Today on Project Gutenberg #50

Today on Project Gutenberg, we have…

London’s Underworld by Thomas Holmes

The Victorian era turned the subject of poverty into a veritable subgenre of literature. The most famous of these books would be Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, written throughout the 1840s and formally published in 1851. Today’s book, London’s Underworld, follows in the footsteps of books like these. It’s a work of the late Edwardian era rather than the Victorian, however, having been published in 1912.

Finding information on the author took a little work this time. From what I can gather, Thomas Holmes was an author who spent twenty-five years working with London’s police department, though I can’t figure out what he actually did. What I do know is that he was involved with the Howard Association, known today as the Howard League for Penal Reform. So Holmes had a pretty long history of activism, and it shows in this book.

The primary emotion running through a lot of poverty-based nonfiction of this sort is pity, and not much else. The authors’ purpose is to make you feel sorry for the poor and how they live. While there is a fair bit of pity in London’s Underworld as well, Holmes adds another emotion to the mix: admiration for the poor. How so? He frequently references his friends in the lower classes of London, and when speaking of the city’s poor generally, he often praises their characters. They are “industrious and persevering,” he says, and have “ability and brains, gifts and graces.” There’s even a whole chapter titled “Brains in the Underworld” that’s all about how smart and well-read many of the poor are, especially the children. And that’s just one chapter. There are dozens of vignettes throughout the book, all featuring people of wildly different temperaments and backgrounds, and Holmes depicts nearly all of them with respect. It’s a very humanizing work in many ways, and it instills in the reader more than just sympathy for these people. There’s also a sense of injustice about how they’re stuck in these awful situations. It’s a far cry from the persistent belief at the time that poverty always symbolized some moral failure on the part of the individual.

Oh! the mystery of it all, the sorrow and madness of it all! I open my door and they file out. Some back to the unseen world, some back to the lower depths of this world! Surely they are a motley lot, are my friends and acquaintances; they are as varied as humanity itself. So they represent to me all the moods and tenses of humanity, all its personal, social and industrial problems. I have a pitiful heart; I try to keep a philosophic mind; I am cheery with them; I am doubtful, I am hopeful!

I never give help feeling sure that I have done wisely, I never refuse the worst and feel sure that I have done well. I live near the heart of humanity, I count its heart-beats, I hear its throbs.

I realise some of the difficulties that beset us, I see some of the heights and depths to which humanity can ascend or descend. I have learned that the greatest factors in life are kindly sympathy, brotherly love, a willingness to believe the best of the worst, and to have an infinite faith in the ultimate triumph of good!

Chapter 1

Some sections of the book have not aged well. Holmes, though he may be a tad more forward-thinking than his contemporaries, still voices eugenicist talking points on more than one occasion. This gets especially bad during his chapter on the disabled poor, in which he writes that deformed or disabled people are more inclined to crime and violence, that “it was not without reason that our older novelists made dwarfs and hunchbacks to be inhuman fiends” and that epileptics shouldn’t be allowed to marry and reproduce. Yikes.

If you already have an interest in how the Victorians and Edwardians wrote about poverty, then you might enjoy perusing this book. I can’t see it appealing to you otherwise. But you shouldn’t take this to mean that it’s badly written or not worth your time. It serves as a fascinating look at lower-class life in Edwardian London, and despite his obvious shortcomings, Holmes’s attitude is still a good deal more nuanced than the attitudes of his contemporaries.

And that’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg! See you next week!

— Dana

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