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A Gripping Tale of the Victorian Underclass
on 28 March 2012
This is a late Victorian classic published in 1896 of the so called slum fiction. The Jago of the title is the Old Nichol an area of east London just east of Shoreditch High Street and west of Bethnal Green, long since pulled down and replaced by the Boundary Estate. At the time of the setting of this story the Old Nichol was arguably one of the poorest areas of London. See for example, `The Blackest Streets' by Sarah Wise (2008), the title of which refers to the colour code of the Victorian social survey maps of Charles Booth. Arthur Morrison's book was controversial at the time of publication and to some extent remains so today. It tells the story of a young boy, Dicky Perrott, born into a distressingly poor family, the mother able to undertake only `take-in' work making matchboxes and the father, although trained in a trade, reduced to a life of crime and violence. As the story unfolds to reveal the day to day life in the Jago, the predatory and continuously violent nature of its inhabitants is revealed. It was the relating of this violence that upset some of the Victorian critics and Morrison's insistence on the inevitability of this violent and degrading behaviour that fuels the present continuing debate over the role of `nature' or `nurture' in social studies.
The story of Dicky Perrott is very well told in a clear, fast moving, style that makes this a real page turner and quite remarkable given its publication date. Some picturesque but highly believable characters are encountered along the way including the scheming café owner and `fence' Aaron Weech, the enterprising father Sturt, the street fighter Sally Green and members of the High Mob, all based by Morrison on real occupants of the Old Nichol. This tale of the Victorian underclass is a good story in itself but should appeal particularly to those interested in the social history of London. This version of the novel contains an interesting introduction which is best read after completion of the book.