Morality in the Victorian Period-Henry Mayhew

Times have progressed since William Blake published The Chimney Sweeper, but has morality not? In “Boy Crossing-Sweepers and Tumblers” by Henry Mayhew (London Labour and the London Poor), the pathetic predicament of the urban poor is exemplified through the profile of an “intelligent lad.” The text describes an isolated society formed by these child laborers, complete with “forms of trial…law…and a kind of language.” Although this lowly sphere of humanity regularly comes into contact with that of the upper class, those of good fortune view them with disdain, at best throwing them some change if their antics are deemed amusing.  Does the text suggest that the wealthy feel any sympathies for boys forced into begging because of misfortune outside of their control? Unlike Blake’s portrayal of the urban poor, which indicated that upper-class churchgoers tried to use the promise of eventual salvation to satisfy any moral discomfort, Mayhew’s account implies that any such unease has been abandoned in favor of simply ignoring the crossing-sweepers’ squalid conditions. This is solidified in Vanity Fair by Mr. Osborne’s reaction to the sudden misfortune of the Sedleys, to whom he should feel forever indebted. Instead of repaying debts and trying to help the family, or at the very least extending sympathies, he orders his family to cut off all communication with them. Are his actions unique in Victorian society? Unfortunately, the novel suggests they are not; his desire to distance himself from those who have slipped into a lower class accurately mirrors the blatant absence of morals swirling in the society around him. Perhaps even those who do have a sense of decency shove it aside in a desire to echo the values deemed acceptable by the majority.

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