Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (London Labour) provides a look at Victorian London’s working poor, but also provides a look at mainstream attitudes concerning class hierarchy and colonialist attitudes. While the book’s subject matter makes for exploration through a number of critical theories, new historicism provides an ideal examination at not only at contemporary history, but contemporary attitudes in Victorian-era London.
London Labour’s tapestry of the Victorian Era’s working poor offers many critical opportunities such as feminist criticism, Marxist criticism, and postcolonial criticism due to its dealing with economic issues, gender issues, and national identity. London Labour profiles both men and women as they struggle to survive raising questions of how gender, capitalism, and a person’s national identity (such as Irish and German immigrants) are able to function during the Industrial Revolution.
Although all of these critical approaches are helpful in examining the text, I argue new historicism is ideal for exploring London Labour as new historicism allows a combined look at the history and culture driving the text or as Lois Tyson explains, “…literary texts are cultural artifacts that can tell us something about the interplay of discourses, the web of social meanings, operating in the time and place in which the text was written” (291). London Labour is written to give the public an account of the poor, but what social forces are driving these accounts? New historicism is thus an excellent way to analyze these social forces. Indeed, “At its simplest, the historical method is interested not in assembling the transcendent or autonomous aesthetic value of literary texts but, to use Marxist terminology, in researching the contexts of their production, consumption, and status” (Cuddon 469). Using new historicism, a critic asks why is the text written, who is it written for, and what social forces drive it?
Representations, i.e. cultural constructs are inherent to any analysis using new historicism. Mahew’s various accounts of the poor qualify as cultural constructs. Abrams and Harpham note, “A number of historicists claim also that these cultural and ideological representations in texts serve mainly to reproduce, confirm, and propagate the complex power structures of domination and subordination which characterize a given society” (245). If so, what are some of the ideas of domination and subordination presented in London Labour?
Class plays a key role in ideas of domination as presented in London Labour. The book focuses on the working poor, but there is a class structure even amongst them:
Among the street-folk there are many distinct characters of people—people differing as widely from each in tastes, habits, thoughts, and creeds, as one nation from another. Of these, the costermongers form by far the largest and certainly the most broadly marked class. They appear to be a distinct race – perhaps, originally of Irish extraction – seldom associating with any other of the street-folks, and being all known to each other. (9)
This description echoes many others in London Labour where there are hierarchies among workers where some are perceived by both their peers and society as holding higher or lower status. Using new historicism, a critic can explore the society forces driving the narrative and why certain jobs are privileged over others.
The book also provides strong nationalistic views as seen with its portrayal of Irish immigrants, again providing much material to analyze utilizing new historicism.:
The same system of immigration is pursued in London as in America. As soon as the first settler is thriving in his newly chosen country, a certain portion of his or her earnings are carefully hoarded up, until they are sufficient to pay for the removal of another member of the family to England, then one of the friends left ‘at home’ is sent for and thus by degrees the entire family is got over, and once more united (57)
A critic using new historicism might ask whether this description is positive, negative, or neutral before explaining what social forces make it so.
Mahew’s other comments on the Irish suggest a mixed opinion, which again makes new historicism’s multi-layered approach an ideal form of analysis. For example, Mahew notes the resemblance between an old Irish woman and a dog (58) and later notes, “The one thing that struck me during my visit to this neighborhood was the apparent listlessness and lazy appearance of the people. The boys at play were the only beings who seemed to have any life in their actions” (60). Nonetheless, Mahew also shows appreciation for them, pointing out, “…it is curious that these people, who here seemed as inactive as negroes, will perform the severest bodily labour, undertaking tasks that the English are almost unfitted for” (60).
Using new historicism, a critic can see both admiration and scorn from Mahew, arguably reinforcing the dominant culture’s (England) view towards the subordinate culture (Ireland and Irish immigrants) of both disdain and grudging admiration. With the Irish in a subaltern position, Mahew’s observations about their nature reinforces England’s position as having to rule them for their own good. These cultural constructs of the Irish also reinforce England’s attitudes towards the Irish for anyone reading Mahew’s description of the Irish poor.
With many different accounts of London’s poor and working poor, London Labour is a rich mine for critics who use new historicism to analyze the text. Critics doing so can explore the production and consumption of the text as well as the societal factors driving it. These factors can include race, ethnicity, gender, class, and economics, further making new historicism as a critical umbrella to explore various factors through one critical theory.
Abrams, M.H. and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. A Glossary of Literary Terms, 11th ed., Cengage Learning, 2015.
Cuddon, J.A. Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory. Penguin Books, 2013.
Mahew, Henry. London Labour and the London Poor. Penguin, 1985.
Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2006.