The Novelistic Afterlife of Henry Mayhew

Article excerpt

Reviews of neo-Victorian novels published between the late 1980s and the present often compare them with fiction of the Victorian period, especially the works of Charles Dickens. In the Sunday Times Anthony Quinn called The Quincunx "A Dickens of a book," Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White was described by the Guardian's Kathryn Hughes as "the novel that Dickens might have written had he been allowed to speak freely," and, according to a Sunday Telegraph critic, Louis Bayard's Mr. Timothy is a "Dickensian thriller." (1) While not focusing on just one writer, several academic critics of neo-Victorian fiction have also analyzed them primarily in relation to their fictional forebears. Anne Humpherys, for example, views a range of historical novels about the Victorian period as "afterings" of canonical works by Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell, and others. The purpose of her essay is "to speculate why many twentieth-century writers have turned to the nineteenth-century novel as the generative source for their work." (2) Focusing on novels by David Lodge, John Fowles, and A. S. Byatt, Kate Flint discusses how "each of these writers finds means of commenting both on Victorian society ... and, more particularly, on the literature of the rime and its tensions and conventions." (3) Hilary M. Schor begins her analysis of A. S. Byatt's historical fiction about the period by positioning it in relation to postmodern conceptions of high Victorian realism. (4)

As these critics suggest, Victorian fiction is undeniably an important source for novelists reimagining this historical period. It is not, however, the only one. This essay attends to the neglected novelistic afterlife of what is, according to Gertrude Himmelfarb, "one of the great social documents of Victorian England," Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor (1850-62). (5) Charles Palliser's The Quincunx (1989), Matthew Kneale's Sweet Thames (1992), Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White (2002), and Louis Bayard's Mr. Timothy (2003) all use Mayhew as source material, or as an intertext. (6) In what follows I explore how and also why these four neo-Victorian novelists manipulate, adapt, and reformulate Mayhew's early study of urban workers. As well as exemplifying the uses of research in historical fiction and ways in which late twentieth-century novelists respond to the preceding century, the study of these novels reveals another stage in the reception of this great Victorian text.

A skeptical observer might suggest a quite obvious reason for the persistence of Mayhew as a source for these late twentieth-century authors. At least some of his writing has remained in print since the late 1940s, and the four-volume 1862 edition of London Labour has gone through two twentieth-century facsimile reprints. (7) The same level of recent availability has hardly been enjoyed by other largely forgotten texts that document the lives of the poor such as Thomas Beames's Rookeries of London (1850) and George R. Sims's How the Poor Live (1883). It is entirely likely, then, that a budding historical novelist unfamiliar with the period might turn first, or indeed only turn, to the work of such a prominent and frequently discussed figure. We can guess, in fact, that this is what Louis Bayard, the author of Mr. Timothy, did. (8)

If this relative visibility of London Labour among similar descriptions of slum life helps account for its repeated use as a source for historical novels about the Victorian period, it is not the only or most interesting explanation for the multiple re-workings of Mayhew's text published since the late 1980s. Anne Humpherys's perceptive discussion of Mayhew's literary style in her 1977 study suggests other advantages his work possesses as a novelistic source. She claims that "much of the time in his descriptions Mayhew relied on selected details ... to paint his picture. He avoided the use of the figures of speech which other London journalists tended to depend upon. …