Arthur Morrison and the Tyranny of Sentimental Charity


Hunter A (2013) Arthur Morrison and the Tyranny of Sentimental Charity. English Literature in Transition, 56 (3), pp. 292-312.

First paragraph: ALTHOUGH LITTLE REMEMBERED NOW, Arthur Morrison's two works of naturalistic fiction set in London's East End slum, Tales of Mean Streets (1894) and A Child of the Jago (1896), were widely noted in their day. "We all read the books and shuddered over them," Jane Findlater would recall at the end of the decade. Alongside Stephen Crane, Morrison featured prominently in debates about the "New Realism," a label put about by the influential critic H. D. Traill, who was no admirer of either writer. While A Child of the Jago has remained fitfully in print and been an occasional presence in critical studies of the period since ("the most important work of the 1890s focusing on criminality," one study calls it), Morrison's reputation faltered early and faltered badly. In part this was owing to the remarkable lack of conviction he showed toward his own achievement in those first two books. Initially quick (and more than able) to defend his unremitting portrait of the slum against its many detractors and naysayers, he seemed ultimately to take their criticisms to heart, abandoning first the naturalistic mode in which he excelled, and then the East End as a subject altogether. Another dozen works of fiction would follow in a publishing career that lasted almost as long as Kipling's, until 1933; but few would argue now that the later writing was undeserving of the obscurity into which it rapidly sank. As for the slum books, while they have fared better at the hands of literary critics, the suspicion has lingered that Morrison was fatally out of sympathy with his subject -- that he "wrote from too far above his characters," as the novelist Alan Sillitoe would put it in 1965, and treated his imagined poor as though "they lived in a zoo."

English Literature in Transition: Volume 56, Issue 3

Publication date31/12/2013
PublisherELT Press
Publisher URL