Ruby Tuke is a PhD student in the School of English and Drama at Queen Mary University of London. Her research explores representations of poverty and indebtedness in the works of Godwin, Wordsworth and De Quincey.
Thomas De Quincey’s interest in vagrancy was shared by a number of other English Romantic literary figures around the turn of the nineteenth century. What makes his observations unusual is the fact that they were drawn from his own first-hand experience. The first edition of his best-known work: Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821) describes De Quincey’s brief stint in London as a teenage vagrant.[i] It was this early itinerant period in the capital that enabled him, as he later recorded, to sympathise and feel a sense of kinship with others in distress. In fact, De Quincey goes so far as to suggest that it is only through direct experience of hardship that one may know something of the ‘possible goodness of the human heart’.[ii]
The appeal of the Confessions rests in part on its dual ability to inhabit the space of the polite reading public, to whom the work is addressed, as well as to provide access to the world of beggars, shady moneylenders and prostitutes who formed part of the city’s seedy underbelly – at least in De Quincey’s account of it. Though admittedly light on solid facts, De Quincey’s account nevertheless conveys an unsettling sense of what life was like on the streets of London. He powerfully expresses the delirium and physical discomfort that accompanies prolonged hunger, rat-infested shelters and freezing weather conditions, in a way that previous eighteenth century chroniclers of the poor, such as Fielding and Defoe, were unable to do. De Quincey transforms his own painful experience of poverty in London into a classic work of literature – not altogether un-problematically – to be read by many people who may have otherwise chosen to turn a blind eye.
In the Confessions, De Quincey famously recollects his friendship with a teenage prostitute known as Ann. He describes how they would walk up and down Oxford Street and the labyrinthine streets of central London together. It would have been extraordinary in De Quincey’s time to read of an educated man publically affiliating himself with women regarded as outcasts. Yet De Quincey humorously makes the connection between Ann’s profession and his own situation: ‘Being myself at that time of necessity a peripatetic, or a walker of the streets, I naturally fell in more frequently with those female peripatetics who are technically called Street-walkers.’[iii] Walking the streets makes both Ann and De Quincey pariahs, since their movements cannot be fully accounted for. The first instalment of De Quincey’s text preceded the Vagrancy Act of 1824 by three years (a version of which remains in effect in England and Wales today). Yet he anticipates the development of a particular kind of anxiety towards the perceived mobility of the poor in the emerging modern metropolis – one which we have clearly not yet overcome today.
Unfortunately, De Quincey never remembered to ask Ann for her surname before they parted ways for what turned out to be the last time. He returns to the spot where they arranged to meet again but she appears to have vanished. De Quincey recalls that for years afterwards, when out walking the streets of London, he would search the face of every woman he saw in the hope that it might be Ann, but they were never to be reunited. Ann’s identity, if she were a real person, seems destined to remain an enigma.
Rather than a singular tragic tale, De Quincey stresses the fact that Ann’s unfortunate situation is regrettably part of daily life for many young women in the city. The challenge for girls such as Ann, De Quincey says, is not necessarily that there is no help available in London. In fact, he thinks that with adequate assistance she might have been able to improve her situation considerably. The problem is that ‘the stream of London Charity’ is ‘not obvious or readily accessible’ to those who actually need it: those whom he defines as ‘poor houseless wanderers’.[iv] Without the tools to navigate the intimidating English legal system, a fixed address and the necessary moral and geographical accountability which this brings, vulnerable people such as Ann are subsumed by the city: ‘the outside air and frame-work of London society is harsh, cruel, and repulsive.’[v]
Much has of course changed in our understanding of vulnerable young people in the almost two hundred years since the first instalment of the Confessions was published. In England we have one of the largest social welfare systems on the planet. Yet one of the troubling issues that I think De Quincey’s text raises for a contemporary reader is that, far from having disappeared, the difficulty in accessing resources for the ‘houseless’ remains.
As a result of further funding cuts, squeezed local services and the London housing crisis, the number of young homeless people in London, ensures that sadly De Quincey’s account cannot be wholly confined to the nineteenth century. If we are to attempt to change the narrative so that people such as Ann no longer comprise the hidden homeless, we need to make access to help simple and less daunting to navigate for those who need it most. Ever the earnest ironist, De Quincey’s peripatetic narrative in the Confessions reminds us that the movement of individuals in and around the city does not necessarily equate with the positive mobility of the people overall.
[i] The Works of Thomas De Quincey, ed. by Grevel Lindop and others, 21 vols (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2000–03), II, 1-76
[ii] De Quincey, II, 39.
[iii] De Quincey, II, 25.
[iv] De Quincey, II, 25.
[v] De Quincey, II, 25.