The photograph ‘though it seems distinct enough to the gaze which concentrates itself successively on the various parts of the picture, yet fades, when the attempt is made to view it in its entirety, into a mere blur.’ The reader ‘comes out from the Jago with the feelings, not, as he had expected, of a man who has just paid a visit to the actual district under the protection of the police, but of one who has just awakened from the dream of a prolonged sojourn in some fairyland of horror.’ I was reading issues of the Fortnightly Review from the 1890s when Arthur Morrison first caught my attention. Early on at Bangor I’d discovered that, although its library didn’t compare well to the Bodleian (how could it?), it had an interesting accumulation of late nineteenth-century monthlies and quarterlies, and I started to work my way through them, their old leather bindings crumbling into my notebooks and leaving stains like crushed moths. I like the serendipity of old periodicals. In his article ‘The New Realism’ (c.1897) H. D. Traill clearly wasn’t enamoured of Morrison’s A Child of the Jago (1896) but I was intrigued by the sketch he painted of its account of desperate lives and brutal violence in an East End slum, and the impression he gave of Victorian representational techniques nearing their limits. Fortunately, at around the same time, Everyman brought out a new edition (edited by Peter Miles) with extensive notes and other background materials.
The novel proved to be every bit as enjoyable and as interesting as I’d hoped. Morrison manages to be both ironically detached from his subjects, and deeply immersed in their lives. The late nineteenth-century metaphor of the photograph has some truth in it, in that Morrison records things unthinkable in Victorian novels from a few decades earlier, and records them with a kind of detachment. But to think of A Child of the Jago as merely ‘literary photography’ is to miss its pleasure in the act of representation, which is sometimes an artfully refracted act, and its pleasure in language and the artifice of language. For all the detachment and the references to the inhabitants as rats or vectors of infection, the narrator’s discourse is free enough to absorb the local dialect:
There were many market-porters among the Dove Laners, and at this, their prosperous season, they and their friends resorted to a shop in Meakin Street, kept by an ‘ikey’ tailor, there to buy the original out-and-out downy benjamins, or the celebrated bang-up kicksies, cut saucy, with artful buttons and a double fakement down the sides. And hereabout they were apt to be set upon by Jagos; overthrown by superior numbers; bashed; and cleaned out. Or, if this purchases had been made, they were flimped of their kicksies, benjies or daisies, as the case might be. So that a fight with Dove Land might be an affair of some occasional profit; and it became no loyal Jago to idle in the stronghold. (Chapter 17)
As this suggests, the narrator sometimes adopts the language of anthropology and treats the Jago-dwellers as a primitive tribe, and sometimes adopts a heroic or mock-heroic language:
Presently down from Edge Lane and the ‘Posties’ came the High Mobsmen, swaggering in check suits and billycocks, gold chains and lumpy rings: stared at, envied, and here and there pointed out by name or exploit. ‘Him as done the sparks in from Regent Street for nine centuries o’ quids’; ‘Him as done five stretch for a snide bank bill an’ they never found the oof’; ‘Him as maced the bookies in France an’ shot the nark in the boat’; and so forth. (Chapter 13)
But there’s also great pathos, emerging primarily from the narrative’s focus on young Dicky Perrott, a child who is sufficiently stunted in growth to show great promise as a pickpocket, but who also shows some doubts about the world he is growing up in.