Before I took this class and read People of the Abyss, the Victorian era conjured up pictures of well-educated and well-dressed aristocrats gathered in lavish ballrooms. When I heard the word “victorian,” I immediately thought of gorgeous gowns in every color worn by women out of breath from their tight corsets. I imagined that everyone was excessively wealthy and relatively happy under Victoria’s reign. Most of my ideas came from Jane Austen novels and the films based off of them. Now, however, I know much better and the Victorian era no longer reminds me of these things. Contrary to popular belief, this period of time was rife with severe poverty, death, violence, and overall feelings of hopelessness. The East End was a hotbed for disease and despair. People were packed like sardines into filthy rooms, only if they were lucky. Otherwise, they would have to stand in line half the day in hope that they could stay in a “spike.” The homeless gained no sympathy from the roaming police and received no real help from the government. I had no idea these horrible things had happened during the Victorian era until I read London’s book. London opened my eyes to the horrible plight of the poor East Enders and made me realize that life during the Victorian era was not all about riches and romances.
Archive for January, 2009
Of all of the stories in Jack London’s The People of the Abyss, I found the story “The Sea Wife” the most captivating. In “The Sea Wife,” London does not focus on the poverty of Mr. and Mrs. Mugridge. Instead, London describes her and her husband with what they have done in their lives. With just speaking to Mr. and Mrs. Mugridge, London finds people influenced, but not lost due to the problems from new industry. London writes, “I found that vast, incomprehensible patience which has enabled the home population to endure under the burden of it all.” He has found a man and woman able to have and raise children in difficult times without losing themselves or each other in the process. Though they live on a “mean street,” they “expected nothing else, desired nothing else.” Here in the slums of London lived a couple, producing children who venture throughout the world. Throughout London’s encounters, it is here where he finds simplicity and acceptance in life. Toiling for their entire lives in heavy work, the couple does not complain. They have done their duty to “colonize the ends of the earth” and work diligently. Unlike other characters in London’s Abyss, Mrs. and Mr. Mugridge have accepted their lives without self-pity, making them the most enticing and set apart characters in the Abyss.
During the Victorian Era, a sense of distinction of the higher classes and monarchy was juxtaposed against the utter poverty of the lowest class. With Parliament ruling, the government attempted to keep the people under control in hopes that revolution would not overtake England as it had in France. Because of the major changes in England’s industry, common people lost jobs and faced prison and death sentences for petty crimes. While the changes in industry would be beneficial in the future for England in comparison to America’s success, they initially left more citizens jobless, hungry, and desperate. London was changing and expanding so rapidly, infrastructure could not keep up.
However, a refined side of London masked the destitution of the working class. The rich remained educated and to themselves, away from the East End. Fashion for the wealthy ranged from the hourglass gown in the early part of the era to slimming, fitting dresses in the later half. The poor men of the era donned second-hand coats collected from the higher classes. It was obvious, however, in the lack of tailoring and out-dated style. Without aid from the government, the poor of the Victorian Era were constantly suffering while the rich were oblivious. This opposition in classes presents how large London was at the time and how different the lives of the citizens could be.
In my opinion, there were several major flaws with the police investigation. One such flaw was the refusal to allow blood hounds to be used. I believe blood hounds were used there could have been more success with finding a suspect. I also believe that the police were not very thorough with cataloging the items found in each crime scene. There may have been a possibility that the murderer left behind evidence, which could have been found if proper cataloging were implemented. I also found it odd that the police waited several hours to investigate the crime scene of Mary Jane Kelly. Valuable evidence was lost with each passing minute, yet the police refused to enter the room. I understand that forensic pathology was not yet available, but there must have been other means of analysing evidence at that time. It also seems quite peculiar that the murders stopped during the time that James Kelly was at Broadmoor. I believe if the police had realized that the reason the murders stopped was that the murder was detained, either in jail or an asylum, it could have led to his capture. The police could have looked at jail and asylum records to see who was serving time during the months that the murders stopped. Simple steps could have been taken to find a possible suspect, such as James Kelly. I believe there were several flaws in the police investigation, but the lack of thorough fact finding was a major mistake made by the British police of the day.
The story in Jack London’s book The People of The Abyss that stood out to me was about starvation. London spoke to a woman who’s husband was an engineer, but did not have the energy to find a steady position due to the lack of food. She, her husband and their two young daughters all lived in what London called a “hole.” They had no stove, so they were forced to cook their small portions of food in their fireplace. London recounts how the family always “rose from the table able and willing to eat more.” All four family members felt the affects of malnutrition, including exhaustion, sickness and lack of work. In order to support the family, the two daughters were forced to work miles away from their home, but due to their lack of energy they were often late for work and fined for their tardiness. The woman worked from morning until night making dresses for just cents a piece, simply trying to make enough money to feed her family. This story struck me as particularly sad because this family may have been able to break the cycle of poverty if only someone had given them a helping hand. It was sad that every member of the family had to work so hard only to make a few cents a day. I found that this story characterized the Victorian Era quite well, and explained the conditions in which the people lived in that time period.
Prior to reading Jack London’s story I thought of the Victorian Era as something full of grander and magnificence. I saw the Victorian Era as being full of wonderfully dressed people with money and social status, as well as a period of time brimming with excess. After reading stories from London’s book, and learning more about the time period, I now see the Victorian Era as grim and filled with an air of loss. The government of the time was not willing to help these people, or do much more than give them a free sandwich every now and then. The religious leaders of the day were insistent that being poor was a direct punishment from God, which was both false and degrading. The destitute people of the Victorian Era were taught to believe that their place in life was their fault, and that there was very little they could do to change it. Through our class lectures and reading London’s book, I have come to realize that the Victorian Era was nothing like what the majority of people believe. It was a truly depressing time, yet was full of very kind people who did not deserve their situation.
The story that stood out to me the most in Jack London’s The People of the Abyss was that of Frank Cavilla, the “gentle and affectionate husband and father” who lost his job and was unable to find employment. According to London, he “could not make both ends meet…[and] steady work could not be obtained” due to the conditions in the East Side. He was forced to watch his wife and four children starve before his eyes, and eventually fell ill himself due to malnutrition. After coping with this state of misery for eighteen months, he cut the throats of his wife and four children in order to save them from the horrific conditions in which they had been forced to live. Cavilla was arrested and taken to court, and soon after Jack London heard about his case. This story stood out to me because of the hopelessness that it portrays. Cavilla felt so sure that there was no possible way for their lives to improve that he killed his family in order to protect them from the horrible conditions, while allowing himself to go on living without having to provide for five additional people. This story was heartbreaking, and most definitely the one that stuck with me the most. I felt that it was one of the best portrayals of the desolate conditions—both physical and mental—that thousands of people were forced to endure in silence throughout the supposedly “prosperous” Victorian Era. As I put myself in Cavilla’s shoes and attempted to feel the emotions that he must have felt at the time in which he realized that things would never get better for him and his family, I realized how truly awful it must have been. For the people living in these horrific conditions, death often seemed a much better option than being forced to live a life full of misery, starvation, illness, and poverty.