Someone asks --
In re the Regency East End ... Would you happen to have any book recommendations?
Indeed I do:
Berm, Chaim, London's East End, (mostly late Victorian Information.)
Gerzina, Gretchen Holbrook, Black London: Life before Emancipation.
Holmes, Thomas, London's Underworld. here.
Low, Donald, The Regency Underworld.
|Victorian East London Dore|
Rose, Millicent, The East End of London. (I don't have this one myself, so I can't vouch for it, but I keep meaning to look it up in a library.)
Two Citizens, How to Live in London. here.
Have a look at the maps here and here.
Here's a Victorian account:
We dismiss our cab: it would be useless in the strange, dark byeways, to which we are bound: natives of which will look upon us as the Japanese looked upon us the first European travellers in the streets of Jeddo. The missionary, the parish doctor, the rent collector (who must be a bold man indeed), the policeman, the detective, and the humble undertaker, are the human beings from without who enter this weird and horrible Bluegate Fields.
We arrived at Whitechapel Police Station, to pick up the superintendent of savage London. He had some poor specimens - maundering drunk - in his cells already - and it was hardly nine o'clock.
We plunge into a maze of courts and narrow streets of low houses - nearly all the doors of which are open, showing kitchen fires blazing far in the interior, and strange figures moving about.
At dark corners, lurking men keep close to the wall; and the police smile when we wonder what would become of a lonely wanderer who should find himself in these regions unprotected. "He would be stripped to his shirt" was the candid answer - made while we threaded an extraordinary tangle of dark alleys where two men could just walk abreast, under the flickering lamps jutting from the ebon walls, to mark the corners. Jerrold Blanchard, London: A Pilgrimage 1872
I feel like I gotta get up on one of my hobbyhorses here.
|London workmen Victorian|
And they were ordinary folk. The men and women in these stacked-up, decrepit buildings and dirty streets were ordinary, well-meaning, hard-working people, not monsters. The violent gangs hanging out on street corners were a dangerous minority who preyed on and were hated by everyone else.
|Clothes sellers, late C19|
When the heroine makes a wrong turn and ends up in a bad neighborhood, she hasn't fallen into a pit of vipers. Those people passing her on the street, the ones living three flights up in every building, are no better nor worse than the well-dressed crowd she'd meet in Mayfair. Her maidservant grew up a block to the left. Her cook has a brother living down at the end of the alley and visits him every Sunday. Your heroine's problem is not that the streets are populated with slavering hyenas. It's that she's conspicuous.
In My Lord and Spymaster I try to show the heroine as someone who comes from the mean streets, who understands them, who recognizes the dangers but doesn't see the place as some filthy hell filled with demons.
|St Giles, in the Regency. See the streetlamp|
From the outside, all rookeries look the same, but some are more dangerous than others.
Ludmill Street was peaceable in its rough way. Safe enough, if you knew what you were doing. When a pair of Irishman approached, making monetary offers, she snapped back, sharp, in Italian. They left her alone, thinking she belonged to the Italians. There were lots of hot-tempered Italians in this section who didn't like even their whores approached by Irishmen. A few hundred yards further on, she sent an Italian boy on his way with a Gaelic curse. Lots of hot-tempered Irishmen in this quarter, too.
When she got to the Limehouse, to Asker Street, it would be considerably more dangerous. She'd be unwise to visit alone.
How this relates to writing -- I'm good with 'she wandered into a bad section of town' trope as a reasonable way to put the heroine in peril. But I regret when these scenes imply that the poor of London were a seething cauldron of evil into which she had incautiously been tipped. I dislike the: 'they look like me and are well-dressed = good; They look different and are poor = rabid animals' equation because it strikes too close to attitudes from our own era.
|This is Bond Street. Not as fancy as we imagine it.|
. . . much later ETA:
I got a review on a short story of mine that said -- paraphrasing here -- "Your heroine falls on hard times and works in Whitechapel scrubbing floors. I can't believe that. Is 'scrubbing floors' supposed to be a euphemism?"
The implication is, all the thousands of young women in Whitechapel were whores.
The implication is, there were no respectable poor living in Whitechapel.
The implication is, poverty = depravity.
When we look at the past, we see our opinions and expectations reflected back at us.