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The People of the Abyss

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(1903)



The chief priests and rulers cry:-


“O Lord and Master, not ours the guilt,

We build but as our fathers built;

Behold thine images how they stand

Sovereign and sole through all our land.


“Our task is hard—with sword and flame,

To hold thine earth forever the same,

And with sharp crooks of steel to keep,

Still as thou leftest them, thy sheep.”


Then Christ sought out an artisan,

A low-browed, stunted, haggard man,

And a motherless girl whose fingers thin

Crushed from her faintly want and sin.


These set he in the midst of them,

And as they drew back their garment hem

For fear of defilement, “Lo, here,” said he,

“The images ye have made of me.”--JAMES RUSSELL LOWELL.


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Recent Forum Posts on The People of the Abyss

Interesting chapter on wages 1902 London

Jack London says there were 1,292,737 people living in London in 1902 who were living in households with incomes of 21 shillings per week or less. He did some sums to work out how a family of five would spend their money. He wrote the costs out in dollars, because he was writing for an American readership, and used an exchange rate of $5 to £1. Commodity US$ UK£ shillings+pence Rent 1.50 0.3 6,0 Bread 1.00 0.2 4,0 Meat 0.875 0.175 3,6 Vegetables 0.625 0.125 2,6 Coals 0.25 0.05 1,0 Tea 0.18 0.036 0,8.5 Oil 0.16 0.032 0,7.75 Sugar 0.18 0.036 0,8.5 Milk 0.12 0.024 0,5.75 Soap 0.08 0.016 0,3.75 Butter 0.20 0.04 0,9.5 Firewood 0.08 0.016 0,3.75 Total 5.25 1.05 21,0 21 shillings a week works out at £54 and 12 shillings a year. The book says that there would be many families with more than five members, and that there would be times when the main breadwinner would be unemployed, sick or otherwise unable to work. Then the family would be desperate. I sometimes thought Angel Clare was a bit stingy to Tess when he gave her £50 to keep herself for a year while he was away. I thought the real life George Gissing was a bit stingy too, when he paid his first wife £50 a year after separating from her. They maybe were a bit mean, but £50 a year was more than a lot of families had to live on. So when Bob Cratchet tried to provide for his family on fifteen shillings a week, Dickens was only exaggerating a little bit. The same chapter gave the living expenses for a single woman working as a telephonist: Rent, fire and light: $1.875 Board at home: $0.875 Board at office: $1.125 Street car hire: $0.375 Laundry: $0.25 Total: $4.50 I am not sure why the woman would have to pay two sets of board and rent. London says that many girls were in fact receiving $2.75 and $3.50 a week. $2.75, $3.50 and $4.50 correspond to £28 '12, £36 '8 and £46 '16. That means Jane Eyre's wages of £30 a year as governess, and Mary Garth's offer of £35 a year as school teacher were realistic.

The Salvation Army

The chapter which included Jack London queueing up for breakfast at the Salvation Army reminded me of a similar incident in Down and Out in Paris and London when George Orwell was given something to eat by them about thirty years later. OTOH, at least the Salvation Army were giving food to the destitute, but OTOH, the destitute were had to wait hours and were forced to listen to a lot of preaching afterwards. I have often wondered whether the Salvation Army took notice of George Orwell's criticism.

Victoria Cross 'winner' People of the Abyss

Jack London was credulous regarding the old sailor he met while waiting to get into the 'spike' one night :dupe: A spike was a shelter where the destitute might get shelter and food for a couple of nights in return for a day's hard work breaking rocks or picking apart old rope. The old man said he was 87 :skep: had seen action in military campaigns to China, India, and elsewhere, and that he had won a Victroria Cross but had been made to resign it after being court-marshalled for assaulting an officer who had insulted his mother :skep: :skep: Very few sailors won a VC; most were soldiers. Of them, eight winners of the VC were forced to give them up for committing a crime. None of them matched the circumstances of the man in the queue. To be fair, Jack London did not have access to the internet.

La Plus ca Change...

Read this book. It's short. It's shocking. It's powerful. England 100 years ago and it's like yesterday - the squalor still exists - now people don't starve to death covered with vermin, but children still suffer, lives are still hideous, and the underclass flourishes. Reading this, and Orwell's "Road to Wigan Pier", you become aware that not only Black slaves were exploited in Englnd (and America, too - See Upton Sinclair, "The Jungle"). The only difference between black and white slaves were that the whites thought that they were free, but were actually worse off than slaves with owners because they had no economic value to their masters, were totally expendable and easily replaceable from the common heap of labour. On the surface, things are totally diferent, however, we are again (or perhaps still) in a situation where there are more workers than jobs, and "the good employer is undercut by the bad, and the bad by the worse". Salutory.

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