In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Slum Fiction

  • Introduction
  • Contemporary Non-Fiction Accounts
  • Contemporary Discussions of Slum Fiction
  • Online Resources and Archives

Victorian Literature Slum Fiction
Eliza Cubitt
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0184


Dating from the 1870s, slum fiction sought to investigate thoroughly and represent accurately the lives of those living in overcrowded and insanitary areas of industrial cities. The production of these narratives accelerated in response to the economic depression of 1874–1896, migration from rural areas, the expansion of suffrage and the marches against unemployment in Trafalgar Square in 1886–1887, the Matchgirls’ strike of 1888, the Whitechapel murders of 1888–1889, and the Dockworkers’ strike of 1889. Slum fictions were also catalyzed by two literary events: George Sims’s How the Poor Live (1883) and Andrew Mearns’s shocking social report, The Bitter Cry of Outcast London (1883). “Slum,” a term in usage from the 1840s, meant an area of dilapidated housing which was not only dirty but in such bad repair as to make cleaning impossible; severely overcrowded and lacking space, light, and fresh air; where sickness was consequently more fatal than in neighboring areas. Slum dwellings included cellars, attics, lean-tos, and subdivided larger houses. Often located near small factories, particularly those of the “stink industries,” these sites were also cut off from main thoroughfares and so from the city itself: in courts, alleys, back lanes, and back yards, these places were hidden from view. This literature is therefore often characterized as an adventure into the unknown, sometimes drawing on the picaresque evocations of city sights in the 1820s to propose this potential of chaotic misadventure; often countering this impression with somber realities continually “rediscovered” in the slums. Reflecting concerns about crime, deviance, degeneration, and urban housing, the slum became representative, in late-Victorian fiction, of the deepest anxieties about city life. Drawing inspiration from the Condition of England novels of the earlier Victorian period as well as using the clipped language and heredity-informed investigations of Guy de Maupassant and Émile Zola in France, writers produced desolate tales of survival in British cities. Although strongly associated with late-Victorian realism and experimental naturalism, slum fiction is not a single genre, but collects many genres including romance, ethnography, satire, and combinations of the above, around the vice and suffering in, around, and because of the late-Victorian urban housing crisis. The realism debates of the 1890s argued that these fictions were vicarious, prurient, and wallowing in dirt and depravity which could have no good effects. Yet authors and readers continued to mine the slums for material for decades. Slum fictions were predominantly set in London, and most often the East End of London. The East End became a catch-all for a giant slum, despite authors vouching for the veracity of their own visits there which revealed bleak, clean, dour settings in which the real problem, they argued, was a lack of joy. Such “rediscoveries” of the slum encouraged the collapse of the category of slum fiction into working-class fiction, a slippage which provides much of the tension and interest of these works. Slum fictions responded not only to the dire housing in the cities but also, with exasperation and reproach, to various attempts at reform or redress.

Primary Texts: Notable Antecedents

In the novels and non-fiction of the early-mid nineteenth century, we find the foundations of the discussions of the slums of the later works. The literary explorations of the urban slum in the 1820s, represented below by Egan 1821 (cited under Anxious Influencers: Fiction), show the japes and capers to be found in a delighted survey of the city. Over the next three decades, such representations became outmoded, demonstrating the effects of the New Poor Law (1834) which equated poverty with depravity or outright criminality, and the “Hungry Forties,” when industrial areas were particularly vulnerable to the consequences of the Corn Laws. Along with these causes at home, anxieties surrounding the revolutions in mainland Europe and America prompted a literary engagement with nascent radical movements and the admonitions for the quelling of discontent and potential radicalism.

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