Earlier this month, I gave a talk on life in a Victorian slum at the British Crime Historians Symposium, where I looked at how the press depicted those who lived in a particular Welsh slum at the end of the 19th century.
The Victorian press increasingly, as the century progressed, looked at slum life in very black and white terms, and this was particularly noticeable when newspapers discussed the female residents.
They were either domestic angels – fighting their grim surroundings by trying to present as clean a face to the world as possible (both in terms of their own looks, and those of their house, whitewashing walls, keeping their rooms tidy, and so on) – or slatterns, unfeminine women with their sleeves rolled up, exposing – the horror – bare arms and fighting in the street with other women, whilst their children roamed around with local animals, both kids and animals being hungry and neglected.
This black and white depiction of slum dwellers, its reliance on generalisations rather than the individual experience, has also been evident in two contemporary media items this week.
Firstly, we had the opening episode of The Victorian Slum on BBC2. This ‘reality’ series, fronted, rather oddly, not by a historian but by a scientist, recreates a Victorian slum (apparently a set) and fills it with 21st century residents, in order to show them coping with the trials of life as a member of the 19th century underclass.
The series is arranged in a chronological fashion, so the opening episode was, apparently, the 1860s. We had the familiar tropes of Victorian working-class depictions, so a shared tenement, doss house, outdoor privy, and so on. A range of occupations were shown, including the doss house keeper and matchbox makers.
So far, so good; but the episode was full of sweeping generalisations that failed to show the wide range of experiences of Victorian life. It’s a drawback of limited time that such programmes assume that our ancestors lived a far more hegemonous life than we do today – yet they had an individual experience, just as we do now.
Not everyone in a doss house slept standing up over ropes, because doss houses were different. Not everyone failed to make a living sufficient to keep their families going, even if they never managed to move out of their working-class area. But this episode of The Victorian Slum made it look like everyone went through the same experience, thus making Victorian history (or this version of it) both simplistic and misleading.
We also had incredibly clean faces and clothes on these individuals; the watercress sellers were sent to Covent Garden, where, unsurprisingly, the tourists were keen to give the strangely dressed people with a TV crew accompanying them lots of money. The money was also modern rather than the 19th century equivalent, which made modern life intrude rather strangely into the programme.
It’s also very much a London-based programme. Life in the Manchester slums, as Engels described in the 1840s, could be particularly grim; my research into the slums of Birmingham and Newport has revealed differences to the London experience. Therefore, the series provides a generalised, simplistic view of one particular region, rather than a more nuanced account of how life in the slums could vary from place to place – not just form the 1860s to 1870s, for example.
Meanwhile, on the BBC’s online Magazine site today, we had The Victorian Slum‘s presenter, Michael Mosley, give us his guide to ‘how to eat like a Victorian‘. Unsurprisingly, this was a similarly generalised perspective – ‘slum dwellers…lived mainly on bread, gruel and broth’, and ‘the children of the slums were undernourished, anaemic, rickety and very short’ (what, ALL of them?).
Then we are told that ‘most people’ had physically demanding jobs that meant ‘they were active for 50 to 60 hours a week’, and later, that ‘many Victorians’ worked a 12 hour, six day week (so 72 hours a week). Does he mean ‘most people’ or most working class people, or most working class men, or simply, SOME people?
The meals are described as though everyone from a certain class would have eaten the same way, regardless of their job, their location (what about differences between rural agricultural workers and urban workers?), their age, or health.
So although it’s great that there is this continued interest in the press and on television about life for our Victorian ancestors, the generalisations and simplistic recreations of Victorian life actually risk distorting what life was really like, creating a false history that becomes, like Chinese whispers, gradually accepted.
And the biggest disappointment, for me, is the failure to recognise the individuality of life and existence, and to assume, instead, that what life was like for one man or woman was fundamentally identical to others, because of their shared class.
The second episode of The Victorian Slum is on Monday 17 October at 9pm on BBC2.