By Dominique Kalifa

Columbia University Press. 278 pages. £27. ISBN 978-0-231-18742-8

Reviewed by Jim Burns

The “underworld” is something probably most associated in people’s minds with a criminal fraternity of one kind or another.  The Underworld Story is the title of a 1950 film I recently watched, and it did involve a shady gangster, though interestingly the corruption he stimulated had spread into the upper reaches of society and dragged down a supposedly-powerful newspaper publisher and his son. Perhaps this was always behind the fear of the underworld, that it was there waiting to break out of its disreputable habitat and move to disturb the respectable world and its conventions and comforts?

That certainly seems to have been the belief in the nineteenth-century when a widespread suspicion of the lower-depths engendered an understanding that, metaphorically and physically, there was an underworld comprised of various groups who, at some point, might join together to turn on the bourgeoisie and destroy its fragile social structure. The bas fonds de société (dregs of society) were a noticeable presence in the towns and cities that expanded as the industrial revolution developed in the West. The underworld was something that, in a definable sense, arose out of urbanisation: “Poverty, crime, rape, and incest did indeed dwell in the depths of the rural world - and perhaps especially there – but the lower depths and underworld existed only in large cities”.  And furthermore, the nineteenth-century brought a change in perception: “A whole system of representation that had been erected at the end of the Middle Ages around outcasts and marginals was being reordered into a more coherent scheme, now clearly inscribed in a social dimension”. 

Dominique Kalifa points out that in earlier times there had been laws to restrict the movements and activities of certain types who were deemed to be functioning in anti-social ways. Beggars, tramps, vagabonds, and others who didn’t appear to have a steady job and a fixed abode, could find themselves subject to restrictions in terms of being banned from certain areas. They were looked on as a nuisance, but were not necessarily seen as some sort of overall threat to the continuation of an ordered society. They were not revolutionary, and in many ways existed almost as a parallel society, with its own hierarchies and customs. Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris delves into this world, with its Court of Miracles. Fake blind men, false cripples, prostitutes, con-men of varying kinds. It can be seen as amusing, as the blind suddenly see and the lame walk normally, but it had its dark side of vice and crime.

It was with the spread of slums in cities that a notion of an underworld caught the imagination of writers who were not slow to exploit the idea of a mass of people who could, given the right circumstances, rise as a body to present a threat to the wider society. At the same time, novelists could often impart a degree of glamour to the exploits of certain members of the underclass. There seems to have always been a fascination with criminals. Harrison Ainsworth wrote about the highwayman, Dick Turpin, in Rookwood, and about Jack Shepherd in a serialised novel of that name. Neither Turpin nor Shepherd were exactly pleasant individuals, and both were seemingly prone to violence when it suited them, but their exploits were given a veneer of almost-heroic amiability when fictionalised. The likeable rogue was to become a fixture in many novels. And John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera was a hit in London and its songs whistled and sung everywhere.

Exploring the underworld by means of a book or magazine perhaps gave a vicarious shiver of apprehension to the comfortable and secure. The way crime and vice are reported now isn’t much different, and may appeal to a deep desire to break out of the trap of conformity. “I wish I had the nerve to be a great thief “, said the American entertainer, Richard “Lord” Buckley, and his audience laughed approvingly, as if sharing the sentiment.

The nineteenth-century fear of the underworld was, however, largely derived from knowing that there was a very large segment of society that, though working when it could, lived in absolute squalor and in close proximity to the criminal class. Crime of a routine kind was often a way for working class people to survive. Louis Chevalier’s classic study, Labouring Classes and Dangerous Classes in Paris During the First Half of the Nineteenth Century, is of key relevance in this context, and ought to be in the library of anyone interested in life in the French capital in the period concerned. It was Chevalier who pointed to the novels, plays, and other materials that can usefully throw light on the underworld and its denizens. Hugo, Balzac, and Eugène Sue are all mentioned. The latter’s Mystèries de Paris has all the liveliness of a potboiler, but is also a mine of information about the “world beneath the world”, as the Goncourts described it.

Pauperism, a word that came into use in England around 1815, and in France ten or so years later, sprang out of industrialisation: “It referred to a new form of poverty, a new social state produced by factory working conditions, one marked by low wages, structural unemployment, and the loss of complementary traditional income”. It was “the forced condition of a large portion of the members of society”. It was often the lower middle-class, those just a step or two away from the abyss of pauperism, who felt easily threatened by the underworld. Told sensational tales of it by an increasing number of opportunistic newspapers, they feared losing what little they had, and so could easily be aroused to look down on the underclass.  

It wasn’t just Paris that offered insights into an underworld of poverty and criminality for inspection, either by social commentators or novelists. Dickens was an obvious example in England, and there was also Elizabeth Gaskell, whose Mary Barton focused on the Manchester working-class. Kalifa quotes from a lesser-known novelist, Geraldine Jewsbury who, in her 1851 Marian Withers, described the city’s lower depths as having “repugnant visions/sights and intolerable stench, where all the garbage, filthy water and muck of houses and basements were putrefying in the streets”. A little later, Arthur Morrison’s Tales of Mean Streets and A Child of the Jago would bring the reader back to London and its scenes of misery and vice.

There were social reformers, of course, and indeed the aforementioned writers of fiction had more than earning a fee in mind when they produced their novels and stories. But it was investigators like Henry Mayhew (London Labour and the London Poor) and Charles Booth (Life and Labour of the People of London) who truly drew attention to the facts of vice, crime and poverty. In New York, Jacob Riis did the same with How the Other Half Lives. There was even an exchange of ideas when the American Jack London came to England and produced the powerful The People of the Abyss.

It may be debatable as to how many people were influenced to favour reforms by fictional commentary on the underworld, and how many by the factual reporting on poverty and corruption. It’s probably impossible to obtain exact figures of the readerships in either category, and in any case they wouldn’t necessarily give a guide to influence. Perhaps both combined to shape thinking, in a positive or negative way, at various levels of society?

It may also be difficult to know how much people’s thinking was manipulated by novels, and how much by sociological surveys, in terms of inculcating fears of a possible uprising from the lower depths. Was the savage repression of the Commune in 1871 partly due to perceptions that the insurrectionists were not the respectable working-class but were mostly drawn from a shifting and shapeless mass that, at one time might have been referred to as bohemia. Kalifa does discuss the relationship between the bas-fond and bohemia, and points to the fact that both begin to emerge as identifiable bodies around the same time in 1830s/1840s Paris. With regard to the Commune, Kalifa makes the interesting observation that: “Republican democracy was not really established in France until the ‘rabble’ of the underworld was definitively crushed after the Paris Commune”.

 We now think of bohemians as activists and hangers-on functioning in and around the arts, but earlier descriptions gave the term a wider implication. Marx had no hesitation in thinking of bohemia as including individuals who made a living at one or other of the hundreds of small trades to be found in early-nineteenth century Paris. And when the great illustrator Daumier produced a series called “The Bohemians of Paris”  for the journal Le Charivari,  he drew pictures of a second-hand clothes peddler, a cigar-butt collector, a beggar, a political refugee, a gleaner, and a pickpocket. As Marilyn R. Brown said in her Gypsies and Other Bohemians: The Myth of the Artist in Nineteenth-Century France (UMI Research Pres, 1985), Daumier’s bohemians were “a repertoire of the various types of déracinairés to be seen wandering the gutters and quays of Paris”. Gavarni also had a flexible approach to the types he thought of as bohemians when he drew pictures of them.

It’s worth noting that Marx didn’t have a high opinion of bohemians of the type described above and referred to them as a lumpenproletariat and a reactionary force that could be used by the authorities to supress genuine protest movements. They were “the worst of all possible allies”. But Kalifa makes an intriguing reference to some “young Milanese bohemians of the 1880s who came to Socialism through reading Sue, Vallès, or Zola (and) thought that from this shameful sub-proletariat, this savage society of beggars, the downgraded, pimps and  prostitutes, would someday emerge the true people endowed with a real class consciousness”.

This sort of misguided romanticising of the lower depths has not been unusual among bohemian intellectuals, writers, and artists. In some cases it came about as people’s faith in the power of the working-class as a revolutionary force began to decline, and would-be revolutionaries looked around for another group they hoped to lead to the promised land. In other cases, it was because the bohemians themselves felt marginalised, and exalting the down-and-outs and drifters was a way of repudiating the middle-class that most of them came from. The 1950s Beat espousal of poverty, and expressions of admiration for hobos, junkies, juvenile delinquents, and petty thieves in an affluent, complacent society, might be an example of this.

The fear of the “unknown”, which is how the lower classes were often seen, may have almost reached a climax towards the end of the nineteenth-century and early in the twentieth-century when a spate of novel appeared in which alien forces threatened life on earth. Kalifa refers to H.G. Wells (The Time Machine) and several other authors: “A whole vein (illustrated by Arthur Conan Doyle, Henry Rider Haggard, and especially Edgar Rice Burroughs) used forgotten worlds peopled with races and civilisations but also with vanished monsters”.  It’s a personal choice, but perhaps I can also suggest William Hope Hodgsons’ 1908 novel,  The House on the Borderland, where a strange race of beings is about to burst out of its hiding place in the bowels of the earth and create panic and disease. Later, in the 1920s, H.P. Lovecraft built up a whole series of stories about the “others” beyond the known world but always waiting to gain access to it.

There was, of course, always a racial element to fears of alien invasions. The early 1900s were a time when talk of the “yellow peril”, meaning the Chinese and other Asiatics, was widespread. And in Britain the 1905 Aliens Act was essentially designed to limit the number of Jews arriving in the country from Eastern Europe. They were often identified with anarchist theories, and anarchists were considered as much a part of the underworld as criminals and other anti-social elements. Anarchism of the deed, such as hurling bombs into crowded restaurants and assassinating politicians and related public figures, was very much in the air at the time.

Is there an underworld now? Some would say “yes”, meaning the criminal world I referred to at the start of this review. But Kalifa has his doubts, and says that crime is now often in the open, with criminals mixing with politicians and celebrities. They sometimes are near-celebrities. Journalists are not averse to reporting on their life-styles, especially if they involve scandal and possible associations with the powerful. In the nineteenth-century, newspapers thrived on sensational stories about the lower depths, now they spread fear of a corruption that involves all levels of society. They do also throw light on individuals on “sink estates” who live on welfare benefits, but they are just that, individuals rather than a mass that presents a threat. The reports engender moral outrage, but not a panic about an underworld.

Vice, Crime, and Poverty is a fascinating book and raises many provocative questions about nineteenth-century society and literature. It is clearly written, and has extensive notes.