London lowlife in fiction

Course Dates: 20/09/19 - 08/11/19
Time: 10:15 - 12:15
Location: KS - Keeley Street
Sarah Wise

We will explore the themes of poverty, politics, gender and ethnicity in London at the end of the 19th century/start of the 20th century through the eyes of writers of fiction, but also through the testimony of their non-fiction contemporaries – social investigators, government officials, journalists and philanthropists.


What is the course about?

How fiction writers reflected the tumultuous fin de siècle – its class relations, new-found interest in structural poverty, and the shortcomings of late-capitalism to provide a basic living for many Londoners. We will explore each author’s approach to the subject matter, and the historical background to each work of fiction, identifying any gaps in the material, inconsistencies and bias. We will also be looking at narrative style and literary genre.

Tutor biography
Sarah Wise is an award-winning writer and historian. She teaches literature in the English Department of City University London, and nineteenth-century social history and literature at the University of California’s London Outreach Center.
Her interests are London/urban history, working-class history, medical history, psychogeography, and nineteenth-century literature and reportage.
Her books include Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad-Doctors in Victorian England; The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave Robbery in 1830s London; and The Blackest Streets: The Life and Death of a Victorian Slum.

What will we cover?

London’s socio-economic situation; changes in literary style; class relations and political movements; and various London locations, including Lambeth, Soho, Whitechapel, Seven Dials, Shoreditch, Shadwell.
Our first session will be an introduction to the topics/authors, and then, from session 2 onwards, we will explore the following works (in this order):

* A Child of the Jago by Arthur Morrison (1896) (Chronic poverty, street violence, Church of England charitable work, Social Darwinism, literary ‘Naturalism’, Shoreditch)

* The Hooligan Nights by Clarence Rook (1899) (Selected chapters) (Juvenile delinquency, personal ‘moral failure’, Cockney cynicism, policing, Lambeth)

* In Darkest London by Margaret Harkness (1889) (Selected chapters) (Salvation Army, women’s experiences of poverty, factory girls, feminism, unions, south Whitechapel)

* Sissero’s Return by Henry Woode Nevinson (1895) (The black and Asian experience of London, Dock-life, the Thames, mixed-race marriages, Shadwell)

* No 5 John Street by Richard Whiteing (1899) (Luxury trades & poverty wages, the slum ‘Amazon’, relations between the upper and labouring classes, the West End)

* The Children of the Ghetto by Israel Zangwill (1892) (Selected chapters) (The Jewish experience, assimilation and its dilemmas, Anglo-Zionism, Whitechapel)

* The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad (1907) (Anarchism, the Home Office, threats to social ‘order’, Scotland Yard, Soho).

What will I achieve?
By the end of this course you should be able to...

-Explain the major literary trends of the late 1880s through to the early 20th century.
- Identify literary techniques that can be described as fore-runners to Modernism/the Modernist movement.
- Define how the authors in question use irony as a means of presenting subversive points of view.
- Identify elements in the texts which contemporaries will have seen as ‘shocking’ / ‘revolutionary’ in terms of subject matter.
- Identify key concerns expressed about London at the end of the 19th century.
-Pursue further reading on these subjects, with a detailed bibliography/secondary reading list for each session.

What level is the course and do I need any particular skills?

No previous skills or knowledge required, but curiosity, an appetite for reading, plus a willingness to engage with occasionally distressing subject matter, will be very helpful.

How will I be taught, and will there be any work outside the class?

There is quite a lot of reading involved, though extracts will also be suggested if you do not have time to complete an entire book.
Teaching will be delivered via mini-lecture and seminar
Students can give a short talk on a text they have enjoyed but this is not mandatory.

Are there any other costs? Is there anything I need to bring?

Most of the 7 works are out of copyright and are available to read online (URLS links for the entire books below); they can also be purchased relatively inexpensively or borrowed from a library. All readings can be found online except ‘In Darkest London’ by Margaret Harkness, which is currently only available for around £12 in a recent paperback reprint. You may wish to consider putting in an ‘inter-library loan’ request at your local library to obtain any or all of the works, if you prefer to read paper copies.

Here are the links for the readings for the rest of the course:
A Child of the Jago
The Hooligan Nights
Sissero’s Return (in the volume Neighbours of Ours)
Number 5 John Street
Children of the Ghetto
The Secret Agent

When I've finished, what course can I do next?

Please see our range of Literature courses under Humanities in the prospectus and under History, Culture and Writing on the website at

General information and advice on courses at City Lit is available from the Student Centre and Library on Monday to Friday from 12:00 – 19:00.
See the course guide for term dates and further details

Tutor Biographies
We’re sorry. We don’t have a bio ready for the tutor of this class at the moment, but we’re working on it! Watch this space.

Book your place

Course Code: HLT23

Fri, day, 20 Sep - 08 Nov '19

Duration: 8 sessions (over 8 weeks)

Full fee: £149.00
Senior fee: £119.00
Concession: £66.00

Or call to enrol: 020 7831 7831

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Any questions?
or call 020 7492 2652

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