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Review: London Vagabond – the Life of Henry Mayhew by Christopher Anderson. 

lvApologies, this review is almost a year late. More overdue than this by far is a proper treatment of the life of Henry Mayhew (1812 – 1887). Thankfully Christopher Anderson spotted this sorry oversight on everyone’s part and set to the task almost 10 years ago resulting in this biography.

Mayhew was a prolific writer, most famously of his magnum opus London Labour and the London Poor (1861). That was a book derived of journalism, but ‘Harry’ Mayhew was also a begetter of comedy, satire, novel and play. In his pomp, he was as well known as his exact contemporaries Dickens and Thackeray. But ultimately – like Dr Johnson – he was remembered more or less for one work when there was so much more. Frequently impecunious, he would often complain that his early play The Wandering Minstrel attracted £200 per annum in royalties for decades after he sold the rights for £20.

punch1The one other thing for which Mayhew is well known (if at all), is as the founder of Punch magazine, in 1841. Some would add founding editor too, though this is something which some of his contemporaries dispute. Certainly, it was his brainchild, having a few years earlier also started its less successful predecessor Figaro in London, with his friend Gilbert à Becket. His relationship with Punch was short but fascinating. When moneyed, respectable owners had to be found to save the magazine, one of the conditions was that Mayhew was jettisoned; he was just too unpredictable, too much of a loose cannon: the magazine needed stability, a word nobody could associate with the mercurial writer.

A constant theme in Mayhew’s life was trouble with money. While he knew what he was worth as a writer and frequently pulled down substantial earnings, more often he was in debt, a bankrupt. He spent at least three spells in debtors’ prisons, others in the sponge house (the staging post to debtor’s prison). Self-imposed exile in Wales, Paris and Germany to avoid his creditors, the bailiffs and the law. Sometimes but not always, he was bailed out by family, friends or – humiliatingly – The Royal Literary Fund (he applied to them twice). His long-suffering wife Jane and children Amy and Athol had perforce to share these hardships. Worse, on one occasion he allowed his younger brother Gus to take the rap in the debtor’s prison on his behalf.

Clearly, Henry Mayhew was a careless man, irresponsible to say the least, amoral even. But talented, hardworking, naïve, deeply amusing and the object of devotion from a very small group of friends and admirers. He always had a plan up his sleeve to get him out of the soup. More often than not, these failed. One is reminded a little of Mr Toad.

Something of a polymath and like many Victorian men of affairs, Mayhew was deeply interested in science. A devotee of Humphry Davy and in particular Michael Faraday, he conduced many a dangerous experiments at home, primarily in the pursuit of creating artificial diamonds. Like many a Mayhew pursuit, these literally turned to dust.

I hope you can see so far that this is a lively biography which succeeds in bringing the real Henry Mayhew into our lives. We are also introduced to his rather large family of siblings, in-laws, wife and children, interesting individuals themselves, in particular brothers Horace (Ponny) and Augustus (Gus), who both became writers like Henry, much to the chagrin of their terrifying father Joshua (like Dickens, Mayhew bore a deep antipathy towards the legal profession). Ponny carved out a long and successful career at Punch while Gus frequently wrote in partnership with Henry as the Brothers Mayhew: the name was a strong brand at the time.

London Vagabond connects us to the creative world of the mid 19th Century London intellectual scene. Mayhew worked directly or rubbed shoulders with writers, illustrators, publishers, printers, actors, playwrights, radicals, Chartists; Dickens and Thackeray as we have seen, but also Douglas Jerrold, George Cruickshank, Mark Lemon, George Sala, Henry Vizetelly, Joseph Paxton and dozens more; plotting, scheming, drinking, laughing, networking. The titles for which Mayhew wrote at one time or another were almost uncountable, but the author’s meticulous research has revealed them, along with Mayhew’s improving books for children (e.g. biography of Martin Luther) and unclassifiable genres all his own. I found particularly interesting some of his late stuff on Germany: 1) Hilariously intemperate travel guide involving living among the Saxons 2) Dangerous reportage of the 1870 Franco-Prussian war – Mayhew was a fearless reporter.

henrymayhew

Portrait of Mayhew from London Labour and the London Poor, 1st Ed, 1851, aged about 39.

One senses that the author has read every piece of Mayhew writing he could lay his hands on, both by the man himself and other parties. He quotes substantially and frequently. I would estimate that possibly as much as 20% of the text is quotations. They are always apposite and enriching.

Sometime I hope to catch up with Mayhew’s other major London work, the Great World of London and indeed some other of his now forgotten writing which sound marvellous.

This is an excellent Life and I would warmly recommend it to all, whether established Mayhew fans like myself or indeed those coming across him for the first time.


London Vagabond – the Life of Henry Mayhew is written and published by Christopher Gangadin Anderson. 409 pp (of which 46 pp are index, bibliography, end notes etc.). It costs around £10.

 

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