This is another book that I read for my essay on physiognomy, degeneration, and the London slums at the Fin de Siecle, alongside The Nether World. While in terms of pure literary merit I think that Gissing’s novel outstrips A Child of the Jago easily, this novel is incredibly effective as a barely fictionalized account of life in the slums of East London at the end of the nineteenth century.
Dicky Perrott, the child of the novel’s title, is around 8 or 9 years old when we first meet him, though he looks several years younger. The Old Jago – based on the Old Nichol – is an area of slums that practically has its own laws and codes of honour. Policemen never venture in unless they are bolstered by numbers, and only then if one of the regular running battles turns particularly nasty. The novel follows Dicky as he grows up in his massively deprived surroundings, and as he falls into a life of petty crime, beginning with his stealing a watch and running home to show his father proudly what he had done. Then Father Sturt, the local parish priest, arrives and tries to offer the residents of the Jago a way out of crime and violence by encouraging them to go to Church. He sees potential in Dicky and arranges for him to work for a local shopkeeper – living in the Jago is enough to put perspective employers off so this is a real opportunity indeed. Sadly, though, Dicky’s job is sabotaged, and he ends up back where he began.
This is a relatively short book (173 pages in my edition) and it is unrelenting in its portrayal of the desperation prevalent in the Jago. Interspersed with that deprivation, though, are some really touching scenes which demonstrate that Dicky is far from “all bad”, and in fact is not really bad at all but actually only an innocent victim of the inescapable poverty that infects everyone in the slums. For instance, after stealing a clock from a neighbour’s dwelling, he is overcome by guilt and so steals a small music box from a nearby shop and hides it amongst the neighbour’s belongings as they move rooms. Similarly, Dicky finds a rare glimpse of comfort in telling all his woes and worries to a donkey that belongs to another Jago resident.
Early in the novel an elderly resident of the Jago takes Dicky aside and tells him that the only way out of the Jago is to become one of the High Mob – or a successful criminal – because he’ll never be able to get a job coming from the slums. Dicky seems to want to prove him wrong, and indeed he does find another way out. But not a happy one.
A Child of the Jago is raw and angry in many places, and is probably more successful even than The Nether World in portraying the stark realities of the London slums. It was seemingly very widely read at the time – indeed Jack London makes reference to it in his 1902 non-fiction account of the slums The People of the Abyss – but Morrison has since fallen off the radar. Not a huge amount is known about his life, in part because Morrison seems to have given conflicting stories of his past to different people. Now, just over 100 years later, it is interesting to compare images of poverty then and now, especially in the light of the news that child poverty in the UK actually went up over the last year or so, despite promises from the government that they would get rid of it completely. It seems that now we have different ways of trying to deal with poverty – the welfare state; minimum wage – but it isn’t working. A Child of the Jago reminds us that these are problems that we have alwyas had. Kids with knives (for instance) aren’t a modern phenomena; they have been with us for centuries… and we still haven’t found a way to stop it.