Enlightenment and Romantic Elements in Mayhew’s “London Labor and the London Poor”

Henry Mayhew combines elements from both the Enlightenment and Romanticism as he describes two different children in this excerpt of “London Labor and the London Poor.” From an Enlightenment viewpoint, Mayhew’s way in which he sought out the stories of the children was very systematic and logical. He gathered four volumes worth of testimonies and from just reading a few pages worth, it is evident he worked on how he retrieved this information, which placed him in a social-experimenter’s role. This is demonstrated in the following lines, “At first I treated her as a child, speaking on childish subjects; so that I might, by being familiar with her, remove all shyness, and get her to narrate her life freely” (1108). So instead letting the conversation move more organically, Mayhew purposely manipulates the conversation in order to retrieve specific information he can use for his agenda. This is a value of the Enlightenment.

However, Mayhew’s purpose in writing these testimonies of the poor children of London also serves as a pathos argument, which is a Romantic quality. Pathos can be seen everywhere in Mayhew’s writing because he showcases the words of the children over his words in the majority of the text. This gives readers a stronger grasp of how uneducated and how terrible the lives of these children are. For example, “I bears the cold–you must; so I puts my hands under my shawl, though it hurts ’em to take hold of the creases, especially when we takes ’em to the pump to wash ’em. No; I never see any children crying–it’s no use” (1109). Here, Mayhew conveys to readers that this girl’s one job in life is to sell watercrease, even in the horrible conditions of winter and with proper clothing. Additionally, her blunt language shows how focused these children are that they cannot even bother to be upset about the conditions of their lives. To readers, this would show how much middle-class people take for granted, including even their command of the English language. Another Romantic quote in the text is Mayhew’s description of parks to the watercress girl,”I explained to her, telling her that they were large open places with green grass and tall trees, where beautiful carriages drove about, and people walked for pleasure, and children played” (1108). This paints a very idealized picture of parks in order to heighten the contrast of the lives of the wealthy versus the life of the watercress girl. In these ways, Mayhew’s work encompasses both Enlightenment and Romanticism elements.

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One thought on “Enlightenment and Romantic Elements in Mayhew’s “London Labor and the London Poor”

  1. I think it was incredibly interesting that you looked at the method Mayhew employed in gathering the stories for his narrative- going out and speaking with people on the streets. Particularly, I enjoyed where you pointed out how it was characteristic of the Enlightenment when Mayhew recognizes the maturity of the young girl and quickly changes his tactics while trying to engage her. While I see this as an interesting aspect to regard as related to the Enlightenment, I think it is more important to notice how he spends much of his narratives for the young boy and girl focused on their work patterns. The space and effort dedicated to explaining the intricate detail of their daily “employment” was incredibly thought out and methodical- very similar to what we are used to seeing from the Enlightenment. It is almost as if Mayhew is reflecting the Enlightenment idea that these children will, hopefully, reach salvation through their work ethic.
    I would definitely agree with you that Mayhew’s main purpose was very romantic and highly appealed to the emotion of his readers. My favorite example of that also came from when Mayhew explains to the little girl that parks exist and she says “The parks, where are they?” (1108). Effectively showing that these parks are so far removed from her reality. I think this perfectly appeals to all readers in making them ache for the loss of this little girl’s childhood and innocence.

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