An Interview with Diana Maltz

Dr. Diana Maltz is a specialist in late-Victorian literature and culture. She has been a professor at SOU since 1999 and served as Chair of the Language, Literature, and Philosophy Department. Dr. Maltz received her BA in Literature and History from Bennington College, and both her MA and PhD in English from Stanford University. In addition to about twenty published essays and articles, she is the author of British Aestheticism and the Urban Working Classes: Beauty for the People, 1870-1914, published in 2006 by Palgrave Macmillan. She is recently back from a UK-US Fulbright Fellowship in England and we sat down to talk about her new book, a critical edition of Arthur Morrison’s A Child of the Jago, published by Broadview Press this past fall.

EB: What is A Child of the Jago about?

DM: This Victorian novel tells the story of Dicky Perrott, a boy growing up in the Jago, a squalid, impoverished, violent slum, based on the notorious Old Nichol in London’s East End. Dicky acclimates to the ethics of the Jago and becomes a skilled thief, working for the neighborhood fence and dreaming of his ultimate ascent into the High Mob. But he also has leanings toward respectability, and these are cultivated by the local priest who would save him from Jago ways.

EB: How did you get interested in Morrison?

DM: I was lucky enough to study Morrison’s Jago and some of his short stories as a grad student in the mid-1990s. Peter Miles’s excellent paperback edition of Jago had just come out through Dent/Everyman in 1995. I like to think my cohort was the first generation to read Jago in a classroom setting. Everyone was very struck by the novel. Several friends from that class teach it now that they are professors.

EB: So you committed yourself to a critical edition of it. What is a critical edition, exactly?

DM: In a critical edition, an editor frames the original novel with a critical introduction, a timeline of the author’s life, footnotes to clarify terms in the main text of the novel, and a bibliography of recommended readings. Sometimes editors include maps and illustrations. If the novel is written in a dialect unfamiliar to the general reader, the editor might add a glossary, as I did. An editor of a critical edition also works to even out variations in spelling or correct typos through “silent edits.”

Many of us are familiar with the Penguin Classics editions from college: these are standard critical editions. However, the Broadview Editions are special because the end of each edition includes cultural appendices, which are excerpts from relevant texts written around the same time as the novel. These include reviews of the novel, but they also extend to thematic writings beyond it. Depending on the novel, you might find a mix of religious tracts, medical treatises, or parliamentary reports, just to name a few.

For A Child of the Jago, I built up a selection of appendices relevant to slum life. I underlined the topics that haunt the novel and that preoccupied Victorian social reformers seeking to cleanse and reform the city: eugenics, hooliganism, women’s sweated labor. I also documented late-Victorian efforts in cultural philanthropy – that is, efforts to teach slum-dwellers higher values and tastes. These charitable schemes are parodied in the novel.

What in particular prompted you to develop Jago as a critical edition?

DM: I started teaching it my first year at SOU in 1999. By then, the only available edition was the Academy Chicago edition, which is very bare-bones: no footnotes, no appendices, only one map, a very short biographical introduction, and a short bibliography of recommended readings at the end. I started bringing in my own additional texts to class as teaching supplements: photos, maps, non-fictional testimonies about the neighborhood. These would later form the basis of some of the cultural appendices of my edition.

It seemed the natural next step to write to Broadview and ask if I could do an edition of the novel for them.

EB: Who is the audience for the work? It seems ideally suited for classroom use.

DM: Yes, Broadview Editions are marketed as teaching editions, primarily for the undergraduate classroom. One of the most positive aspects of the experience was that SOU awarded me a President’s Mini-Grant through which I was able to hire an SOU student, Carly Dreyfus, as an editorial assistant. Carly was a tremendous help. She gave me insights into what modern student readers would want footnoted and what they would find interesting as appendices.

EB: How does A Child of the Jago compare with other slum literature?

DM: We can situate A Child of the Jago in a couple of literary and social contexts. It frequently gets allied with the late-nineteenth-century literary movement called Naturalism, famously advanced by the French novelist Émile Zola. Zola was interested in the dire combination of industrial urbanism, poverty, addiction, and violence. He framed Naturalism as a kind of literary science that sought to represent the lowlife methodically and objectively.

But Morrison was himself very resistant to being pulled under the umbrella of any one movement. In fact, my edition includes his Preface to the Third Edition of Jago, where he upbraids a critic H.D. Traill for labeling him as a “Realist” and for then saying his Jago is too foul to be genuinely realistic. Morrison found himself at the center of a public debate – trying to defend his creative practices as an artist while also asserting the truthfulness of his representation of the Old Nichol slum.

In the 1890s, there was also a small school of writers who were experimenting with writing phonetically on the page in order to recreate Cockney speech. They included Morrison, Somerset Maugham, Rudyard Kipling, and other authors who are largely neglected today, such as Edwin Pugh, William Pett Ridge, and Richard Whiteing. Morrison also tends to get paired with the English novelist George Gissing because both wrote on London poverty, and certain aspects of Morrison’s Jago resonate with Gissing’s earlier novel The Nether World (1889).

EB: What was the most challenging thing about preparing the work?

DM: I was intent on selecting appendices that professors would really want, and so I sent out a survey to about 20 people who teach the novel. I included my provisional table of contents in the email, urging colleagues to suggest additions and also replacements for my original texts. Everyone had new appendices to suggest, but no one questioned my original choices. So the appendices ballooned. At one point, I had written introductions to about 40 of them, and then I bit the bullet and emailed my editor to ask what my allotted word count was for that section of the book. I had more than double the permitted word count! So I spent a very dark January hacking away at my sources and reducing the appendices to 20 sources.

But in the long run, it was a very good thing that I did ask people, since I arrived at more diverse and interesting selections than I would have on my own. Professor-friends gave me permission forego more predictable, canonical sources in order to make space for lesser-known writers. I have more texts by women than I originally included. I have two excerpts from the oral history of Arthur Harding, a gangster and ex-con who had grown up in the original Old Nichol slum. The Hardings were a notoriously powerful local family, something like the feuding gang families of Ranns and Learys in the novel.

EB: Tell us a bit about Arthur Morrison. He seems to have been quite a colorful character—a journalist, novelist and art collector. He even wrote detective fiction—he’s been compared to Arthur Conan Doyle.

DM: Morrison was by all accounts a shy, reserved person who kept a low profile. He grew up in the respectable working class in Poplar, East London: his father, an engine fitter at the docks, contracted tuberculosis and died just before Morrison turned eight. Morrison’s mother then took on the management of her mother’s sewing goods shop (“haberdashery” in British English). Morrison went to local schools and, as a teenager, left school to work as an office boy for an architect for the London School Board. He rose to the status of Third-Class Clerk before he left in 1886. His next job was as a secretary to the Beaumont Institute, which administered the People’s Palace, a philanthropic cultural center in the East End. While working for the People’s Palace, Morrison served as sub-editor of The Palace Journal and published short sketches there about London life.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Morrison’s biography for the modern reader is his reticence about his working-class roots. When Traill and others questioned his representation of the Jago, he might have silenced them by asserting his identity as an East Ender, but he did not. In my book introduction, I suggest at least a couple of reasons for his reserve. First, his home neighborhood of Poplar was at least a 45-minute walk from the Old Nichol. So Morrison never identified with his Nichol subjects at all, but positioned himself as an observer, recording their ways almost anthropologically. Morrison’s further silences and prevarications in other contexts — during author interviews and census investigations — indicate a general reluctance to confess his working-class origins. But we shouldn’t consider this mere snobbery on his part: it was the survival strategy of an author trying to make his way in late-Victorian culture. He had a wife and child at home, and, given that he was a self-employed writer, his class position was a vulnerable one.

He had begun his writing career by contributing columns to magazines. To be a good journalist and earn a living by his pen, he had to be versatile. The detective fictions you mention were a lucrative venture, especially since he began his most famous series, the Martin Hewitt stories, in the wake of Sherlock Holmes’s descent over Niagara Falls. He did so at the urging of his editor, who saw there was a new gap in the market. His detective fictions have a following among readers today.

Morrison had grown up close to the docks of East London, where curio shops sold items from the Far East. He collected prints and paintings from Japan long before they were valued as rarities. He eventually gained prominence as an authority of Asian art, especially after publishing The Painters of Japan in 1911. The sales of his collections were the basis of his fortune – not his royalties from fiction writing. He worked as an art consultant (and unofficially as an art dealer) long after he ceased writing slum fictions.

EB: Was Jago controversial? Well-received?

DM: The novel was controversial and well-received. It went through several editions relatively quickly. But the critic Traill was not the only one irked by Morrison’s representation of the Jago. Morrison’s fictional slum is the site of vivid brutality, with spontaneous outbreaks of large-scale gang violence. Crowds rampage through the streets brandishing street railings and pokers as weapons. Women and children join in the fighting. One female character gnaws the napes of her victims like a dog; another uses a broken bottle to slash the face of her enemy. The actual residents of the Old Nichol slum and several philanthropists and school administrators at work there took umbrage at this portrait of their district as a zone of barbarity. Morrison’s friend and mentor, the local minister, Rev. Arthur Osborne Jay, felt compelled to back up Morrison’s claims in a letter to the press. It had been Jay who invited Morrison to visit the slum in 1894 and who urged him to write on it. In my footnotes, I trace places where Morrison seems to draw on Jay’s own published writings for statistical information and anecdotes.

The verdict today is that Morrison was selective in the facts that he appropriated for the book. It is true that there were terrible street fights and clearly some historical figures were violent alcoholics whom the locals feared and avoided. Like Dicky, children did steal tobacco off the back of vans (“van-dragging”). But Morrison omitted the presence of civilized institutions within the boundaries of the slum: a savings bank, a cloth warehouse, schools, chapels, and a strong network of charitable organizations serving the community. One philanthropist provided children with country holidays away from the city. There was an active association for tenants’ rights, which sought to expose absentee slumlords. Morrison ignores all of these in order to portray the slum as hopeless and impermeable by the wider society and, in some scenes, he represents the inhabitants as unselfconscious, atomistic, and avaricious.

In her excellent history of the Old Nichol, The Blackest Streets (2008), Sarah Wise also notes that by the time Morrison arrived on the scene to research and write his novel, demolitions had already begun on the slum and the social fabric of the neighborhood had been transformed. Original residents had moved away and squatters had arrived from other parts of the city to camp in the buildings about to be torn down, in the hope that they could get compensation from the London County Council. So, in essence, Morrison was recording a moment that had already passed into history.

EB: I know that the book has a lot of interesting slang.

DM: Yes, this novel is unusually immersive: it pulls you into its own universe because of the intensity and allure and comprehensiveness of the Jagos’ language. My students talk about getting “into it.”

For instance, in one passage in the book, the High Mobsmen have gathered to lay odds on a neighborhood fistfight, and the locals identify each Mobsman by his crimes: “Him as done the sparks in from Regent Street for nine centuries o’ quids” [the man who stole the diamonds from Regent Street for £900]; “Him as done five stretch for a snide bank bill an’ they never found the oof” [the man who served five years in prison for a counterfeit bank check and they never found the money]; “Him as maced the bookies in France an’ shot the nark in the boat” [the man who swindled the bookmakers in France and shot the informer in the boat (probably the channel boat back to England)]. These lines are pretty intensely Jago and denser than most. But it is almost uncanny how only a few pages into the book readers almost-unconsciously acquire enough fluency to read along in a gallop (although the footnotes help!).

One of the great early lines in the novel occurs when Dicky’s mother warns him that if he steals, he will be arrested and sent to prison. He dismisses her, saying, “It’s the mugs wot git took” (it’s the fools that get caught).

While I was working on the edition, I used to joke that I was “in the Jago,” and like Dicky, I might never get out. But one of the pleasures of being in the Jago was that I had people to talk to who were just as absorbed in the book as I was. My editor in Canada and I never met, only communicated by email, but I loved that someone else was deep in details of the novel with me and wanted to produce the best possible edition of it.

EB: Can you tell us more about the slang?

DM: Many of the 600+ footnotes define Cockney terms and thieves’ cant in the novel. I am going to leave you with a few words and phrases to share with friends in the hope that we will all be talking broad Jago one day.

    Peter-claimer: a thief who steals luggage from train platforms
    Snidesman: a counterfeiter
    Lob-crawler: a thief who robs the cash register
    Click: robbery
    Yannups: money
    Hook: a pickpocket
    Toy and tackle: a watch with its chain
    Pogue-hunter: pickpocket dealing in purses
    To flimp: to steal by having one person bump into the victim from the back, while another robs him from the front
    In stir: in prison
    To cut one’s lucky: to make a getaway

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

DM: Thank you.

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels was released by Oxford University Press in March of 2020.
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