Vanity Fair and Henry Mayhew’s “London Labour and the London Poor”

One of the issues seen in “Vanity Fair” is the problem of poverty in England in the Victorian Period. Thackeray obviously focuses much of his novel’s critique on the superficiality and blindness that money, or “mammon,” bring about in an urban society. This issue is contrasted with (and seen as a cause of) the condition of the destitute of England: those unfortunate souls who most assuredly have found an end in taverns, alleyways, orphan-houses, and other disgustingly bleak black-holes that are not a small amount similar to the prevailing view of hell at that time. In Thackeray’s catalogue of a society that knowingly or unknowingly casts the poor to the wayside, he most frequently uses specific examples: painting pictures (quite literally, if you look at the illustrations) of vagabonds and a few microscopic details of their way of life which serve to illustrate their condition more effectively than if he were to describe in overarching detail the general situation at the time. Similarly, Mayhew uses minute, detailed, and specific examples of children he has personally seen and interacted with in order to present their condition to the public in writing. Mayhew describes the language of a group of poor boys, delineates one boy’s daily routine, presents their physical condition, and writes about one specific interaction he had with a boy. Mayhew refuses to view the situation from the sky, but instead climbs into the rubble and shouts out what he sees from a perspective only a victim could accurately describe. However, the difference between Mayhew and Thackeray is the contrast or lack of contrast to wealthy society. Sure, Mayhew mentions rich folks who are living a socially active life and run into the impoverished subjects of his writing, but he does not at all focus on them, and because he refuses to contrast the two vastly different ways of life, his perspective on poverty is more scientific and explanatory than it is critical. Thackeray, on the other hand, uses biting sarcasm and criticism towards the wealthy class to make his point. Any mention of poverty Thackeray makes is starkly contrasted with the society he is already writing about. If I were to compare each work to a modern documentary, Mayhew’s would be like a national geographic documentary on a strange species of monkey in a remote African jungle: informative, inquisitive, scientific, and impartial; while Thackeray’s would be closer the typical cinematic documentary: biased, sweeping, detailed, and heavy-handed. I’m not sure how Mayhew wrote in a way that feels so cold and calloused about such a heavy and heart-wrenching subject. Only Thackeray seems to have a heart and an opinion about the matter.

11 thoughts on “Vanity Fair and Henry Mayhew’s “London Labour and the London Poor”

  1. I think this is an informative post and it is very useful and knowledgeable. Therefore, I would like to thank you for the efforts you have made in writing this article. @mandala

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