London labour is not a text that holds up as a work of science in the manner of Principia or The Descent of Man. Insofar as today’s standards of objectivity are concerned, the methods used to assemble the volumes are quaint. Statisticians would find the numerous lists that pepper the book laughable, not to mention the means employed to ascertain the facts within them. (Though the opportunity to learn the rates of drunkenness among button-molders, carpenters, and the clergy might not be without some appeal.)

Oral historians would find much objectionable as well; and Mayhew’s subjective style is but the first of his sins. He questioned his middle-class assumptions more than most of his contemporaries, but kept many of them: his attitudes towards the Irish, Jews, and people of color were all too commonplace, especially in someone so otherwise perceptive. Mayhew regarded many of his subjects as being “in a state of almost brutish ignorance,” though he felt that the fault for this “national disgrace” was “assuredly an evil of our own [his middle- and upper-class readers] creation.” He also made judgments about which street people were or weren’t deserving of their state, a violation of the rules of oral history, if not advocacy.

A further flaw was Mayhew’s occasional tendency to edit or exaggerate the speech of his subjects to suit his editorial needs. His take on Cockney dialect occasionally resembles the speech of Jem Bags, the antihero of his 1834 farce, The Wandering Minstrel—one suspects for humorous purposes. More rarely, when Mayhew wanted to press home the righteousness of some cause, the diction of his interviewee might suddenly become more formal, suspiciously so, than it was the preceding passages.

Its foibles aside, London Labour does not deserve to be relegated to Victorian Studies. Not only do its charms strike the sight—so does its merit win the soul. Indeed, it is a genotext, the first of its kind, and should be required reading for any aspiring journalist, particularly at a time that has seen the reassertion of advocacy in the news. (Oxford University Press’s recent one-volume abridged text, edited by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, would serve the purpose well.) Although the fiction of journalistic objectivity may be wearing thin, the legions of would-be, new-media polemicists, on their smartphones or at the office, would do well to recall that the soundest opinions are produced by feet on the ground—and that talking to ordinary people beats generalizing about them.

There is a reason W. H. Auden put Mayhew (only half in jest) atop “the list” of the “greatest Victorian Englishmen,” who “among social anthropologists . . . is unique . . . in his . . . passion for idiosyncrasies of character and speech such as only the very greatest novelists have exhibited.” His prose, devoted mostly to topical themes, remains fresh and vital some 160 years down the road because he took the time to observe the simplest of human decencies: he listened. And brought what he heard to life. People are never props in London Labour and the London Poor; and though they live in Other London, deep in the underbelly of the Crystal Palace, to meet them is to grasp fraternity in hand. 

 

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Jeffrey Greggs is the associate editor of The New Criterion.