Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Sarah Wise: The Blackest Streets.

Historically accurate, and highly evocative of life in late-Victorian London. The subject of the book - the ghetto made up of thirty or so streets in Bethnal Green known collectively as the 'Old Nicholl' - comes to life in this book. Indeed, such is the nature of the East End, that whilst to Old Nichol was demolished more than a century ago, many readers will instantly recognise parts of neighbouring streets and lanes that Ms Wise describes in such detail. People come and go, but Brick Lane for example never really changes. May it always be so!

The squalor and suffering, the cold acceptance of a miserable life and an early death, all are discussed. Of particular interest is the discussion of infant mortality amongst the lower working classes, and Ms.Wise's questioning of why these wretched people were so readily accused by society of inflicting death on their offspring. The numbers, she suggests, do not support what was accepted as fact at the time.

There is inevitibly something voyeuristic about such books, and this one does shock as well as fascinate. That, however, does not detract from the educational value of the work.

To make the most of this book, I would strongly advise first reading Arthur Morrison's "A Child of the Jago" (1896), which was effectively a fictionalised account of life in the Nichol, but one which features cameo appearences from a number of real life characters. Indeed, one of the greatest forgotten heroes of social reform, "Father" Anthony Osbourne Jay, of Holy Trinity, is immortalised as "Father Sturt" by Morrison. The latter book is small and easy to read, and it will give the reader a familiarity with the subject.

Likewise, I would always advise anybody interested in the history of the Jewish ghetto in Whitechapel, which lay just across the Bethnal Green Road, to read Isreal Zangwill's "Children of the Ghetto" (1892). Dramatisation was often used as a means of making social points in the period in question, and Morrison and Zangwill are required reading for anybody interested in social reform.

There seems to be a renewed interest in the history of the East End at present, and this book capitalises on that. It is clearly meticulously researched, well illustrated, and of high educational value.  8/10

Sarah Wise. The Blackest Streets, Bodley Head (2008)

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