Overlooking Henry Mayhew's 'Street-Jews' in Dickensian London

The vivid scenes of a bustling and brutally poor metropolis at the heart of Empire make Henry Mayhew’s masterpiece “London Labour and the London Poor,” first published in 1851 compelling reading. With or without Jews.

The Victorian social researcher originally published his work in three volumes and augmented it to four volumes in 1861 so reprints, apart from a long-unavailable complete version from Dover Publications decades ago, and current print-on-demand services, are by necessity abridgements. One such, in 1968, evoked a rave review from poet W. H. Auden, later collected in his “Forewords and Afterwords” lauding Mayhew’s “amazing ear for speech”; establishing that even the most caricature-like of Dickens’ characters seem to be inspired by reality as notated by Mayhew; and for giving a voice to the voiceless. (Even the stone-hearted poet Philip Larkin was moved by one of the monologues of misfortune in Mayhew to write a 1950 poem, “Deceptions.”)

So a smartly presented abridgement of Mayhew from Oxford University Press, published on November 17, 2010, following up on a handy, still-available Penguin Classics selection from 1985 is highly welcome, with the single caveat that both shortened presentations omit Mayhew’s London Jews. For the complete Mayhew includes short chapters interviewing and describing the Jew Old-Clothes Men; Jew-Boy Street-Sellers; the Street-Jews; the Jew Street-Sellers of Accordions; the Street Jewesses and Street Jew-Girls, etc. There is enough material for a separate edition of “Mayhew on the Jews,” which could feature such observations as the following:

Or, when Mayhew quotes a boy sponge-seller whose “physiognomy was decidedly Jewish, but not of the handsomer type,”:

There aren’t many ways to recapture the sound of Jewish life in Victorian London and Mayhew is a uniquely personalized source.

Watch an appreciation by Jonathan Miller of Henry Mayhew below.

Watch another British television programme recreate one of Mayhew’s interviews below.

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Overlooking Henry Mayhew's 'Street-Jews' in Dickensian London

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