THE HOME LIFE . OF THE POOR. T WO striking collections of
essays on the subject of the poor lie before us,—" The Canker at the Heart," by L. Cope Cornrow]. (Richards, 3s. 6d. net), and "The Queen's Poor," by M. Loane (Edward Arnold, 62.) The latter, which we will deal with first, is the more illuminating work of the two. The writer really knows her subject. She is a district nurse; and if any one has a right to speak with authority on the subject of the poor, it is surely a district nurse. She sees them at home and she sees them in trouble. She comes in order to alleviate suffering. The obvious object of her visit disarms suspicion, and in the great majority of cases she is received as a friend. If such :a woman has the power to write down her experiences, they cannot but be instructive. Miss Loane, judging from her- writing, is a woman of sense, sympathy, humour, and literary ability. As we read, it is impossible not to see that she is also an optimist, and impossible not to feel that that fact colours her evidence in some degree. She likes the poor too well not to cover up some of the faults for which poverty is responsible, and we now and then suspect her of arranging her literary shadows so that she may produce that twilight in which squalor is picturesque. But the very instinct which leads her to hide is the same that enables her to reveal. Miss Loane .has worked, she tells us, "in every district of a large seaport town, in an inland town, and in what are con- sidered the worst parts of London." All the same, she finds herself obliged to reply to those who question her about "the slums" :—" I do not know exactly what is meant by a slum. I have seen collections of dwellings that seemed to me painfully poor and crowded, but they were homes to the people who lived in them. They even spoke of their comforts, and of not being able to get them anywhere except in their own houses; and they meant what they said in a literal way."
Of the relations between husband and wife among the poor —which lie, of course, at the foundation of home life—Miss Loane takes a cheerful view. They are as a rule, she thinks, very good friends. "Few well-to-do people realise how much self-control and unselfishness are necessary before peaceful lives can be lived in crowded quarters," she says, and tells the following story—one from the lips of a little girl—in illus- tration of her words. "Mother's chest isn't never really bad except when dad smokes in the kitchen of an evening ; but she won't say nothing about it to him, because it's very hard if he can't have a pipe in his own house, same as other men does. Sometimes it makes mother feel that queer she has to go to bed, and then dad says : 'Why, what's took you, mother P You've been rampaging round too much. Why don't you let things be ? I never take heed of nothing long as I get ,my meals, and the boys would rather be dirty.' Dad's such a stupid he don't never think it's his stuokin.' as done it, and he'll make her a cup of tea and carry it up to her, and then he tells me to make haste and grow, so's she won't have so much work to do. It do annoy sue! I don't think I'll let my husband act so silly. But mother says you never know till you get them. He's the biggest baby of the lot." The unselfishness is by no means all on the woman'spside, however. Miss Loane tells of "men who for months at a stretch did all their own work, waited on a sick wife, and, with very little help from the neighbours, washed and dressed the children, and gave half Saturday and most of Sunday to house-cleaning." Of course exceptions to the rule of good-fellowship are many and terrible. The saddest thing is that "the wives on whom all the blows and abuse fall are not the women who have deserved them, and might conceivably be restrained by them," —not those, she goes on to explain, who ill-treat their children and keep their houses like pigsties. "Kicks and oaths are kept for the dull, patient, timid, uncomplaining drudge, gener- ally a little—a very little—below the average in intellect." No man in the lower classes resents his wife's superior educa- tion or ability—should she possess such superiority—but is simply proud of it. On the other hand, unhappiness often arises from her ignorance and incapacity to enter into her husband's ambitions, especially where the man has "raised himself." We are told of a case in which a husband's very high wages depended largely on his knowledge of French and German, which he was expected to improve to the highest possible point. "Lessons of the advanced kind that he required, and which, to .save time, had to be given in his own house, could not be obtained for less than four shillings an hour. At first the wife was immensely amused, and, used to sit outside the little parlour door doubled up with laughter over the queer way of talking, but soon she wearied of this, and end- less reproaches over the waste of money began and are still going on."
The children of the poor are, in Miss Loane's experience, very kindly treated, and certainly their condition has greatly improved of late years. "I have often heard certain Acts of Parliament intended for the prevention of cruelty called 'The Children's Charter ' ; but necessary as these Acts are, it would be a libel on the working classes to say that they affected the daily lives of more than a minority. To me the Children's Charter is the Compulsory Education Act. It would be no exaggeration to say that it has nearly doubled the years of permitted childhood, and added incalculably to its interests and pleasures." Many drunken men who ill-treat their wives spare their children. "When father's drunk he knocks mother about shameful, but he never hits us a lick," is commonly said; and Miss Loane declares that she knOws "scarcely a home so poverty-stricken that every child in it cannot tell you its birthday, and does not expect some little gift, or at least some sign of favour or indulgence, on the anniver- sary." Here is a list given as typical of the birthday presents of a little girl of nine, one of twelve children : "a silver thrup-ny,' and a penny, and a half-penny, and a doll what is not dressed yet, and a piece of cake." As to the moral training of the children of the working class, Miss Loane thinks it leaves a very great deal to be desired. The most common adjectives of praise and blame in use among mothers when describing the characters of their children are " do-syle " and " biggotted,"—i.e., yielding and obstinate. " Cheek " and the destruction of clothing are the highest and most penal offences, and lying is but lightly regarded.
A low standard of truth prevails also among the grown-up poor. Conversation is hampered by very little regard for accuracy. Miss Loane was told of one man, with surprise and admiration : "Why there, I do believe that he might talk to you a whole evening and you'd never catch him out in a lie." The vocabulary of the poor has been greatly enlarged by the Board-school, and the pleasure they take in conversation is great and greatly on the increase. "Nowhere are there such incessant talkers to be found as in the upper ranks of artisans and the non-commissioned officers of both services." Long words are greatly delighted
in by women, and are not, of course, always used correctly. Speaking of the late Queen, a patient said solemnly: "I have always thought that she lived too much in solution." One very significant fact in considering the condition of the poor is this : "Good old days" are not a tradition among them ; "all old stories are of hardship." We all, when we consider the poor, desire vaguely that they should go "back to the land " ; but do we not greatly exaggerate the delights they enjoyed upon it ? The fol- lowing account—which the present writer has heard amply corroborated by those who remember the times alluded to and are well acquainted with the East Anglian labourer— gives one pause :—" 'I married on Gs. a week,' said an Essex labourer's wife, born about 1818, and when my husband got a rise of 2s. we thought we was made. What did we eat ? Well, potatoes was pretty cheap, but dear at any price by the time the year was well turned We grew a few vegetables. but we hadn't much of a garden, nor time to see to it. The bread was dear, and made o' sharps—same as what pigs gets now Ab, to think of my husband in his first strength getting 6s. a week and a rent to pay, and me here, an old woman, getting 5s. and fire and light and house-room just for doing for the doctor's groom and keeping the place clean against any of his grandchildren sleeps here."
How is it that Miss Loane's pictures of poverty differ so considerably from those that have been lately offered to the public,—i.e., from the word-pictures which have recently been appearing in the newspapers ? Take, for instance, such a book as "The Canker at the Heart." Mr. Cope Cornford deals to a great extent with the homeless poor, of whom, of course, Miss Loane knows nothing. But he also deals with the poor who have homes, and when he does so he leaves upon the imagination of his reader an impression of unrelieved misery and squalor. "Vast accretions of foul dwellings " ; faces which show neither hope nor despair, pleasure nor any other emotion; half-starved, ill-clad children; and all the horrors which come of poverty and the vice which poverty breeds. Is there any truth in his descriptions ? We fear there is a great deal; but they are impressionist pictures, and pictures, too, of first impressions. A father, mother, and five children, one of whom is above school age, living, according to their own account, upon ten to twelve shillings a week, seven of which go on rent, is an unlikely story, though Mr. Cornford believes it. Nevertheless, it is impossible to walk about a poor district of London and deny that Mr. Cornford has been, on the whole, faithful to Nature. How is such conflicting evidence to be reconciled ? Differences of temperament and conviction. on the part of the writers may account for something, and no place strikes a visitor quite as it strikes an inhabitant. Imagine an educated man or woman who has led an entirely secluded life suddenly dropped into what is vaguely called London society, commissioned to write traly'of what he sees with a view to exposure and reform. It is quite likely that the public would get a very ugly picture, and that that picture might do a great deal of good, though.
` the writer might dwell too much on the scandals for which be- came to look. On the other hand, it would be absurd to accept his view as either comprehensive or final, or of equal value with that of some one who had lived among those he had but seen. If an inhabitant of the society in which the pessimist was but a visitor wrote a book about his friends, he might write with too much sympathy, might be ignorant of certain corners ; might, for instance, have no first-hand knowledge of the life or doings of those whom fate or fortune has placed within the "smart set,"—just as Miss Loane has no knowledge of those whom ill-luck or dislike to labour has sunk into what we may call the slothful set. Still, the men and women who see from within know more than those who look from without, though it is always worth while to know "how it strikes a stranger." To such of our readers as really desire to know how the poor live we would recommend both books. By the nurse they will be vastly entertained, and by the journalist they will be—perhaps wholesomely— depressed.