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4th April, 2017

Reading and Walking in Victorian Spitalfields

Dr Nadia Valman, Queen Mary University of London

When in 2014 I first had the idea of marking the 150th anniversary of the birth of East End author Israel Zangwill with a guided walk using his most famous novel Children of the Ghetto, TCCE’s annual walking weekend offered the ideal opportunity to try it out. As a scholar of Victorian literature I had been teaching the novel for years  – it’s the first to explore an immigrant subculture in Victorian London – but had only recently noticed how it’s a text that unfolds in space as well as time.

Children of the Ghetto, first published in 1892, is a series of tangentially related pen-portraits of two generations of Jewish immigrants to east London. Unlike other contemporary writers who tended to stereotype immigrants, Zangwill drew his dramas from the differing responses of Jews to the challenges they were facing in Victorian London. But the novel’s narration is also like following a roving reporter around the immigrant neighbourhood of Spitalfields, observing children as they rush down the narrow streets to the school in Bell Lane, listening to the rumblings of prayer coming from the synagogue squeezed into the ground floor of a residential house off Brick Lane, slipping into the crowd of downtrodden tailors attending a socialist rally.

Children of the Ghetto worked exceptionally well as a guided walk. Many of Zangwill’s locations – the synagogues, sweatshops, markets and garrets where Jews lived, worked and worshipped – remain part of the landscape of Spitalfields today, and they provided vivid settings for discussing the social, religious and political controversies that racked the immigrant community. I especially wanted my intervention to tell a different, more complex story from the most popular tourist narratives of Spitalfields at the moment, which focus either pruriently on the exploits of Jack the Ripper or nostalgically on the lost social warmth of the Jewish East End.

Zangwill’s sparky prose leapt off the page to animate contemporary east London with a sense of the past lives that had inhabited the streets and buildings where we walked.  Reading the text out loud I realised how much people enjoy listening to novels, and how the texture of Victorian prose is often more audible than visible. Participants were quick to notice parallels between Zangwill’s world and our own: he wrote of class divisions within an ethnic community; immigrant parents in conflict with their English-born children; young people grappling with a religious heritage that seems to have limited relevance to their lives. The walk was interactive and social, with questions and discussion as we moved. The family stories that many brought to the walk, whether local to east London or not, expanded the imaginative topography of Spitalfields.

Since then, the TCCE Annual Walking Weekend has provided an occasion for me to pursue further experiments in animating London literature, including collaborating with colleagues to bring my research into conversation with other new work in cultural history. In 2015 I teamed up with Rehana Ahmed (QMUL) and Sumita Mukherjee (KCL), historians of South Asian migration, to produce a guided walk revealing sites in Whitechapel where, more than a century ago, eastern European Jewish and South Asian migrants shared spaces of work, leisure and encounter. For 2016’s Weekend I worked with singer and musicologist Vivi Lachs (RHUL) to produce a walk through Whitechapel’s streets in which we performed poetry, dialogues and song written in the late nineteenth century that evoked the struggles, pleasures and hopes of working-class Jewish women who lived there. These approaches fed into Zangwill’s Spitalfields, a mobile app based on my first guided walk. The app, released in 2016 offers an immersive experience of Victorian Spitalfields by augmenting readings from the novel and my commentaries on the text, street and buildings with a range of archive visual and aural sources including documents, museum objects, music and oral history recordings.

Image: Soup Kitchen Now, courtesy of Dr Nadia Valman

When you stand outside the Soup Kitchen for the Jewish Poor in Brune Street, for example, where Children of the Ghetto opens, you can see contemporary illustrations of the West End ladies who doled out food to the hungry here. For Zangwill, Victorian philanthropy flattered the self-satisfied middle-classes — an analysis borne out by the ostentatious style of the Soup Kitchen building, fronted with a fashionably elaborate Arts and Crafts façade. The building also aimed for efficient crowd management by carefully orchestrating the movement of its clients through separate doors for entry and exit. As an architectural form of social control that also expressed the taste and status of its sponsors, the Soup Kitchen exemplified class tension within the nineteenth-century immigrant community. In contrast, however, the app also presents images of the Soup Kitchen’s meticulously inscribed leather-bound record books, which reveal the huge extent of its operation, as well as its unusually liberal policy towards all who asked for help.

In this and at other sites, the app uses multiple sources to create a rich descriptive context for Zangwill’s novel. It also enabled me to explore creatively the ways we experience literary texts. Zangwill’s Spitalfields uses the unique capacity of mobile digital technology to immerse the listener in Spitalfields’ past while remaining attentive, or becoming more attentive, to its present, as you walk through a streetscape shaped by more recent histories of migration.

Dr Nadia Valman, Queen Mary University of London

Find out more about TCCE’s 2016 walking weekend here

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