EPISODES IN AN OBSCURE LIFE.*
No doubt it is extremely wrong to regret that a good and true man should have laboured so long in a sad and painful calling as to have grown reconciled, nay, even happy, to continue in it even unto the end. Just as it was very shocking that the poor ignorant woman who had listened eagerly to the story of our Lord's suffer- ings, should have confounded her teacher, in his new hopes for her, by her unexpected summing-up of his lesson : "Well, its a long way off aril it were a long time ago, you telt me, so we'se e'en hope it is'nt true But in our case, as in hers, true personal reverence is at the root of our faithlessness ; we are so much more able, at a rapid glance, and on a first con- sideration, to sympathize with the sorrows of the patient and suffering worker, than with his own interest in and devotion to his work. The feeling which was uppermost in our mind throughout the long perusal of these volumes of a curate's experience in the East-End of London, was one of pity for its almost unmixed sad.
• Epiaaks in an 0:4cure Life. London: Stratum and Co. 1871.
nese, and of wonder that he could retain the healthy cheerfulness of his mind under the ever brooding shadow of squalor, misery, and vice. Of course there would be sorrow, and loss too, in rupturing the connection—so entirely for good—between such a minister of religion as our author and his flock ; not the conven- tional flock, the congregation, but all the suffering within his reach. But we think there would be a preponderance of advant- age, in districts like East London, in following the system of the Methodists and moving the curates periodically from place to place, in order that they might work occasionally in an entirely new and more cheerful field, so as to throw off the burden and gloom of such depressing neighbourhoods, and renew their stock of health and spirits. Nor would the gain be all on the side of the clergy ; the people would benefit by the services of men fresh from brighter and more prosperous regions.
The short and simple preface of the anonymous auth or is extremely touching. Humble, contented, brave ; it is as grand a 'lesson as any of the obscure lives he has chronicled for us in the whole three volumes can teach us. Could every Christian worker in the slums and dark places of London come, as he did, in the days of his youthful strength, to the conviction that that was his mission, and to the resolution to be content and happy and long no more for the invitation "Friend, go up higher," then indeed it -would be useless, and far worse than useless, to snap the ties that bind the clergyman to his own poor, for the sake of reinvigorating mind and body in a purer atmosphere ; lor mind and body, as a rule, work together in such perfect tarmony, that when the former is happily engaged the latter is seldom much disordered. But it is impossible to read these annals without feeling that a man must be abnormal in his -state of bodily and mental health to resist the unusually depress- ing influences of the places and the people of East London. If anything, however, could enable a cultivated man of average 'courage and spirits to battle successfully with them, it would -certainly be the sharpness and the readiness of mother-wit with which these dingy denizens are gifted. Were it unhappily possible -to unite the stolid dullness of the poor of country towns with the vice and gloom of limitless London, the conditions of the greatest -social misery would be secured. But the readiness and knowing- ness of the London poor, whether good-hutnoured, or suspicious, or insolent, do not strike one so much, in these histories, as their helpfulness to one another. The essence of true Christian charity -seems to be unconsciously theirs amidst all their ignorance and indifference. When most unable to help themselves they are still ready to help another, and it is done so much as a matter of course, with no idea of glorifying themselves, or patronizing the neighbour -a trifle more wretched than they are. There is none of the prudent -withholding of the helping hand till the future consequences of offering it have been carefully considered. No cautious doubts of the antecedents and surroundings and connections of the poor -suppliant convince them that "it will perhaps be better not to yield to Quixotic and impulsive feelings, but to leave things to take their course," as they so easily convince us of the more com- fortable classes. They divide what they have got as a matter of course, and make common cause without a thought.
Many other characteristics of the London poor are brought out very distinctly in these volumes. Their fearlessness, their indiffer- ence to death, their rough ingratitude of mariner, the silence of extreme misery—whether resigned or sullen,—and the preco- cious helpfulness and wisdom of the young—especially of girls—&c. And we are told other things which, if less interesting, are, perhaps, more useful, because not so well known. It is usual to suppose that men do not come to grief who are diligent, honest, and sober, and that drink is at the bottom of all abject misery. "These ideas, which prevail widely, our author says should be taken with much limitation, and his painful little biographies sufficiently prove that he is right. The failures of large firms, the substitu- tion of new inventions, the sudden change in fashions, accidents, illness, the cruelty of step-parents, early orphanage, and numerous other causes, are more often the precursors of poverty and distress than the personal bad qualities of the sufferers. The stories before us are straightforward accounts of the author's poor parishioners, and are clearly not written with a view to prove any special theory, and yet we do not find more than 8 per cent, of the unhappy subjects of his narrative paying the penalty of their own misdeeds. It is much nearer the truth to believe that the sins of the fathers are visited upon their children to the third and fourth generation, and so to determine to take two lessons to heart ; that our thoughts of the poor shall be more charitable, not always de- ciding flippantly that "they have only themselves to thank "; and that we will stand, as far as lies in our power, in the place of those
defaulting parents, and shield their children from the operation of that natural law which makes them suffer for their parents' sins.
The book is by no means dry reading. Besides an abounding sense of fun and keen sympathy in suffering, which generally go together, there is a perfect truthfulness in the tone, which gives, indeed, its chief value to the book ; for if the irreverence of manner and heathenishness of thought were not faithfully rendered, as well as the mingled simplicity and acuteness of the poor, it would be no true picture of their character and condition. The author, too, conceals nothing that tells against himself. With a humility that cannot be too highly praised, and with many a touch of humour at his own expense, he recounts his failures, his ignorance, his little vanities, the low motives that are attributed to him—not always, he fears, erroneously—his growing outward callousness to the horrors around him, his first awkward breakdown attempts at extempore preaching, and much besides. We must not, however, be supposed to imply egotism. He appears in no sad soliloquies, no morbid misgivings, no introspective researches, but only in inter- course with his flock on those equal and friendly terms—setting aside all claims to deference—which could alone help him to dis- cover their various qualities and needs. Our author, too, has a poet's eye for all natural as well as spiritual beauty, and there is a description of the wanderings of a bird-catcher which is itself like a summer's day in the deep, rich, quiet country. For the first time our painful impression of a London " Refuge " is softened into one of admiration and respect by the pleasant yet not over- coloured picture of the comforts it yields, and of the really gentle and motherly goodness of the matron.
But we could not easily exhaust all the thoughts suggested (amongst others on the methods of teaching) by this interesting and valuable yet modest book ; and our space will be more than filled when we have given an extract by which to judge, in some sort, of its character. We will take one of a little water-cress vendor's early impressions of the Bible ; it will serve to illustrate the author's style, and show besides, his sense of humour, and the openness with which he quotes the—conventionally—irreverent language of the ignorant, and the unclerical-like common-sense with which he deals with it.
"It was curiously interesting to note the gradual way in which the character of Christ exercised its attraction on the little London street girl. At first she greatly preferred the Old Testament to the New. There was 'a deal more fun an' fightin" in it she said. The story of
Samson and the foxes greatly took her fancy. Worn't that a knowin' game ? ' was her admiring comment on it. The trick by which Michal saved her husband's life was another exploit which made Bessie chuckle in a very infectiously indecorous manner ; and she gloated over accounts of pitched battles and single combats. Owing to the bellicosity which her street-life had bred in her, the gentle forgiveness of the Saviour was to her at starting a disagreeable puzzle. She liked him for goin' about doctorin' poor folks, an' givin"em broad an' fish when they was hungry,' but, according to her original notions of nobility of character, it was cowardly not to resent an injury or 'take your own part,' and therefore the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount perplexed her sorely, and she was utterly at a loss to understand why Peter was told to put back his
sword into his sheath. He'd ha' fought, anyhow, if he'd been let, though they did all on 'em cut away afterwards,' remarked Bessie, trying in vain to make her newly-acquired belief that all which Jesus did must be right, tally with her old faith in the manliness of fighting. The first time she read the fifth of St. Matthew, she had a stiff argument with her teacher over 'Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.' 'It can't mean that, I know,' exclaimed Bessie, decidedly. Do it teacher? It means what it says,—it's in the Bible, and that's enough,' answered the teacher. An unsympathizing appeal to authority of this kind, as a settler, or rather silencer, of moral diffi- culties, does not, however, satisfy children, any more than it satisfies adults. It is far more likely to weaken the weight of the appealed-to authority in the estimation of those who are morally muddled. Bessie was not to be so put down. ' I have no doubt that she half became a little infidel, —fancied that, after all, the Bible could not be true, if ittaught things like that. 'But, teacher,' she persisted, if anybody was to fetch ye a clout a-one side o' yer face, would you let 'em give ye a clout a-t'other ? Ketch me a-bein' aloha soft. I'd do all I knew to give it to 'em back agin.' But, as the months went by, Bessie's character under- went a very striking change. She was as self-reliant a little body as ever, but self (with half-grudged sacrifice to Granny) was no longer the centre of her little system of the universe. One Sunday morning, when she had been at the Sunday-school about two years, and I had happened to look in just as the children were filing off for morning service, Bessie stepped out of rank, and walked up to me with great aplomb, and yet manifestly in great distress. She waited until she had seen the backs
of the last scholar and teacher, and then explained hor trouble. . . . . . . 'If you please, sir,' she said, I want to do some good, but I don't know how. He was al'ays a-gobs' about doin' some good to somebody, but I don't do no good to nobody, though I goes about pretty much. I'm working walnuts now, and how's ye to do any good to anybody out o' them? 'Copt ye give 'em away, an' then how's Granny to live—let alone
me? Don't despise the walnuts, Bessie,' Ianswered, 'if they help you to earn an honest living. Whilst you are getting that you are doing your duty so far—just as much as when you come to church. If people were to come to church all day long, and leave other people to work for them and their wives and children, that would be laziness, and not religion.'"