This is a recent read and I'm still reeling somewhat from this uncompromising, grim and (presumably) realistic 1896 novel, set in one of London's worst slum districts (the Jago of the title, based on the notorious 'Old Nichol' between Shoreditch and Bethnal Green). Maybe I was expecting something a bit closer to Dickens – albeit he died more than a quarter of a century before this was published. Still, while it's a tired old cliché to accuse Dickens of sentimentality, there's certainly little enough of that here. This short, bitter book is unsparing in its portrayal of the Jago's brutalised – and mostly brutal – inhabitants, and while a few of the characters, such as the repellent Aaron Weech – corrupter of youth and fence for stolen goods behind a bible-quoting veneer of would-be respectability – have a touch of the Dickensian about them, they are too realistically drawn to serve as period grotesques or stereotypes.
As the central character, young Dicky Perrott, grows up in this world of crime and violence, the only beacon of hope is the local clergyman, Father Sturt. But despite winning the respect of the locals through a mixture of charity, practicality and tough love, Sturt hasn't the power – as Morrison is realistic enough to admit – to change even Dicky's fate, let alone the Jago itself. Sturt is supposedly based on one Reverend Osborne Jay; it was he who persuaded Morrison to write about the Old Nichol (Morrison subsequently spent 18 months closely researching the area and speaking to its inhabitants). Jay himself had a radical – and somewhat alarming – solution as to how to rid the world of slums and slum-dwellers, as expounded in this interview, from the same year Jago was published. There's no suggestion, in this novel at least, that Morrison favoured such measures, although he's not reticent in portraying the Jago as, in effect, a cesspit crawling with human vermin. But this is tempered with sympathy and an understanding of the causes of such a situation, and the real tragedy of the novel is that Dicky is essentially good-hearted, but his cards were marked before he was born. “The Jago's got you,” one character tells him. And the only way out “except gaol and the gallows“ is to become a 'high mobsman' – ie, the upper echelon of villains.
A Child Of The Jago is also noteworthy for its use of slang ('click' for a piece of thievery; 'toy' for a watch, 'screw' for burgle - a term that also appears in James Curtis's novels of 40 years later), the closely observed codes of behaviour that prevail in such areas, and insight into various arcane criminal activities. And for a flavour of the action, here's Morrison's description of a street fight between two women from rival factions of the Jago:
“Sprawled on her face in the vile roadway lay a writhing woman and screamed, while squeezed under her arm was a baby
with mud in its eyes and a cut cheek, crying weakly; and spread over all, clutching her prey by hair and wrist, Sally Green
hung on the nape like a terrier, jaws clenched, head shaking.
Norah Walsh, vanquished champion, now somewhat recovered, looked from a window, saw her enemy vulnerable, and ran out, armed with a bottle. She stopped at the kerb to knock the bottom off the bottle, and then with an exultant shout seized Sally Green by the hair and stabbed her about the face with the jagged points. Blinded with blood, Sally released her hold on Mrs. Perrott and rolled on her back, struggling fiercely; but to no end, for Norah Walsh, kneeling on her breast, stabbed and stabbed again, till pieces of the bottle broke away. Sally's yells and plunges ceased, and a man pulled Norah off. On him she turned, and he was fain to run, while certain Learys found a truck which might carry Sally to the hospital.”