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Today is the anniversary of the Coronation of Edward VII, at Westminster Abbey in 1902. Consequently, every year on this day I am reminded of Jack London’s The People of the Abyss, published in 1903, but reporting on events of the previous summer. The whole of Chapter VII is about the author’s experience of the Coronation. He observes the parade from Trafalgar Square during the day:

And as it was thus at Trafalgar Square, so was it along the whole line of march—force, overpowering force; myriads of men, splendid men, the pick of the people, whose sole function in life is blindly to obey, and blindly to kill and destroy and stamp out life. And that they should be well fed, well clothed, and well armed, and have ships to hurl them to the ends of the earth, the East End of London, and the “East End” of all England, toils and rots and dies.

…  and then spends the evening on the Embankment with the destitute.

On the bench beside me sat two ragged creatures, a man and a woman, nodding and dozing. The woman sat with her arms clasped across the breast, holding tightly, her body in constant play—now dropping forward till it seemed its balance would be overcome and she would fall to the pavement; now inclining to the left, sideways, till her head rested on the man’s shoulder; and now to the right, stretched and strained, till the pain of it awoke her and she sat bolt upright. Whereupon the dropping forward would begin again and go through its cycle till she was aroused by the strain and stretch. …

…  Fifty thousand people must have passed the bench while I sat upon it, and not one, on such a jubilee occasion as the crowning of the King, felt his heart-strings touched sufficiently to come up and say to the woman: “Here’s sixpence; go and get a bed.” But the women, especially the young women, made witty remarks upon the woman nodding, and invariably set their companions laughing.

When describing the Coronation celebrations and its participants, London’s writing drips with seething sarcasm; his writing about the poor is fueled with pure anger. He uses this chapter in particular to highlight the chasm that existed between the well-off — and indeed even ordinary people — and the destitute poor. All of this in the capital city of the wealthiest and most powerful nation which had ever existed: ‘Abyss‘ is laced through with this particular irony, utterly and deliberately without and ounce of subtlety.

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Coronation souvenir. Royal Collection Trust.

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East End tenement. Photo by Jack London.

The People of the Abyss is an important piece of reportage which should be familiar to all historians of modern London. I see it as a sort of progress report between the bookends provided by Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1851) and Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). Mayhew, of course, didn’t feel the need to be ’embedded’ as the other two did, but he did have a penchant for impoverishing himself nonetheless – another story. ‘Abyss’ is far more angry than the other two and certainly more ‘left-wing’. All have the virtue of being easy-to-read despite their most harrowing subject matter. I think the explanation for this is that the writers were all journalists who wrote extraordinarily well.


People of the Abyss (1902) by Jack London is available online for free from the Project Guthenberg, here. Scroll down for the Coronation, Chapter VII.

British Pathé footage of the Coronation of Edward VII.

 

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