Friday, May 26, 2017

Victorian Slum Life

I feel like I’m really back in the swing of things, after doing two full days of work-related stuff. Yesterday I finished a draft of a novella that’s going to need a bit more work, but at least I reached an end point. I also figured out the problem I was having with a short story I wrote a couple of years ago. I like the voice in the story, and there’s some good stuff there, but it seems to jump too abruptly to its ending, and I have now figured out what to add to make the ending fit better. Then I can start submitting it and see what I can do with it.

I spent most of the evening doing research for a future project. There’s been an educational reality series on PBS that fits with something I’ve been researching — Victorian Slum House. They re-created an East End slum tenement and have a group of people living there to experience life in that era. Most of them are participating because they had ancestors who lived in that area in that time, and they wanted to learn what their ancestors experienced. It’s really sweet that there’s one family in which it was the grandmother who wanted to see how her grandfather grew up, and her granddaughters eagerly participated because they knew it was important to their Gran. One man in the group is a tailor in real life, making bespoke suits in London, so he’s the resident skilled laborer, and the rest have to kind of make do. Each family is assigned a room or rooms in the house and a profession/backstory, and then they have to figure out how to make enough money to pay the rent and buy food. They’ve converted the prices from that era to modern money, so that we have more of a perspective (and that helps when the people who have to sell things go into the market to sell to modern Londoners). Each episode covers a particular decade, and the producers change the circumstances each week to show how the world changed — technology, the economic conditions, laws, mix of newcomers, etc.

They start in the 1860s and go to the 1890s, and I just have one more episode to go. I’ve been reading on life in that era, so seeing it play out and affect real people is fascinating. The attitude toward the poor in that time was absolutely horrendous, especially since it supposedly came out of their interpretation of Christianity (some of it is eerily familiar for our time). There was so little opportunity, and there was so much exploitation of vulnerable people.

It is rather sanitized. They show that there’s a communal privy in the courtyard, but otherwise they don’t even mention bathrooms or sanitation, so you have to wonder if the participants really had to use that privy or if they had a regular bathroom anywhere nearby. There are likely health and safety rules governing that sort of thing. Everyone looks pretty clean, and some of the women are obviously wearing makeup (and not just “being on TV” makeup), but they don’t address the issue of bathing. The issue of alcohol hasn’t come up at all, and that was a major problem in slums. They haven’t diverted a man on his way home from a day’s work and made him spend all his wages in the pub on gin. So, it doesn’t quite work as true research other than getting a generalized feel for re-creating a similar world in a fantasy novel.

What I have found interesting is the dynamics among these people. Those teenaged granddaughters are so enthusiastic even though it’s their grandmother’s deal. They dive right into all the work, whether it’s hauling baskets of watercress to the market to sell, making paper flowers, or even telling jokes to people in the street in hopes of earning a penny or two. The ones who had ancestors living that life are in awe of how strong they had to be, and there’s a touching scene of a woman finding the graves of her great aunt and uncle who died in infancy. The whole group has come together as a community, trying to help each other even though they have the tough dilemma of trying to make it, themselves. The shopkeepers don’t want the children to starve, but they won’t be able to pay their own rent if their customers don’t pay their debts. There was one family, a single mother and her kids, who really weren’t coping well, and the others did their best to help them, bringing them in on their piecework enterprises so they’d have some money, but they still didn’t quite get into the spirit of it. The others were all working hard, getting up early and staying up late to work, and this family would sleep late before finally joining in on the work, and then would go to bed early. They ended up leaving, sneaking out during the night — they were used as an example of what some people did when they couldn’t pay the rent and were in debt to the shopkeeper, but they didn’t show up in the following episodes, so I’m guessing that family just left the show.

The whole series is available to watch online at the PBS website. I’m not normally a fan of reality TV and the “let’s watch ordinary people try to do this thing” sort of show, but this is cooperative and educational rather than competitive. They bring in historians to talk to the participants about what the era was like and what was happening.

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