April 2011


No – the title isn’t misspelled. (However – warnings for plot spoilers of Mere Mortals)

One of the things I wanted to explore in Mere Mortals was the sheer disposability of human life. I remember that Dickens’ expose of the terrible treatment of orphans in Oliver Twist helped to start the authorities to look at them, and to improve matters–and Kingsley’s Water Babies highlighted the plight of chimney sweeps, which again led to reform.

I’m a bit too late to reform the Victorian Age, though, but I did want to explore some aspects of life that make our modern hair stand on end.

Orphans were pretty much human detritus–we see that in Oliver Twist, of course. Boys from the orphanage are simply objects, not humans to be raised and cared for in the way they are today. When Oliver plays up, asking for more food (the cheek of it!) he’s sold off to a local tradesman–which would have been a step up, if he’d managed to keep the job. He certainly had more chance surviving out of the workhouse.

Greediest Boy In The School

In Mere Mortals, the three young men, Crispin, Myles and Jude, are a little more fortunate, at least in some respects. They are obviously natural sons of well-to-do men, and better still, men who (in the absence of DNA testing and the authorities we have today such as the Child Support Agency) who feel that they should provide the minimum of decent education for those sons. But that’s as far as it went. Once those orphans left their preparatory schools, there would be no money for further education–or apprenticeships. One of them dreams of being a barrister, and that would have been impossible without funding. They might, if fortunate, be placed in an office somewhere as a clerk, or perhaps in a shop, or even–like Jane Eyre–as a tutor, but without more education than they have (two of them didn’t even take their final exams) even this last was an unlikely option.

Thing is, that orphanages and workhouses were good places to find workers for employers, scrupulous and otherwise. Today there would be a national/international uproar if you walked into a school or orphanage and said “I’ll have three, please,” and took them off, no questions asked, but back in 1847 it was a real possibility. Especially if the owner of the establishment was unscrupulous too. If he was being paid for a boy’s education–but no-one had ever checked on that boy–why not let him go, continue to take the education money and pocket the difference?

If they were taken away, no-one would bother to check up on them once they had gone. Perhaps a schoolfriend might write, if he knew where his friend was going, but the headmaster was unlikely–once rid of his responsibility–to ensure that his ex-charge was being treated well. Look at Becky Sharp, you can be sure that her headmistress, once having got shot of the acid-tongued girl, couldn’t have cared less if the girl ended up as a white slave or white slaver.

And then–if the person who HAD taken these orphans got tired of them? Or they didn’t work well at the job they were given? Or didn’t suit in some way? It’s quite likely that their future would become a little less than rosy–and if they did disappear–who’d care? Who’d check?  All the employer/abductor had to say was “Oh, they ran away, ungrateful wretches, I’ll give another boy the opportunity he obviously didn’t want.”

and in the days before Social Services, phones, email, TV…Who’d know? Who’d care?

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