Arthur Morrison, Criminality, and Late-Victorian Maritime Subculture
In 1897, the literary critic H. D. Traill accused Arthur Morrison’s novel, A Child of the Jago, of exaggerating the viciousness of East London’s poor, claiming that Morrison had distilled various criminal behaviors into one totalizing, nightmarish zone of barbarity. This essay looks to Morrison’s later novel, The Hole in the Wall (1902), whose concentration of crime is more ambiguous. Morrison tells the reader that Blue Gate Fields, and the pub within it, Paddy’s Goose, are especial locales of danger, but in fact, criminality extends beyond them to wider Wapping, including the pub and home of Captain Nat Kemp and his grandson, the narrator Stephen Kemp. Through his portrayal of Wapping, Morrison conveys his childhood familiarity with the specific maritime culture of the docks and their associated industries. In this regard, we can classify Morrison not merely as an East End novelist, but as a docklands writer. He recognized the unusual topography of Wapping with its sailors’ pubs, lodging houses, and curio shops – and also the hazards inherent there for the sailor on leave: the risk of losing one’s freedom and wages to predatory crimps and ‘land sharks’. Given his commitment to representing the district with all of its idiosyncrasies, Morrison reminds us of the limits of generalizing the ‘East End’ as a homogenous region.
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