Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose
At the moment I am reading G.W.M. Reynolds’ Mysteries of London. Written in the 1830s, it is now considered by some as the first steampunk novel. I was pointed to the book by Asa Briggs through his masterly tome Victorian Cities. I have no idea of its the length – I have it on my Kindle. Suffice to say that I am now on chapter CXXV and am not yet 50% through the story.
The plot is no surprise to readers of Victorian improving literature: fallen women, honest journeymen and tradesmen ruined at the hands of dastardly noblemen, unscrupulous bankers and speculators; aristocrats who pay their debts of honour within a matter of hours while letting their tradesmen lose their livelihoods by refusing to pay them for months; a wronged hero and a cast of thousands, mostly of a disreputable nature. Add to this mixture a corrupt body politic, a callous judiciary who show nothing but contempt for the poor while indulging the high spirits of the aristocracy and what you have is a super-long novel that condemns the whole of British (English?) society. You can however, skip tens of pages at a time when the author starts spouting off about the one true saviour &.c &c. &c. To Reynolds’ credit, however, professional clerics and the Church of England in particular also come in for a good lashing.
The difference between Reynolds and Dickens is Reynolds’ total lack of sentimentalism. This is a documentary novel where occasionally the characters rather mysteriously have a grasp of the statistics regarding their particular calling over and above what they should reasonably know. They also have a tendency to regale their companions with the story of how they came to sink so low – a literary device that lets the reader see many aspects of how the poor were oppressed in so many different industries and callings. The novel, however, was not written just as an entertainment. As mentioned before, this is rather an essay upon the plight of those members of the British population who have the misfortune not to belong to the aristocracy or to the highest class of capitalists – not that these latter are themselves completely safe from ruin and degradation.
Another great difference between Reynolds and Dickens is the fact that Reynolds does not only describe society; he examines it and the causes of its corruption and economic instability.
The most surprising elements of the book, however, is the fact that what Reynolds wrote 180 years ago is still true today: irresponsible banks and unscrupulous speculators (now called fund managers) who play with other people’s hard-earned money for their own enrichment while their victims find themselves on the street; the duality of the legal system where the aristos get fined (for them) meaningless sums (at least they do get fined – we all know about the infamous driving offences of the Saxe-Coburg, sorry, Windsor family that are never punished) for acts of high-spiritedness while the plebs who commit the same offences get jailed. The list is interminable.
For any of you, be you British, American, European or whatever, who think that you live in a free society where everyone is to some extent equal; I recommend that you read this book. You will find that, omitting the absolute misery and squalor in which people lived in the early 19th century, we really haven’t progressed that much. Admittedly we are cleaner, healthier and materially better-off and better fed, but we are also more productive and more profitable for our masters.
As far as the economic gulf that separates us from our “betters”, it still remains the same – as does our reverence for such exalted beings, perhaps now both the gulf and our reverence are even greater.
Read the book. You will be surprised by how contemporary the issues and social and economic abuses are. Even then, for example, Tower Hamlets had a reputation for being a sinkhole!