Mord Em’ly is fierce and funny through poverty and misfortune, and this little history of her life stands in very enjoyable contrast to heavier, more moral works of reform from the turn of that century. And she will insist you pronounce her name correctly, which I particularly love.
From London Peculiar and Other Non-fiction by Michael Moorcock:
Its author W Pett Ridge was the most famous literary Londoner of his day. He walked everywhere. He knew the city from suburbs to centre. He knew everyone, an energetic social reformer, he was a good friend of HG Wells, JM Barrie, WS Gilbert, Jerome K Jerome, E Nesbit and many contributers to the Pall Mall Gazette, The Idler, Westminster Gazette, journals of what we’d today call the moderate left. All testified to his experience and talent. ‘There is nobody else in London,’ said JM Barrie, ‘with his unique literary ear.’ (52-53)
Like many of his contemporaries from poor backgrounds, he educated himself at the Birkbeck Institute’s evening classes. (53)
Mord Em’ly was his best loved book. A silent film. From IMDB:
A Cockney thief reforms, her ex-convict father kills her mother, and she weds a boxer.
I suppose there could be worse summaries.
As Moorcock suggests, Pett Ridge is able to capture some of the joys of working class life, the freedoms it offers to women for possibly the first time:
All the members of the Gilliken Gang possessed the privilege which the London girl demands–that of having their evenings for their very own. Some were engaged in a large mineral water factory in Albany Road; two walked over Blackfriars Bridge to the City every morning; the remainder did nothing of a definite character (loc 226).
And after having read a great number of moral literature and studies written by reformers (see Maud Pember Reeves, Margaret Harkness, Mary Higgs, and I will include W. Somerset Maugham in this dour list of tales of the working class’s feckless improvidence, dull capacity for suffering and dire poverty):
Pandora Buildings, despite its bare passages and blank, asphalted yard and drafty balconies, all suggesting that it was a place where people were sent for some infraction of the law, was, nevertheless, for its inhabitants sufficiently cheerful, and there were very few of them who were not happy. To understand this fact it was necessary to become an inhabitant in Pandora, and not merely to come down on a hurried visit, as lady philanthropists did, and sniff, and look sympathetic, and tell each other that it was all quite too dreadful. Nothing privately amused Pandora more than the visits of these people, and Mord Em’ly gained much applause by her very faithful imitation of one of these visitors.
“Oh, the poor, dear creatures!” Mord Em’ly would look at the diverted women on the landing with half-closed eyes and a glance of condescension. “How do you do, my poor women! What do your poor husbands do for a living, pray? Dear, dear! what dreadful occupations, to be sure! I’d never really heard of them before. And the poor, dear children–I do so hope you look after them. Our country’s future, you must remembers, lies in their hands, and — This is my daughter, Lady Ella. She, too, is going to be so interested in the poor. In fact, I may tell you that she is going to play the zither at a concert near here some evening.
“Ah, Mord Em’ly!” The women would laugh and wipe their eyes with aprons exhaustedly. “You can take the toffs off to a T.” (loc 239)
Speaking geographically, there are some brilliant summaries of how place and class intersect in here, like this description of New Kent Rd:
At the Paragon end of New Kent Road she stopped to take breath. There is a decorum about New Kent Road, with its tree-bordered pavements and calm dwelling-houses, that constitutes a silent reproach to its noisy, restless, elder relative, and even on this Saturday night it was not without repose. Middle-aged couples, out for the purpose of buying forage for the home, and accompanied by the newest baby in order that it might thus early study economy, were going east to Old Kent Road, or went to the Elephant, as their fancy or their traditions dictated (loc 71).
But above all come the marvelously satirical descriptions of the three sisters living on their own at 18 Lucella Rd, Peckham Rye where Mord is taken on as a servant at the age of ‘firteen’. Pronunciation corrected
No. 18 was precisely like No. 17, and like No. 19, and like every other number in Lucella Road; the lace-curtained bow-windows, the ventian blinds half-way down, the row of yellow pots on the edge, the glimpse of oval mirrors and draped pianofortes within (loc 196).
‘This, dears,’ said the youngest sister, ‘ is the little girl who has come after the place. She looks willing, and my idea is that we might take her for a month, at any rate. Her mother is a good worker.’
‘I expect Letty is right,’ said one of the elder sisters. ‘ What is your name, my girl ?’
Name interpreted by the youngest sister.
‘Oh, you must really learn to pronounce distinctly. You should say Maud, and then wait for a moment, and then say Em-ily.’
“All very well,’ said Mord Em’ly, ‘ if you’ve got plenty of time.’
“Are you a hard worker, my girl ?”
“Fairish, miss. I ain’t afraid of it, anyway.”
“I think we shall decide to call you Laura if you stop with us.”
“Waffor?” demanded Mord Em’ly.
“We always call our maids Laura,” explained the eldest of the ladies complacently. “It’s a tradition in the family. And my youngest sister there, Miss Letitia, will look after you for the most part. My other sisters are engaged in — er — literature; I myself; if I may say so without too much confidence, am responsible for”–here the eldest sister looked in a self-deprecatory manner at the toe of her slippers–“art.” (loc 312)
“My sister Fairlie,” went on the eldest lady in a lecturing style, and pointing with her forefinger, “writes under the pen name of ‘George Willoughby’ and has gained several prizes, some of them ammounting to as much as one guinea. My sister Katherine pursues a different branch. her specialite, to use a foreign expression, is the subject of epitaphs–queer epitaphs, ancient epitaphs, pathetic epitaphs, singular epitaphs, amusing–”
“Speaking about epitaphs,” interrupted Mord Em’ly, “how much do I get a year for playing in this piece?”
And the banter — the banter is marvellous. At no point is Mord bested in banter. The perspective of Mord allows Pett-Ridge to get more sharp observations of the regulated, restricted and repressed nature of middle-class life:
It seemed to Mord Em’ly that the people in the road led lives that were ordered by some precise and stringent Act of Parliament. By half-past eight in the morning every man in every house had come out, had pulled the doors to, and had run off to catch the train to the City, an exodus which also used to take place (at an earlier hour) at Pandora Buildings; but, whereas there is signalled opportunity for free conversation, in Lucella Road it seemed that the women-folk remained indoors, and kept themselves in rigid seclusion; when they did come out, they wore, Mord Em’ly noticed, a reserved air, which they put on for out-door walking, and they looked up at the sky with an air of disparagement, as though it was not at all the kind of sky that they had been accustomed to before they were married, and they sneered at the pavement; the other houses seemed to excite in them a feeling of boredom and contempt; their manner generally was that of people who are by no means pleased with the world. There were no disputes in Lucella Road; nobody came home late and noisy; it appeared to mord Em’ly that everybody carefully abstained from giving entertainment. (loc 406)
This is compared to the life and vibrance of Walworth Rd and the Music Hall:
…with the barrows stacked with yellow Lent lilies and scented violets, and giant bundles of wallflowers tied with twigs round their thick waists; pyramids of oranges, too, and huge cliffs of sweets, and men and women, their owners, exultantly calling attention to them; the slow crowd on the pavement stopping now and again to haggle, and, at infrequent intervals, to buy. There were two butchers with their shop fronts afire with red joints; the men were chaffing each other, and each shouted his opinion of the other man’s face. The drapery shop, selling off because it had nearly had a fire, or because its premises were not coming down, or on some other excuse, was frantic with placards; it had bargains in pale blue blouses and in gay bunches of linen flowers, that demanded attention, and would take no denial. In the roadway, the yellow and scarlet trams sailed along, with passengers continually boarding them and passengers continually disembarking; ‘buses rocked about and played games of cup-and-ball with their passengers, or danced recklessly over the roadway. On the other side of the road, in Princes Street, a piano-organ was playing, and two ridiculous men were waltzing and behaving to each other with preposterous courtesy. Through Princes Street, and there, with four white globes, arch-fashion, over its entrance, was the Mont.
Mord Em’ly gave a quick gasp as she thought of the Mont.
You paid twopence to an old lady seated in a little sentry-box, and you went through a passage which had swing-doors at the end, and on the walls of the passage there were portraits and a poster of a very fine lady in fleshings, called Miss Flo Macgomery, also known as Britain’s Brilliant and Beautiful Brunette. You could hear faint music before you reached the doors opening into the rear of the long hall, and when you pressed open one of these, the singing and the music boxed you on the ears in rather a jovial, agreeable way. You were at the very back of the hall, but the floor sloped a little, and, away through the smoke, and over the heads of people, you could see, on the stage, Mr. Pat Foley, who was Ireland’s Brightest Gem, and who, in view of that fact, might well have provided himself with a complete dress-suit, but had, up to the present, succeeded in obtaining the necktie only, and wore tweed trousers and a double-breasted jacket. No song of what is called questionable character was ever sung at the Mont., because the Mont.’s patrons had no appetite for that sort of thing; to vulgarity they had no deep-rooted objection, but even of this they desired less than did their similars in the West-end. They would always rather see a man dance intricate steps than watch furious whirling by girls; and damsels at the Mont. who kicked high and kicked often, and made themselves breathless in the effort, found their last ambitious skip received with casual interest; the hall allowed them to go in glum silence, with sometimes a few derisive whistles.
This is, you see, a most enjoyable read about a smart and confident heroine who makes her own way in the world — and even though it ends with marriage and emigration, you hardly feel that Mord’s independent spirit will be slowed down, much less broken by that.