|A Ripperologist Article|
|This article originally appeared in Ripperologist No. 36, August 2001. Ripperologist is the most respected Ripper periodical on the market and has garnered our highest recommendation for serious students of the case. For more information, view our Ripperologist page. Our thanks to the editor of Ripperologist for permission to reprint this article. Subscribe to Ripperologist.|
The heart of Dickensian London lies in the eastern half of the city. Most of Dickens' fiction takes place in the area circumscribed by St. Giles on the west, Camden to the north, Stepney to the east and the Old Kent Road to the south. It should come as no surprise, then, to find that the East End occupies an important place in his imagination. From Dickensian fiction we derive many of today's cliches about nineteenth century East End life: the oyster stalls and quaint Cockney antics to be sure, but also the neglected workhouse orphan, the dark streets, the squalor whose descriptions still shock us a hundred years later. For Dickens' response to the East End did not remain static. The rosy, comic Whitechapel appears in his early writings; his later writings give us a jungle of decaying slums housing a starved, feral people. And although he died in 1870, when the Ripper was most likely a little boy, Dickens is in some measure responsible for the Ripper legend. Again and again, in his fiction, he tried to expose the conditions in which people lived. Again and again he warns us: Beware. From this dark jungle, some unknown beast will spring.
Such forebodings are hard to see in the light-hearted comedy of Pickwick Papers, written when Dickens was only 24. Mr. Pickwick's adventures in Ipswich begin at the Bull on Whitechapel Road, then a comfortable coaching-inn that Dickens knew well. The mood of the neighborhood is cheerful: proceeding towards the turnpike at Mile End, their coach excites "the admiration of the whole population of that pretty densely-populated quarter." Its poverty prompts nothing darker than Sam Weller's quaint, if unprophetic observation that "poverty and oysters always seem to go together." Another East End episode in Pickwick relates the meeting of the Brick Lane Branch of the United Grand Junction Ebenezer Temperance Association. Dickens had no use for the temperance movement and could be pretty scathing about it. Here, however, he is genial. The ladies of the Association gather in an upstairs warehouse in Brick Lane, to guzzle tea and congratulate themselves on converts like Betsy Martin, widow, one child and one eye. Goes out charing and washing, by the day; never had more than one eye, but knows her mother drank bottled stout, and shouldn't wonder if that caused it (immense cheering).
Thinks it not impossible that if she had always abstained from spirits, she might have had two eyes by this time (tremendous applause).
It's odd to reflect that the warehouse was only a stone's throw from the corner of Thrawl Street, where Mary Ann Nichols - a real-life "Betsy Martin" - would drink away her doss money, with well-known consequences. But this aimiable satire is worlds away from the harsh realities of poverty, homelessness and alcoholism.
The East End also had a kind of Ellis Island romance for the younger Dickens. London was the heart of England and the Empire, a "world city" to which the adventurous and ambitious flocked to make their fortunes. And for many such, their first glimpse of this world city would be the streets of Whitechapel. Thus its coaching inns and hostels are places of excitement, where dazed newcomers alight from coaches into the rush of the city streets. In Barnaby Rudge, Joe Willett runs away "big with great thoughts of going away for a soldier… [and] full of such youthful visions… pushed on until the noise of London sounded in his ears, and the Black Lion hove into sight." Whitechapel also offers David Copperfield his first experience of London, a city already alive in his imagination:
What an amazing place London was to me when I saw it in the distance, and how I believed all the adventures of all my favorite heroes to be constantly enacting and re-enacting there, and how I vaguely made it out in my own mind to be fuller of wonders and wickedness than all the cities of the earth, I need not stop to relate here. We approached it by degrees, and got, in due time, to the inn in the Whitechapel district for which we were bound. I forget whether it was the Blue Bull or the Blue Boar; but I know it was the Blue Something, and that its likeness was painted up on the back of the coach. David's destination, incidentally, is a school in Blackheath, "the most forlorn and miserable place I had ever seen," where his year is spent in a blur of "cracked slates, tear-blotted copy books, canings, rulerings, hair-cuttings, rainy Sundays, suet puddings, and a dirty atmosphere of ink surrounding all." A depressing picture.
Perhaps it's no surprise that at least one Blackheath schoolmaster, the unfortunate M. J. Druitt, ended up in the Thames.
Another positive element to Dickens' view of Whitechapel was its bustle. It was a hive - a bustling, glittering throng of human activity that never ceased to thrill him. An unattributed article in Household Words (possibly by Dickens, but certainly written under his influence) takes a breathless tour of this great panorama. The writer explores "Butcher Row" by the Minories, "a city of meat! The gas… lights up a long vista of beef, mutton and veal. Legs, shoulders, loins, ribs, hearts, livers, kidneys, gleam in all the gaudy panoply of scarlet and white on every side." On the Whitechapel Road, he stops at the pubs "with queer signs," including The Grave Maurice and the now legendary Blind Beggar. The article offers hundreds of realistic miniatures - "a gaunt old man with the bristly beard and the red eyelids" and "slatternly, frowsy drabs of women, wrangling with wrinkled crones" - but the overall tone is one of enthusiasm for this great stream of diverse humanity:
But the noise! The yelling, screeching, howling, swearing, laughing, fighting saturnalia; the combination of commerce, fun, frolic, cheating, almsgiving, thieving and devilry; the Geneva-laden tobacco-charged atmosphere.
It's an image that seems to be indelibly printed in the mind of every BBC set designer. No period production is ever complete without hundreds of howling costermongers, hawking eel pies or taxidermied parrots.
In his earlier writing, then, Dickens saw much that was comic, romantic and exciting in East End life. Yet we already sense darker elements. The bustle had its oppressive side; even the starry-eyed Copperfield finds that it "confused my weary head beyond description." And it could be sinister. Mrs. Nickleby and her daughter Kate, for instance, are housed near the Minories in "a large old dingy house in Thames Street… An empty dog-kennel, some bones of animals, fragments of iron hoops, and staves of old casks lay strewn about, but no life was stirring there. It was a picture of dark, silent decay." This darkness comes to dominate his vision of the East End.
Our Mutual Friend, Dickens' last complete novel, is set largely in Limehouse, and it does not present an exciting or romantic picture at all. It is a "squalid maze of streets and alleys of miserable houses let out into single rooms." In describing the home of Lizzie Hexam, the novel's working class heroine, Dickens gives us an accurate glimpse of the better class of riverside dwellings:
The fire was in a rusty brazier, not fitted to the hearth… Two or three old sculls and oars stood against the wall, and against another part of the wall was a small dresser, making a spare show of the commonest articles of crockery and cooking-vessels. The roof of the room was not plastered, but was formed of the flooring of the room above.
The people have changed, too. Loyal Sam Weller and his father are long gone. Most of the East Enders here are sharks: the gabbling alcoholic Mr. Dolls, the predatory Rogue Riderhood, the cunning Silas Wegg.
Where Pickwick Papers focused on the coaching inns of the East End, Our Mutual Friend features its graveyards. The aptly-named Bradley Headstone terrifies Lizzie with his ferocious marriage proposal in a churchyard off Leadenhall Street: "a paved square court, with a raised bank of earth about breast high, in the middle, enclosed by iron rails. Here, conveniently and healthfully elevanted above the level of the living, were the dead." The hero John Rokesmith ponders his doomed love in the yard of Limehouse Church. He "looked up at the high tower spectrally resisting the wind, and he looked around at the white tombstones, like enough to the dead in their winding-sheets." Death, it seems, is a permanent presence in these streets.
There is some cheer amid all this bleakness. The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters is thought to be based on The Grapes which backed onto Limehouse Reach, and the detailed description of the interior certainly suggests that it is drawn from life:
Externally, it was a narrow, lopsided, wooden jumble of corpulent windows heaped one upon the other as you might heap as many toppling oranges, with a crazy wooden verandah impending over the water; indeed the whole house… impended over the water, but seemed to have got into the condition of a faint-hearted diver who has paused so long on the brink that he will never go in at all.
Inside the unprepossessing heap lies "a bar to soften the human breast," a tiny firelit haven "divided from the rough world," decorated with scarlet curtains, "cordial-bottles radiant with fictitious grapes in bunches, and lemons in nets, and biscuits in baskets." But this is no throwback to the Blue Boar or the Bull Inn. It's a refuge from the darkness of the world outside - a world that "pressed so hard and so close… as to leave the hostelry not an inch of ground beyond its door."
Dickens' vision of the East End is ultimately a dark and menacing one. But is this another kind of romanticism? How well did Dickens know the real East End? The answer is, very well indeed. To most Londoners, working-class Whitechapel was virtually invisible: but Dickens explored it avidly. Such first-hand street knowledge was essential to his fiction. He never wrote about a place or its inhabitants without first becoming familiar with both, and his excursions into the East End are well-documented. During one night-time ramble with Wilkie Collins, Dickens discovered five "bundles of rags" settled in the mud and rain outside the Whitechapel Workhouse - girls unable to get admittance to the Ward for the night. More horrifying to Dickens than their obvious starvation was their despair. "They were all dull and languid," he wrote. "No one made any sort of profession or complaint; no one cared to look at me; no one thanked me." Other excursions included an unscheduled visit to a riverside hovel in Stepney, that sounds a lot like the Hexam home."The woman of the room had picked up some long strips of wood, about some wharf or barge, and they had just now been thrust into the otherwise empty grate… The flare of the burning wood enabled me to see a table, and a broken chair or so, and some old cheap crockery ornaments about the chimney piece." A visit to the Vintners' Almshouses (renamed "Titbull's") on the Mile End Road prompts his usual vivid description:
Old iron and fried fish, cough drops and artificial flowers, boiled pigs'-feet and household furniture that looks as if it were polished up with lip-salve… and saucers full of shell-fish in a green juice which I hope is natural to them when their health is good, garnish the paved sideways as you go to Titbull's. Literally as well as figuratively, Dickens knew the streets of the East End.
He also knew about the lives of East Enders. Critics have sometimes accused Dickens of idealizing the poor, and have pointed to sentimental figures like Oliver Twist, the saintly workhouse orphan. But Dickens' fictional characters are just that - fictions. In real life, Dickens was pragmatic and clear-eyed. He was interested in effective reform, and that meant dealing with people as they really were. He reported on literally hundreds of institutions, public and private. He approved of anything neat, organized, useful and cheerful; he loathed bullying and condescension. The "Self-Supporting Cooking Depot for the Working Classes," a self-help venture at the corner of Commercial Street and Flower and Dean Street, was just the kind of project that delighted him. He describes how a mere fourpence-halfpenny will buy "an honest and stout soup," along with meat, potatoes and pudding, all excellently served. His only objection was to the absence of beer, a precaution that never ceased to irritate him: it told the working man "in the old wearisome condescending patronising way that he must be goody-poody, and do as he is toldy-poldy." (One wonders if Catherine Eddowes ever got the chance to eat there; it was still operating in the early 1880s, when she lived with John Kelly a few doors up in Flower and Dean Street.)
Dickens also disliked phony sentimentalism. Teachers in the Ragged Schools, he observed, often made the mistake of pretending that their pupils were innocent young things: "hulking mudlarks" and "young women old in the vices of the commonest and worst life were expected to profess themselves enthralled by the good child's book, The Adventures of Little Margery, who… "divided her porridge with singing birds." What those "vices" were, Dickens knew perfectly well. He and heiress Angela-Burdett Coutts managed Urania Cottage, a home for prostitutes who wanted to leave their street life behind. Coutts provided the funds; Dickens did everything else. The Home itself was not in the East End, but the biographies of its inmates would have been familiar to anyone in Whitechapel: these girls were destitute, mostly homeless, living hand to mouth, prostituting themselves when necessary, drinking when possible. Dickens' advice to Coutts on how to recruit inmates is not the usual Victorian cant about being "fallen" and failing one's "duty to society." It is lucid and sensible. "Never mind society while she is at that pass," he urged Miss Coutts, who had a rather evangelical streak. "Society has used her ill and turned away from her, and she cannot be expected to take much heed of its rights and wrongs." He was realistic, too, about the psychological damage that many girls would have sustained.
There is no doubt that many of them will go on well for some time, and would then be siezed with a violent fit of the most extraordinary passion, apparently quite motiveless, and insist on going away. There seems to be something inherent in their course of life, which engenders and awakens a sudden restlessness and recklessness which may be long suppressed, but breaks out like a madness. One thinks of Polly Nichols again. She lasted only three months in service with a family who were, she wrote to her father, "teetotallers and very religious, so I ought to get on well." Perhaps she fell prey to a"violent fit", or perhaps she had no more use for Methodists than did Dickens. Either way, Dickens would have understood her frailty and restlessness very well.
Dickens' East End, then, is a complex place that changes over time. It contains comedy, nostalgia, the bustle and adventure of life. It is also a real place with real people, whose streets and lives he knew well. But its strongest impression is its last: dark, decaying, fearful, a place of graveyards and mud, of destructive passions fomenting dangerously beneath the surface. Like many of his contemporaries, Dickens came to see urban poverty not just as a tragedy or a social problem, but as a horror, a thickening jungle that threatened to swallow middle-class London. The Victorians were afraid of it; and they were right. The nineteenth century saw cholera epidemics at home and mob violence abroad. Who knew what incurable bitterness was festering in the hearts of those consigned to live like dogs? "Turn that dog's descendants loose," Dickens wrote prophetically, "and in a very few years they will so degenerate that they will lose even their bark-but not their bite." No wonder, perhaps, that the Ripper's crimes would strike Londoners with such force, and linger in their imaginations. They seemed to embody all the feral savagery of the slums that Dickens had long warned must break loose.