I set a novella in East London recently. It got me thinking about how we see what is unfamiliar as a dire, strange, dangerous place. Especially if it is, like, dire and dangerous.
I'm thinking of the bad parts of cities, mostly, which is by no means a new idea. They probably had good and bad sections of the early mud daub and wattle villages of the Bronze Age farmers.
London’s East End — Seven Dials, Whitechapel, and so on — in the period in which I’ve been writing, was just a horrific slum, full of crime and disease, with the added bonus of various shady characters who would as soon knock you over the head as look at you.
Here’s a Victorian account of travelling into deepest Whitechapel:
We dismiss our cab: it would be useless in the strange, dark byeways, to which we are bound: natives of which will look upon us as the Japanese looked upon us the first European travellers in the streets of Jeddo. The missionary, the parish doctor, the rent collector (who must be a bold man indeed), the policeman, the detective, and the humble undertaker, are the human beings from without who enter this weird and horrible Bluegate Fields.
We arrived at Whitechapel Police Station, to pick up the superintendent of savage London. He had some poor specimens — maundering drunk — in his cells already — and it was hardly nine o'clock.
We plunge into a maze of courts and narrow streets of low houses — nearly all the doors of which are open, showing kitchen fires blazing far in the interior, and strange figures moving about.
At dark corners, lurking men keep close to the wall; and the police smile when we wonder what would become of a lonely wanderer who should find himself in these regions unprotected. "He would be stripped to his shirt" was the candid answer — made while we threaded an extraordinary tangle of dark alleys where two men could just walk abreast, under the flickering lamps jutting from the ebon walls, to mark the corners.
Jerrold Blanchard, London: A Pilgrimage 1872
Sounds pretty grim, does it not? Living there was doubtless a bit of a challenge for our great-great-greats who lived there. Also for those who inhabited the slums of New York or Washington,D.C., or the seedier parts of Berlin or Naples. Though at least it would have been warm in Naples.
But let me get up on one of my hobbyhorses here. (jo climbs up, holding her skirts carefully so nobody gets a flash look at her ankles.)
The most important thing about the rookeries of London in 1802 — and the Roman tenements in 79 AD and the slums of SE Washington DC in 1960 — is that the denizens of the place were 'at home'. For them it wasn't a landscape of horror.
Those men and women were ordinary folk. Living in these stacked-up, decrepit buildings and dirty streets were ordinary, well-meaning, hard-working people, not monsters. The violent gangs hanging out on street corners were a dangerous minority who preyed on and were hated by everyone else.
I keep this on one side of my mind when I’m writing about my dicey Regency people.
When the heroine makes a wrong turn and ends up in a bad neighborhood, she hasn't fallen into a pit of vipers. Those people passing her on the narrow slum street and the ones living three flights up in those poorly repaired buildings are no better nor worse than the everyday folks she passes in Mayfair. Her maidservant grew up a block to the left. Her cook has a brother living down at the end of the alley. That's where the cook goes every Sunday on her day off Your heroine's problem is not that the streets are populated with slavering hyenas. It's that she's conspicuous.
Here I am in My Lord and Spymaster trying to show the heroine as someone who comes from the mean streets, who understands them, who recognizes the dangers but doesn't see the place as a filthy hell filled with maniacal demons.
I think, both as writers and as readers, we have to look past the Victorian descriptions and illustrations of the poorer quarters. Every historical representation of these is by someone from outside, making a point. The contemporary writer or painter says as much about himself as about what he's reporting. Hogarth's Gin Lane is propaganda. Propaganda from the good guys, but still, a selection of detail to make a point.
So I walk my 1802 or 1766 heroine into the rougher sections of town. Some of them are at home there and some of them are not. But I try not to always assume the alley is a seething cauldron of evil into which she had incautiously been tipped.
Those filthy and villainous women — no better than they should be — eyeing my heroine as she cringes along her way … I suspect those were my ancestors, not the rich lord who's about to rescue her. I can just see myself scratching my nose and summing up the value of the heroine's ensemble, wondering if I can make off with it.
So what about you? Any preference for villainous ancestors over more respectable ones?
Or … do you know?