dual purpose, firstly it reminds the reader that the author is a member of the clergy and is consequently interested in moral respectability and “common decency”, and secondly it deals once again with the curiosity aspect of the piece it keeps the reader interested as to know what is so awful that it cannot even be included in this most frank of accounts.
The role of the Mother is a theme that appears to run throughout Mearns report. The Victorian Mother in her conventional setting is that of keeper of home and carer for her helpless young, she is represented in much literature of the period as a figure of loyalty to the “Traditional English husband”2. Though Mearns representation is somewhat different although for him it is not a matter of “Maternal ignorance”3, he does cite “The dismal reality of poor health, poor nutrition and inadequate family income”4 as reasoning behind the cases of terrible neglect that he documents. Some of the most graphic and deplorable situations stressed are to do with the Mother and child relationship. The horrible reality of the “poor widow, her three children and a child who had been dead thirteen days” and “her husband, who was a cabman who had shortly before committed suicide”. Mearns describes them as “miserable beings”, although it is particularly interesting to note that Mearns does not attempt to brutalise these people even if he does so to their surroundings. He instead chooses what he believes to be a poignant case of the woman who was “dying from dropsy, scarcely able to breathe and enduring untold agony, but to the very last striving to keep her little ones clean and tidy.” This draws to the attention of the readership that despite their appalling surroundings a base quality of human goodness and godliness prevails.
One of the most emotive issues that Mearns tackles is that of the squalor, neglect and overwork that the children of the industrial class had to suffer. Mearns deals with this in terms of his literary strategy by using the means of direct quote. By taking the words straight out of the mouths of the children on to the paper Mearns is bringing to his report a certain raw quality that cannot be captured in any other way in print. The case of the twelve year old girl whom when asked the question “Who looks after you?” is only able to reply, “I look after my little brothers and sisters as well as I can” is one that will resound in the memory of a Christian as to its pure selflessness