Cleolinda Jones (cleolinda) wrote,
Cleolinda Jones

Book discussion: MORE Black Ribbon research


Not that you should trust any reviewer who uses the word "moar," but still.

The Victorian Underworld, Donald Thomas

This is another book I've read two or three times; it's really engaging and well-organized. The problem I have--as someone researching a very particular window of time--is that Victorian nonfiction often focuses on the more Dickensian 1860s. Which is actually a really great period, but I'm working with 1889-1890 or thereabouts, and the psychology of that time window is just very different. The great criminal rookeries had mostly been pulled down by then, mostly due to rebuilding in areas like Westminster; morality was tightening after the great courtesans of the flashier 1860s* and the Cremorne Gardens no longer existed; prisons had been reformed, and police corruption had been discovered and prosecuted. One of the reasons I chose that particular year is that the 1880s and '90s are sort of the hinge of modernity. It's still "Victorian," but you start to see the modern world emerging. But when historians are writing about that great swath called "the Victorian era," they have to cover everything from the early part of the reign to the more colorful, melodramatic mid-century to the "modern" fin de siècle, which is by turns staid and decadent. It's a lot to cover (and why I give Judith Flanders such high marks for negotiating that spectrum). The point I am ever so gradually getting around to is that Donald Thomas also does a really good job. It's just that much of the 1860s material either isn't as useful to me, or is making me seriously consider throwing up my hands and using it anyway and being like I MAKE THINGS UP, I DO WHAT I WANT.

* (I think it's Virginia Rounding who points out that the 1860s were the height of excess in the French Second Empire, which ended with the Siege of Paris in the early 1870s, as we have already discussed. I mean, the huge hoop-skirted crinolines are an overt symbol of that. But I think she's also the one who pointed out that the excess either continued or moved over to England in the 1870s. Nonetheless, Lillie Langtry's early trademark in the late '70s was a single, plain black dress that she wore everywhere; by the end of the century, the future Edward VII's favorite mistress was the discreet Mrs. Keppel. It was no longer a world for Cora Pearls.) 

But these are personal considerations that don't really affect whether you will enjoy the book or not. I personally am not as interested in the final third of the book, "Retribution," but if you need to know anything about the evolution of Victorian prisons--from the days of competing in-house gin shops to the reforms of the Silent System--this is your book. (There's also a chapter on miscarriages of justice and the Scotland Yard corruption trials of the '80s.) The first two hundred pages, on the other hand, are about what gets you into those prisons: great detail on the police-hating costermongers, the safecrackers and housebreakers, the boxers and gamblers, the dredgers and toshers, the pickpockets, dodgers and cheats. There's also the obligatory chapter on Victorian prostitution, and (more unusually) a chapter on pornography.

As a book rec within a rec: "The Unknown Victorian" chapter is basically a book report on My Secret Life, the multi-volume sexual memoirs of the anonymous "Walter," which are actually worth reading, as long as you understand what you're getting into. It's not erotica; you may find it unpleasant. I've gotten through a good bit of the beginning--I own the whole set, actually--but haven't gotten terribly far because it's just so exhaustive that's what she said. I mean, seriously! This guy is in his early twenties, hasn't even gotten married yet, and he's already slept with at least two or three maidservants (the first of seems to have been his great, or at least first, love), a couple of prostitutes, and three village girls out in the country. And this is like, the beginning of volume one. You get tired, is what I'm saying. But, as Thomas points out, Walter also details his conversations and sometimes longterm relationships with these girls, and there's a good bit of social history to be had in there. It's honest and explicit without actually being Letters to Penthouse, or even striving to be particularly erotic. It's just his sex life, and he had a lot of it, and he wants to talk about it. You also get to see how Victorian men actually talked about sex and what words they used, which is an eye-opener in itself for those people who, like my tenth-grade creative writing teacher, may believe that "no one said ~The F-Word~ until the 1940s." There are two things about My Secret Life that really strike me, though: 1) Walter's memoirs begin with the very matter-of-fact revelation that his nursemaid spent a good bit of time touching him inappropriately, and was fired for doing so. It doesn't seem to occur to him to view this as sexual abuse, although we would see it that way today. I don't quite know what long-term conclusions to draw from that. 2) Young Adult Walter--in the part of the book I've read so far--spends a lot of time chasing housemaids around, trying to corner and wheedle and seduce them. It's both interesting to see how commonplace and normal this seems to him, and skin-crawlingly awful from a modern point of view. So what I'm saying is, if you can bring yourself to be analytical and detached about this, it's a useful psychological study--in ways Walter often did not intend.

The People of the Abyss, Jack London

Speaking of the underworld of poverty: a friend recommended this one to me, and it's online as well (click the link above). Basically, Jack London goes undercover in the East End of, uh, London to see how the poor live. Answer: BADLY. Which anyone who studies Victorian history or culture knows, but what you really get from this book is how bad. As an American, London is appalled by how the urban British poor get by on pennies a week, on bread and salt and maybe a piece of fish if they're lucky. They stand in line half the day just to get into a workhouse for a night's sleep (if there's space, which usually there's not) when they don't have two pennies for a lodging house room--how people in those doss-houses are subletting "part of a room," and two or three families are living in them. He picks hops, walks the streets all night, stays overnight at a workhouse (and runs away from a work detail at a hospital after they feed the workers the diseased meat scraps leftover from the invalids' meals), and watches George VI's coronation from the gutters of the richest empire in the world. And Jack London's like, I have lived off a couple of dollars, I have been broke, I have known poverty. I got scurvy in the Klondike and lost four teeth, okay? BUT I DON'T KNOW WHAT IS EVEN GOING ON HERE. Basically, this book could be subtitled The People of the Abyss: What the Fuck. 

Opium: A Portrait of the Heavenly Demon, Barbara Hodgson

A lot of information in a very short book that's half photographs and illustrations as it is; there are some good thumbnail sketches (rather than deep critical essays) of classic works, fictional and non-fictional, about opium that you can go read for yourself. This is a book that knows what kind of detail it should supply, and which topics other books have covered more thoroughly than it could ever hope to--a quick summary of the Opium Wars, but detailed pictures and descriptions of the opium smoker's "layout," including pipes, lamps, scissors, and so on. I don't know Hodgson manages to describe the varying methods of opium manufacture in three or four different countries in three (illustrated!) pages in that kind of detail, but somehow, she does it. And then you'll get little sidebars on--well, let me show you:



So, yeah. One of my better research investments. Now, if only I could find the equivalent for absinthe. (I am, however, aware of some great sites, like Oxygénée, La Fée Verte, Absinthe Spoon, Vert d'Absinthe,, Absinthe Originals, so on and so forth.)

I still have two or three little writeups ready to go, but I'll save that for another entry.

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Tags: black ribbon, book discussion, books, history, research, victoriana

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