There are countless books I have ashamedly failed to finish. Whether that be at fault of the book, its middle perhaps uninspired, or at fault of my own, and my revolving interests, or at fault of time, and its incomprehensible ability to feel the opposite of plentiful. However, Arthur Morrison’s A Child of the Jago, is a novel which I would highly recommend, not only because it escaped my personal pile of unfinished books, and I read it through with joy and ease, but because its themes of deprivation, unfairness, and difficulty, are subjects every human has encountered at some point in their lives. As a warning, this review does reveal much of the story.
The novel opens with the setting of the Jago, a place on the East end of London inspired by the actual Nichol Slum, which apparently was much more mundane in its awfulness. Without reading the blurb on the back of the book, the reader does not know who the protagonist is, as many curious characters are introduced in the opening chapters. Old Beveridge is a minor role, but one of great importance in his message, which is strewn throughout the entire novel: that one from the Jago cannot escape its ways, that if you are born into this area and upbringing, you will undoubtedly fall victim to the violence, theft, and abuse, and that as an adult you will promote the ways of the Jago yourself, to future generations. The Jago is a trap.
Arthur Morrison wrote A Child of the Jago in 1896 and was inspired by the story of a boy, Charles Clayton who lived in the Nichol slum (behind Shoreditch High Street in the 1890s), and was stabbed on the night of July 25, 1892, and died four days later. In Morrison’s novel, the Jago represents the Nichol Slum. At times the reader may question why this area is not heavily patrolled, but Morrison makes a believable story that narking is the worst of crimes in the Jago, and despite the horrid violence, none of the habitants want to bring police, or even Father Sturt into their lair. Father Sturt is a priest who, in surprise to those of the Jago, moves to the slum to open up a church. Over the years, he strategically creates housing and establishes a church presence in the Jago Court (the most criminalised and protected area because of the multitude of places a criminal can hide when being pursued by the police) and by doing so, Father Sturt has a calming influence on the slum. Many are afraid of him or respect him without knowing the reason. He becomes the father figure. The quiet leader of the Jago.
The actual father, Josh Perrott, is introduced in the novel as a man who goes out all night drinking, despite his sick baby Looey and his sad wife Hannah Perrott, and then nurses his hangover with morning beer and more feuding. He abuses Hannah Perrott and his son, Dicky. He is heavily hypocritical by participating in fights and theft but beating Dicky for doing the same. Hannah Perrott, is described as a lacklustre, but somewhat of a respectable woman, despite her neglect for her children, and eventual death of her ten month old baby. She is hated by the other women of the Jago because she has never fallen victim to the Jago ways, does not gossip or drink, and was married in an actual church. She also does not take sides with the feuding Ranns and Learys, until of course, she is violently beaten by a Leary, Sally Green. After that chapter of erupted violence, Josh Perrott swears vengeance and immediately sides with the Ranns.
The most important narrative we follow is that of Dicky Perrott, a sweet and fairly innocent nine year old who believes in good at times, but is repeatedly taken advantage of and abused. His first theft of a gold pocket watch at Elevation Mission was a proud moment, and in hoping to impress his father and bring in money for the family, he ends up getting lashed until bleeding, and not understanding where he fits into the world. He is taken advantage of by Mr. Aaron Weech, an awful man who owns a coffee shop and becomes more villainous as the book progresses, until his death by murder.
Dicky is illustrated as a caring boy through his actions, nursing his ten month old sister Looey when she is neglected by her mother. Josh Perrott makes a minor effort by taking Looey to the doctor, but his selfish acts in the beginning paint him as a bad father, until of course the end, when the narrator switches to Josh’s story, and the reader understands his need to revenge his family by murdering Mr. Aaron Weech.
Throughout the novel, we watch Dicky get in fights, hide with his friend Tommy, cry to a donkey called Canary, get a job, steal food for his family, get fired from his job because of an elaborate lie by Mr. Weech, and grow from nine to thirteen to seventeen. His story is tragic and the novel is beautifully written, full of metaphor, symbol, and description.
I love how Arthur Morrison uses key words for each chapter to symbolise a message. For example, the chapter in which Dicky steals for the first time, is littered with the word ‘cake,’ and the reader therefore does not see Dicky as a boy stealing from a wealthy man, but they see Dicky as a boy who loves cake, is very hungry, deprived, and wants to please his family by bringing home the watch which could be sold for food or rent. He is extremely relatable. When he is nine, he cries into the fur of the neighbourhood donkey, and by the time he is thirteen he considers going to Canary again but then feels foolish. Just like most adults who at some point retreat to a fetal position and cry, or return to some past way of self-nurturing, Dicky Perrott despite being older, goes to the donkey to cry once again and feel less alone in the world. It is my favourite part because Dicky is just as human as all of us. Because of the dramatic irony throughout, the reader is always hoping for him to know what we know, to discover that Mr. Weech is a bad man, and to believe in himself as much as Father Sturt and the readers do. It keeps the plot moving at a fast pace until the last page.
Another section in which certain words are used to drive home a message is in the end, the chapter which follows more closely Josh Perrott, when he has just finished five years in prison, now has a sprained ankle, and is being hunted by the police once again. The narrator sprinkles the words ‘murder’ and ‘stale pickles’ throughout all of chapter 33, therefore contrasting the completely stuck-in-his-ways Josh Perrott, to his still somewhat innocent son Dicky, who often thinks of cake and the possibility of fairness.
My other favourite section is when Dicky Perrott gets a job. His pride is palpable and the reader is struck with so much joy because of the chance he has been given to have a normal life. Of course in the end, the moral is that normality is impossible for one born into the Jago, and all will fall victim to its ways.