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Mayhew Revisited

This evening I turned back to my e-edition of the Dec/Jan double issue of the Literary Review. I read most of it long before Christmas, but somehow only glanced over Sarah Wise's review of the London Labour and the London Poor: A Selected Edition (ed. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, OUP). Thackeray's (ironically) melodramatic quote signalling his naïveté opens the piece, in which he claims 'A picture of life so wonderful, so awful, so piteous and pathetic, so exciting and terrible, that readers of romances own they never read anything like it'. Note how he omits 'even' readers of romances, for it was such readers widely frowned upon throughout the century and well into the next. Of course what is immediately evident from the Mayhews recordings - originally appearing in a regular column for the Morning Chronicle newspaper - is the quick-witted humour and necessary inventive abilities of these poor interviewees. Sarah Wise asks to what extent did Mayhew polish up dull testimonies, to which the conclusion is not very much. It this question, frequently asked, that to my mind seeks to find a chink in the terribly deprived lives of the poor. It also alludes to how this genre, of showing how this other half lived, had become an income for those educated and connected enough to write about it without having to live it. Their accounts, which Mayhew recorded in true vernacular and thus made them groundbreaking, were melodramatic, because their lives were both this and wretched, (such a 19th century word, wretched). Melodrama was, is, a 'psychologically accurate reflection of working-class provided a vehicle for the full expression of sentiment and emotion....(and) appeals to those who feel that they have no control over their lives, but are prey to larger social forces'. That observation came from Martha Vicinus and her study of Chartist fiction (1982). The narratives of Mayhew's interviewees, Wise continues, are obvious examples that we humans 'are story-telling creatures, and it was the interviewees, rather than Mayhew, who incorporated urban folklore into their already grotesque daily lives'. Well worth a re-read.


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