Froggy’s Little Brother: Nineteenth-Century Evangelical Writing for Children and the Politics of Poverty
Abstract and Keywords
This article addresses Froggy's Little Brother (1875), a British nineteenth-century “street arab” novel about destitute London children, through the lens of postcolonial theory. It illustrates how fictional conventions magnifying the plight of the poor child helped focus the debate over the “politics of poverty” at issue in Victorian society. In Froggy's Little Brother, the author, Brenda, had to navigate the waters of public opinion very carefully. The book also makes use of conventions to underline the urgent need to attend to the poor. It may often misrepresent Victorian London's poor children, but it is one of the key texts that sought to carve out a place for them in culture and helped create pathways by which their stories were gathered and told.
Froggy’s Little Brother (1875), “the most touching story in the English language,”1 was written by “Brenda,” the pen name of Mrs. G(eorgina) Castle Smith (1845–1933). Little known today, in her lifetime this British writer produced many popular children’s books. Froggy was her second novel, and its immediate success with critics and readers brought Brenda to national attention. Although she wrote twenty-three books over a career spanning fifty-nine years (her last book was published when she was eighty-seven), this sad story of two orphan brothers struggling to survive in Victorian London was the book for which she was remembered (Thiel 149). Throughout her life she received tributes from readers of every kind and station who were moved by Froggy; when she died, The Times carried a lengthy obituary, praising the way she pulled the nation’s heartstrings in its pages.
Brenda wrote four other tales about the urban poor, including a sequel—More About Froggy (1914)—in which “Froggy” goes to sea and gets married; but most of her novels centered on the experiences of children who lived happy, middle-class lives doing everyday things such as playing in the park and going to the seaside (see Thiel on Brenda’s domestic fiction). These stories offer illuminating vignettes of life in a Victorian household of a kind rarely found in more famous “adult” novels of the period.
(p. 256) Street Arabs: Strangers in Our Midst
Froggy’s Little Brother belongs to a genre known as “street arab” fiction. In the nineteenth century, the term “street arab” was frequently used to describe the multitude of children who filled the streets of Britain’s cities by day—and often slept on those streets at night. It is no exaggeration to call them a multitude: unlike our own time, when most developed countries have aging populations, during the nineteenth century, Britain saw a huge expansion in its numbers of children and young people, with nearly 40 percent of the total population being made up of children under the age of fourteen (Hopkins 161). The majority of these children lived in cities, and until legislation making education compulsory for all children between five and ten years of age came into being in 1880, they were often unsupervised; many also lacked parents or other caring adults and supported themselves as best they could, which (p. 257) was usually inadequately. It is two such children who Brenda places at the center of Froggy’s Little Brother.
“Street arab” is a telling label, for it exposes a way of thinking about poor city children that refused to see them either as part of British society or as children (the rural poor were a different matter as they were associated with nature in ways that were entirely consonant with prevailing Romantic discourses of innocent childhood). It marked these street children as outcasts—beings of an entirely different order from the middle and upper classes who were reading about them—and gave rise to an attitude of “domestic orientalism” (Plotz 37), meaning that those in positions of power regularly made pronouncements about poor children that both described and inscribed them in culture in ways that were disempowering and justified their exploitation and neglect. “Domestic orientalism” is a term derived from the work of Edward Said, whose influential study Orientalism (1978) argued that the West legitimized its colonization and subjugation of the East through a set of false representations that figured Eastern cultures (and, indeed, all cultures colonized by westerners) and peoples as less developed culturally, physically, intellectually, and morally than those in the West. This view was given power through statements ranging from official documents to sensational articles in the popular press that held such attitudes to be true and self-evident when in fact they were constructions based on a particular view of the world. In the same way, nineteenth-century discourses around the poor in Britain (hence “domestic” orientalism) were symptomatic of a middle- and upper-class mind-set that denied—or failed to recognize—any value to the way the working classes lived and constructed them as beings of a lower order.
It was against this background that Brenda wrote Froggy’s Little Brother. To evaluate her achievement, and particularly the extent to which she either transcended or perpetuated such colonizing discourses, it is helpful to make use of insights gained from postcolonial theory. Having established that like colonizers abroad, the upper classes justified their behavior toward the poor by designating them inferior and in need of regimes of discipline and education intended to be “civilizing,” it follows that other central ideas and approaches from postcolonial theory can fruitfully be applied to a discussion of street children and fiction about them. For example, they alert us to the assumption by those in authority that they have the right to speak for and about all, and so impose a language and way of thinking about themselves on other parts of society. Postcolonial theorists also point to the need to examine issues and information that have been pushed into the background or erased from writing about the colonized, so when reading about street children it will be necessary to look for aspects of life in the poor parts of Britain’s cities that are muted or rendered invisible. Beyond identifying mechanisms of repression, postcolonial critics focus on aspects of resistance and change, both as they find expression in writing and - particularly important with regard to a text such as Froggy’s Little Brother, which was written from a middle-class perspective—in the way it was read.2 Froggy had a readership that spanned social classes and ages; perhaps unsurprisingly, while contemporary (p. 258) middle-class readers of the Times found Brenda’s story to be “full of pathos and truth,” (qtd. in Lennox-Boyd 120), the poor and those outside cities were more mixed in their responses. Charlotte Mary Yonge read Froggy to some village children in Hampshire and found their reactions varied markedly from class to class (qtd. in Lennox-Boyd 120).
To read Froggy’s Little Brother from a postcolonial perspective and to understand it as part of a larger discourse about Britain’s poor children, it is necessary to look in some detail at the way street children were written about and constructed in Victorian society. The Member of Parliament and reformer Lord Shaftesbury, who did much to help children living in poverty, not only coined the phrase “street arab” but also provided one of the most graphic descriptions of the real children about whom it was used:
This account is striking—and a prime example of domestic orientalism at work—for the way it treats its subjects as if they were less than human: the children are compared to birds, insects and, in their half-naked state, implicitly to savages (at the time considered less evolved than “civilized” races such as the British). They roam the same fetid spaces and rubbish heaps as vermin or dogs, and in their “barbarian freedom” are the antithesis of the ideal of Victorian middle-class childhood, safely secured in the routines of the nursery, seen but not heard. While at one level Shaftesbury was undoubtedly using this imagery to shock readers into realizing that in their own time children in Britain were living in this way, the extent to which the children he describes are dehumanized is telling.
Everyone who walks the streets of the metropolis must daily observe several members of the tribe [of street arabs], bold, pert, and dirty as London sparrows, but pale, feeble, and sadly inferior to them in plumpness of outline…. Many are spanning the gutters with their legs and dabbling with earnestness in the latest accumulation of nastiness; while others, in squalid and half-naked groups, squat about at the entrance of the narrow, foetid courts and alleys that lie concealed behind the deceptive frontages of our larger thoroughfares. Whitechapel and Spitelfields [sic] teem with them like an ant’s nest; but it is in Lambeth and Westminster that we find the most flagrant traces of their swarming activity. There the foul and dismal passages are thronged with children of both sexes, and from the age of three to thirteen. Through want and hazard, they are singularly vivacious and engaged in every sort of occupation but that which would be beneficial to themselves and creditable to the neighbourhood. The matted hair, the disgusting filth that renders necessary a closer inspection before flesh can be discerned between the rags which hang about them, and the barbarian freedom from all superintendence and restraint, fill the mind of a novice of these things with perplexity and dismay. (qtd. in Plotz 34)
Street children belonged to a world that would have been unknown to most of Brenda’s readers; despite the fact that such youngsters were regularly working, playing and running amok around the city, they lived in places that members of the middle classes only ventured into when doing charitable work of the kind Lord Shaftesbury himself was known for—in his case trying to improve the living and (p. 259) working conditions of poor children and attempting to educate them so that they could support themselves in such socially approved ways as learning a trade, running errands, or selling goods/offering services on the street. As with Brenda, it is necessary to ask how far his efforts grew from the recognition that the poor were only “other” as a consequence of their circumstances and how far he regarded them as inferiors who needed to be educated to give them at least some semblance of civilization and make their presence tolerable for the rest of society. Either way, his description reflects the sense that there was a separate territory inhabited by primitive hordes that infused Victorian social discourse. The journalist Henry Mayhew captures this attitude perfectly in the sensational opening sections of London Labour and the London Poor (1861),3 a series of interviews with and reflections on the lives and beliefs of the London poor that makes the underlying attitudes and power structures of colonialism in the relations between rich and poor unmistakable. Mayhew compares his forays into the slums of London to travels among primitive people in a foreign land. Like Dante he is reporting back from an underworld; like David Livingstone (“discovered” by Henry Stanley just four years before Froggy was published), he is exploring a dark continent, though one located in the very capital of England. He explains the existence of these tribes using the following analogy:
… we, like the Kafirs, Fellahs, and Finns, are surrounded by wandering hordes—the “Sonquas” and the “Fingoes”of this country—paupers, beggars, and outcasts, possessing nothing but what they acquire by depredation from the industrious, provident, and civilized portion of the community;—that the heads of these nomads are remarkable for the greater development of the jaws and cheekbones rather than those of the head;—and that they have a secret language of their own—an English “cuze-cat” or “slang” as it is called—for the concealment of their designs: these are points of coincidence so striking that, when placed before the mind, make us marvel that the analogy should have remained thus long unnoticed. (2)
Mayhew goes on to devise a taxonomy of these “others” who live amongst the English that comprises six groups: I. Street-sellers; II. Street-buyers; III. Street-Finders; IV. Street-Performers, Artists, and Showmen (this being the group to which Froggy’s family initially belongs); V. Street-Artizans, or Working Pedlars, and VI. Street-Labourers. Among the many shortcomings of the slum-dwellers Mayhew notes are their “repugnance to regular and continuous labour,” “want of providence,” “inability to perceive consequences,” “passion for stupefying herbs and roots, and, when possible, for intoxicating fermented liquors,” “immoderate love of gaming,” “absence of chastity among [the] women,” and “vague sense of religion, rude idea of a Creator, and utter absence of all appreciation of the mercy of the Divine Spirit” (2). The best he can say of them is that they have “extraordinary powers of enduring privation” and a “comparative insensibility to pain” (2). In other words, the poor not only represent the antithesis of respectable Victorian bourgeois values but are seen as congenitally inclined to degenerate behavior.
(p. 260) Street Arab Fiction: The Politics of Poverty
Mayhew’s diatribe is typical of a widely held view of the poor that regarded their problems as largely of their own making and assumed that they lacked the resolution to help themselves in the way advocated by prominent Victorians such as Samuel Smiles, writer and reformer whose influential book Self-Help (1859) embodied the middle-class Victorian ethic of personal responsibility. Responsibility was closely associated with a model and rhetoric of respectability that, particularly in relation to the poor, celebrated characteristics such as honesty, temperance, hard work, steadiness, self-improvement, self-discipline, sexual control, cleanliness, duty, and acceptance of one’s social position. Much of the thinking about and energy in promoting respectability came from the evangelical side of the Anglican Church, and so in the public mind there was a strong correlation between behaving “respectably” and being “saved,” which meant living in a way that prepared you for a better time in the next life. However, this should not disguise the fact that these are all attributes that make individuals easy to govern, and so much of the support for working-class respectability came from those in positions of authority who, consciously or not, found it a useful form of social control. There is considerable evidence (Thompson 1988; Huggins 2000; Dawson 2007) that the middle and, particularly, the upper classes defined respectability more strictly for the lower orders than they did for themselves.
Against this background, in Froggy’s Little Brother, Brenda had to navigate the waters of public opinion very carefully. On the one hand, she needed to establish that her impoverished characters are in extremis, and on the other, she needed to make them sympathetic, which meant establishing their respectability. Describing with accuracy the degrading circumstances in which orphans like Froggy and Benny lived risked alienating readers by evoking images such as Shaftesbury’s and Mayhew’s, so throughout she focuses on such things as the thinness of the boys’ clothes rather than the fact that they had no way to wash them, and emphasizes the virtues of the poor while passing lightly over ubiquitous problems such as drunkenness, violence, and prostitution—precisely the debauched spectrum of behavior that the code of respectability was designed to address. Where Shaftesbury notes the “disgusting filth” and inadequate rags of the children he encountered, she shows Froggy attempting to keep himself decent through washing his face and head in freezing water and mending his clothes. In contrast to the image of London’s street children disseminated through the tropes of domestic orientalism, Froggy has, it seems, an inbuilt notion of propriety. Illustrators, including Brenda’s husband, “Cas,” who provided the pictures for the first edition of the novel, also attempted to convey this quality by depicting the boys in picturesquely torn clothing rather than filthy rags, their eager—and evidently clean—faces illuminated by light from the garret window.
(p. 261) Froggy is not the only honorable character in these fictional slums; readers are also called upon to admire acts of kindness and generosity among those who have virtually nothing to call their own. For instance, Mrs. Blunt, mother of the family that lives below the boys, helps them when she can, providing the odd candle so that five-year-old Benny does not have to wait alone in the darkness when Froggy is late, occasionally lending them money for breakfast, and keeping an eye on Benny when Froggy is out. Each time she makes such an intervention, the text reminds readers that her own life is a constant struggle: she has a drunken husband and six children, and she works as a charwoman as well as taking in washing. When Benny (p. 262) is ill—presumably with the same infection that a few days earlier had killed his playmate Debs, Mrs. Blunt’s youngest child—she immediately gives Froggy some fuel to make a little fire. The text identifies this as characteristic of “the generosity of her class.” There follows one of the most frequently quoted passages from the book, in which Brenda simultaneously characterizes the poor as embodying Christian kindness and prompts her readers to recognize that they have it in their power to do much more for the needy and at less cost to themselves:
This encomium to the poor makes explicit a key part of Brenda’s agenda; Froggy’s Little Brother not only presents the poor—and particularly poor children—as admirable people in difficult circumstances rather than as a barbarian race living wild in England’s cities, but it also conveys a subtext reminding comfortably situated readers, identified here and throughout the novel as like the narrator through pronouns such as “we” and “our,” that it behooved them to attend to the poor before the poor took matters into their own hands. This lesson is characteristic of street arab fiction, which by the time Brenda was writing in the 1870s had a clear set of conventions. Foremost among these are the focus on ragged urban children who endure privation, face and overcome temptation, and whose good behavior, often associated with love for and loyalty to a family member or friend, is finally rewarded when it is discovered by an enlightened philanthropist who is also usually a Christian. Street arab tales tend to have recent or contemporary settings, to be authentic in their depictions of the lives of the poor and to convey a strongly evangelical Christian message about salvation. They almost always feature a “good” child’s deathbed scene in which the dying child is assured of being reunited with parents or other loved ones while those left behind find new beginnings that combine improved living conditions and confirmation of their faith in God and his servants in this world.4
How many beautiful lessons can we learn from the poor—for suffering nobly endured and heavy burdens bravely borne…. They show us how to be truly and greatly generous in their willingness to share the last crumb of comfort, whatever that may be, with a neighbour, kindly and ungrudgingly, without hope of return or reward. Theirs is not a generosity which costs them nothing—it often entails going without a meal or sitting by a fireless grate, but a self-sacrifice of some sort, always. It is of the highest and truest order, because the nearest to our great Pattern, whose generosity only reached its sublime perfection on the cross at Calvary…. We are not called upon to lay down our lives, but we are called upon to make very great sacrifices … for one another; and in the homes of the poor, I think, we see this answered as a rule more obediently and absolutely than anywhere else. (158)
Froggy’s Little Brother makes use of all these conventions to underline the urgent need to attend to the poor. While the message in street arab novels is always couched in terms of Christian duty, it also contains a strong pragmatic element that acknowledges and seeks to address tensions between the classes. Works such as Friedrich Engels’s Condition of the Working Class in England (1844) and influential exposés such as Mayhew’s articles on London’s poor and John Hollingshead’s Ragged London in 1861 (1861) had documented the extent to which the poor were (p. 263) living in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions—often in the most abject state of poverty. Unsurprisingly, fear of social unrest was both rife and justified. Throughout the middle decades of the century the working classes agitated for reform and change, most visibly through the efforts of the Chartists, who between 1839 and 1848 presented three petitions demanding working-class suffrage to parliament. All were rejected, but the unrest they represented was recognized as potentially leading to the kinds of civil disturbance—even revolution—that was sweeping across Europe at the time. While most slum-dwellers were unlikely to be involved in such organized protests, the call to alleviate the suffering of the poor found in Froggy’s Little Brother and other street arab tales can be understood as part of a general recognition of the need to defuse this social time bomb as well as to underscore lessons about being a good Christian. It reflects Brenda’s awareness that though some thirty years had passed since the first Chartist petition, the condition of the poor had not improved. The reminder that the poor needed help was not confined to Brenda’s own class; in this novel even the Queen is implicitly criticized for turning a blind eye to the suffering of her subjects when she fails to answer the laboriously penned plea for help that “two little chaps wrote her from Shoreditch eight days ago” (135), as Froggy explains to the soldier outside of Buckingham Palace when he tramps there through the cold one day in the belief that the Queen would want to help. The soldier suggests the letter hasn’t reached her and that they should try again, but though this offers an explanation for the Queen’s silence, the fact that on his return Froggy finds Benny ill from the fever that kills him firmly links the Queen’s inactivity to Benny’s death.
The parlous state of the poor is established from the opening pages of the novel, which describe Froggy’s home and way of life. He, his parents, and baby brother, Benny, live in “a very bare garret, at the top of a dark, dingy house, the upper part of which was scorched and blackened from the effects of a fire” (16). One of the effects of the fire has been to damage all the glass in the windows, which Froggy’s “careful mother,” stops up with what rags she can spare, though even rags, the reader learns, “are precious things in some homes!” (4) Froggy’s proper name is Tommy, but he has been nicknamed Froggy because living in these conditions he is often cold and ill and then makes a croaking sound. The family earns its living by performing Punch and Judy shows for wealthy children, and to do this all four—mother carrying Benny, father the show, and six-year-old Froggy on his own thin legs—tramp across London, whatever the weather.
Froggy’s family is established as loving and hard-working; although somewhat idealized in their uncomplaining acceptance of the harsh conditions in which they live and well-mannered care for one another, Brenda’s portrait of the way they live and the precarious nature of their existence reveals that she had done her research. In line with descriptions and evidence in the numerous reports and investigations into the lives of the poor that appeared in the course of the nineteenth century, Froggy’s mother is shown to be the lynchpin of the family; she struggles to improve their lot and keep them “respectable.” Despite her efforts, the long-term effects of poverty, exacerbated by the father’s tendency to drink much of any day’s profits on (p. 264) the way home—a common problem in the parts of London where they live—undermine her health. When she dies of a wasting disease brought about by years of deprivation, Froggy is gratified to learn that she has gone to a “Better Land,” while her husband respects her last request and takes the pledge. When he is no longer using his earnings to buy alcohol, the little boys’ lives improve: they go to church regularly and Froggy attends a night school similar to the kinds of schools for the poor that Lord Shaftesbury had set up. The combination of religious instruction and rudimentary education laid down in this interlude fortify Froggy in the hard months that come after his father is run over and killed in a street accident. The traumatic loss of both parents in the space of two chapters may today seem implausible, but working and existing on the streets as they did, such accidents among the poor were common and helped swell the numbers of unsupervised children who, like Froggy and Benny, subsisted as and how they could.
Even when he is being looked after by both parents, Froggy’s old head on a child’s body corresponds closely to the descriptions of street children contained in Henry Mayhew’s interviews and similar accounts, further evidence that the author had studied her subject and was familiar with both the facts collected about the poor and the conventions for writing about them. For instance, Mayhew reports that one eight-year-old girl who sold watercress “had entirely lost all childish ways, and was, indeed, in thoughts and manner, a woman. There was” he continues, “something cruelly pathetic in hearing this infant, so young that her features had scarcely formed themselves, talking of the bitterest struggles of life, with the calm earnestness of one who had endured them all” (151). Similarly, the philanthropic entrepreneur who became known as “Doctor” Barnardo recalled being struck when meeting his first street arab, a boy of ten, by the fact that his face “was not that of a child. It had a careworn, old-mannish look, which was only relieved by the bright glances of his small sharp eyes” (“My First Arab,” qtd. in Plotz 36). At a critical moment in the novel, when Froggy discovers he has unknowingly been involved with a gang of pickpockets and has to go home to Benny without the money they had expected him to earn, the novel dwells on the extent to which his struggles have prematurely aged him:
This passage is another example of the careful way in which Brenda constructs Froggy’s character. A romantic discourse of childhood as a time of delightful innocence had grown up around middle-class Victorian children, setting up carefree, charming, inexperienced children as “normal.” This means the novel must establish that Froggy is still a child but one who is being denied his childhood because of his circumstances. It is vital that he does not seem to have ceased to be (p. 265) a child or deliberately sought out adult experiences, behavior that would render him abnormal and unnatural and so less sympathetic. In this passage, Froggy falls into an exhausted sleep in a doorway and dreams he is a child again, being looked after by loving parents with baby Benny asleep in his cot. In contrast, the ne’er-do-well Mac drinks, smokes, speaks roughly, and steals; by the end of the novel the fact that he is languishing in jail takes no account of his youthfulness or circumstances.
Froggy was feeling something of that craving for deep rest, which is natural for old men and women to feel after they have been tossing on the waves of this troublesome world for a lifetime, but which is very sad to see in a child. Froggy was but eleven, and he should not have been feeling like an old, tired man…. London has nothing more sorrowful to show us … than its old children, with their shrewd, anxious faces, and knitted brows. (84)
Keeping Froggy appealing and acceptably childlike requires Brenda to negotiate with great care the rhetoric that transformed the poor into savages, for it was grounded in the belief that poor children were precocious and experienced and so could be excluded from the category of “children.”5 Looking again at the passage by Lord Shaftesbury it is notable that even this man who did so much to improve the conditions of poor children never refers to them as children, and the delicacy of the operation is evident periodically when the carefully chosen spectacles that Brenda has placed on her readers appear to slip, revealing that though she has created (p. 266) admirable, lovable individual characters, she is less sanguine about the massed poor. For instance, when Mac is (rightly) suspected of being involved in a robbery and the boys look out their garret window to see what is causing the commotion they can hear in the street, theirs is an oddly middle-class view of the neighborhood and their peers and playmates, who are described as “swarms of dirty little gutter-children” (106).
Significantly, the tendency to present the poor in a negative light becomes more frequent as the story is drawing to a close and readers are being restored to their own comfortable homes after their time among Brenda’s fictional poor. When Benny gets ill, for example, he is compared to a “dumb animal” (141; 151), and describing his symptoms he tells Froggy, “I think I’s got what the cab-horses has…. I’s got the staggers, Froggy!” (141–42). Similarly, after Benny’s death Froggy is taken into a small orphanage where he volunteers to look after another, younger child who has just been orphaned. The new boy, Billy, reminds Froggy of Benny, but the narrator compares him to the “marmozet monkeys in the Zoological Gardens” and describes his grave face as “truly comical” (193). Although such moments at first seem to be at odds with the rest of the book and to be buying into an orientalizing attitude toward the poor, they are in fact central to its success. If street arab fiction were to be a force for reform, it needed to employ highly emotive plotlines and narrative strategies. Froggy is a supreme example of this kind of writing; it is a “tearjerker” of the highest order. However, books that end on too distressing a note risk undermining their goal, for a great outpouring of emotion tends to be cathartic, releasing all the pity and fear accumulated in the course of the novel. Catharsis can be enervating rather than a spur to action, encouraging readers to luxuriate in the knowledge that they have been spared the kind of suffering about which they have been reading.6 Since in Froggy’s Little Brother Brenda specifically sets out to encourage her readers to take action on behalf of the poor, it is crucial that the book ends on an uplifting and energizing note. After the distressing death of Benny, which provides the emotional peak, the narrative begins to pull away from the events. Froggy is left safely in the care of responsible figures with a replacement for Benny and good prospects for the future ahead of him. His energies are no longer concentrated on how to survive, leaving him time to speculate about whether or not the finances of the institution where he is living will stretch to giving the boys a day trip to the country. From this safe position the narrator turns to the reader to make the appeal to which the book has been leading:
Remember it is the Froggys and Bennys of London for whom your clergyman is pleading when he asks you to send money and relief to the poor East End! They may be street Arabs, but they have immortal souls, and they are our brothers and sisters, though we may not own them. (198)
That Brenda used the conventions of street arab fiction successfully is evidenced by the high regard in which she was held and the many tributes paid to Froggy’s Little Brother both in her lifetime and at the time of her death. Among these was the observation made by Arthur Jocelyn Charles Gore, the 6th Earl of Arran, who (p. 267) initiated a friendship with Georgina Castle Smith while he was the Hon. Treasurer for the Children’s Country Holiday Fund. The appeal at the end of Froggy encourages readers to help raise funds to be used, among other things, “to enable poor little East End children to have a day in the country” (199), and clearly the Earl had reason to be grateful for this mention, for he writes that it “must have proved to be the most powerful agent in existence for procuring assistance to many charities for children” (Thiel 158).
Evangelical Writers and the Fiction of Reform
The Earl and the novelist, like the hard-working fictional doctor, clergymen, and benefactors of the institution where Froggy is placed, represent a strong tradition in Victorian society that combined philanthropy, social work, and reform, and in which fiction, not least that written by women for children, played an important role. Charles Dickens was one of the foremost Victorian writers to use novels to call attention to the plight of London’s poor, and Dickens was both a model and a supporter of many of those who wrote street arab fiction. His influence is clear in Froggy; for instance, after the death of his father, Froggy becomes a crossing sweeper, a job immortalized in fiction by Jo in Bleak House (1851–52), who is harried to death by the police who are constantly moving him on and so making it impossible for him to support himself. It is likely that the fictional Jo and his sad end would have been in many readers’ minds when Froggy made his choice of occupation and set out to find a suitable crossing. Brenda tries to mobilize sympathy for the real crossing sweepers through requiring readers to empathize with her fictional one, as can be seen when she breaks the illusionism of the text and encourages her readers to behave differently the next time they use the services of children such as Jo and Froggy. As Froggy becomes aware that to many of the people in the metropolis he is effectively invisible, he attempts to compel them to notice his efforts, looking into their faces and asking, “Please, sir, throw us a copper!” The effect is not what he hopes, with one gentleman retorting, “Certainly not! What do we want sweepers for in this fine weather?” The narrator then turns to the reader and asks, “Yes! But did the gentleman remember that poor little sweepers want bread to eat in fine weather as well as in bad?” (32).
The shadow of Dickens’s Jo would have alerted readers to the troubles ahead of Froggy, although by the time Brenda was writing a number of important changes had come into effect that would in reality have given Froggy more avenues for help than were available to Jo. This may account for the very specific time frame of the novel; Brenda wrote it in 1875 and at one point mentions that it refers to the recent winter of 1873, “one of the hardest the [poor of London] had ever known” due to the effects of a strike by Welsh miners that raised the costs of all the necessaries of (p. 268) life (44). Toward the end of the novel there is another direct address to readers, which asks, “You will like to know what became of poor little Froggy, will you not?” Brenda answers the question in the present tense explaining that he is in a Home, meaning an orphanage, “where he is learning the trade of a carpenter” (189), giving the impression that the story is both absolutely current and based on events from life—standard devices of the genre. The immediacy it provides helps Brenda keep the pathos of her story at a high pitch while simultaneously assuring readers that changes for the better in the way the poor were cared for are in hand.
Dickens began writing Bleak House in 1851, a time when the poor were suffering the indignities of the recently revised Poor Law Acts that made the harshness of life in the workhouse forever synonymous with degradation and despair. When Froggy was published a quarter of a century later, there had been many improvements to the workhouse regime, particularly as they affected children; nevertheless, Froggy, Benny and all their neighbors still live in fear of being sent to the “House.” When at their lowest point Froggy concludes that they will have to go to the workhouse and Benny has
Brenda’s reassurance that institutions are now more kindly, the middle classes who operate them genuinely concerned, and the education and opportunities they afford beneficial would have been vital to making middle-class readers believe that any donations they made would be used for good causes. Likewise, any poor children who were read or given a copy of Froggy would have taken away the message that there was nothing to be feared and much to be gained by accepting the help of their social superiors. Indeed, the logic of the plot implies that if Froggy had not struggled so hard to keep them independent, Benny would have had a happier and a longer life.
to gulp down a sob himself at the thought they were going to that terrible place, the workhouse, of which he had always heard the neighbours speak with such horror and dread, as if being driven to “the House” would be the very last sorrow and degradation they could know in their poor lives. (94)
This message was underlined through allusions to another Dickens novel; Oliver Twist (1838) is clearly referenced too, notably its encounter between the honest orphan protagonist and a gang of young pickpockets, replayed by Brenda in the disastrous day when Froggy is duped by the wretched Mac into helping him and his gang of pick pockets on the grand occasion when the Queen comes to the East End. Like Oliver, Froggy preserves his innocence, refusing to take his share of the earnings and so returning empty-handed to Benny. Just as Oliver’s trials are ended through the intervention of well-intentioned and well-off adults, so Froggy is finally relieved of his burdens when the plight of the two boys is discovered by a charity doctor who is called upon to attend to Benny.
Though Benny dies, it is through no fault of the doctor’s, and the book makes this clear by marking Benny out as one of the many Victorian children in fiction who are destined to die young: his is the “good” death in this street arab tale. Preternaturally cheerful and caring, he says his prayers each night, shares what little he (p. 269) has with a mouse, refuses to be angry when the cat steals the first little piece of meat the boys have had for weeks, and, most telling of all, sits in the window in their high garret and stares up to heaven. There he would “gaze up at the foggy sky, and … speculate upon the Beautiful City that lies beyond, whither ‘gentle Jesus’ had carried little Deb, and where she was now ‘hearing music more beautifuller than the organs!’” (129). In the semiotics of Victorian fiction and painting, the invalid’s gaze out the window invariably heralds approaching death,7 so Brenda’s readers would have been well-prepared for Benny’s demise. Tears were shed not only for Benny, who they are assured has gone to meet his parents in the Better Land—the last thing he tells Froggy is that he can hear angels singing and that “everybody’s going home” (183)—but also for Froggy, who is now all alone.
The religious symbolism around Benny’s death is emphasized by a pointed shift in the way the boys are described. Perhaps as a way of enhancing his vulnerability and appeal, Froggy is given a number of feminine characteristics in the course of the novel: he nurtures Benny, changing and feeding him when he is a baby, and striving as hard as any mother to care for him when they are left alone. He both cooks and sews; indeed, he “could patch and darn almost as neatly as a girl” (104).8 Once Benny becomes ill, however, the text repeatedly emphasizes the boys’ masculine characteristics, using many comparisons with soldiers: when the doctor first calls, “Froggy spoke up and answered promptly, like a little soldier” (164); Froggy sits beside Benny’s sickbed “like a grave little sentinel” (176); and in an exhausted dream, while Benny is dying beside him, Froggy hears an organ-grinder playing “When Johnny comes marching home!” (177). Children at the time were trained to read emblematically, and they would have recognized that the boys are being established as Christ’s soldiers, fighting for him in life and joining him in death.
The mixture of pathos and religious consolation is much stronger in street arab fiction than in Dickens, possibly because these books tended to be written by middle-class Christian women such as Brenda, for an audience primarily of children. Moreover, many street arab tales were published by religious publishing houses such as the Religious Tract Society (RTS) or the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK), which saw such publications as part of their missionary work at home. Unsurprisingly, then, they tended to overlay pleas for social reform with somewhat heavy-handed evangelical messages, a combination that was popular with organizations such as schools, Sunday schools, and mothers’ meeting. Accordingly, street arab stories were often given as rewards or prizes for good behavior or achievement, boosting sales and spreading the message that across Britain destitute children were suffering. The strong sales of such books meant that other publishing houses produced copy-cat books: Froggy’s Little Brother was in fact published by the firm of John F. Shaw, but it is no less religious in tone or nature than those produced by the RTS and SPCK. The text is punctuated with comments made directly to readers such as:
To modern eyes and out of context such passages may seem so didactic that it is hard to understand the appeal of writing of this kind, but the plotting, pathos, and pace of Froggy’s Little Brother make it a compelling read still,9 and in its day many readers forgot it was a work of fiction (this is clearly what Brenda is striving for when she offers information about what Froggy is doing now) and longed to do something for the two little boys. In Lark Rise to Candleford (1939–43), her autobiographical account of growing up in rural Oxfordshire in the 1880s, Flora Thompson recalls many tears being shed over Froggy, including by one woman in her village who lamented, “Poor little mite. If we could have got him here, he could have slept with our young Sammy and this air’d have set him up in no time” (251). Benny, of course, is never set up, but in line with the practical education and philanthropic philosophy of the day, Froggy is taught a skill—he is trained as a carpenter—and so is able to support himself and cease to be a burden on or a threat to society. This is the ultimate happy ending for a street arab novel, and though in its day it had the desired effect of encouraging readers to put their hands in their pockets and find other ways to help alleviate the suffering of the poor, to modern tastes it may seem a rather flat ending to an emotionally charged story. Oliver Twist discovers wealth, family, and social status; Froggy may no longer be on the streets, but he has also ceased to be a figure of interest. This is fully apparent in the unsuccessful sequel, which charts his life as a conscientious, “respectable” working man.
What a sad reflection—motherless, fatherless, and friendless! But so it was; and this is the condition of hundreds of our poor little brothers and sisters in great London. Let us think of this next Sunday when the petition comes in our beautiful Litany, “That it may please Thee to defend and provide for the (p. 270) fatherless children and widows, and all that are desolate and oppressed!” and say from our hearts on their behalf, “We beseech Thee to hear us, good Lord!” (29)
The convention in street arab fiction for realistic narratives leading to prosaic endings in combination with a shift to a more secular society may account for the fact that this much-loved story and what had been a thriving genre have effectively disappeared from cultural memory today. Additionally, when poor children were legislated off the streets and into schools they became less visible and so less of a blot on the nation’s psyche, not least because the landslide election of the Liberal government in 1906 paved the way for the modern Welfare State in Britain by introducing a basic national health service and unemployment insurance. By the beginning of the twentieth century the workhouse was steadily being consigned to history, a safety net for the poor was in formation, and various acts including the Prevention of Cruelty to Children Act (1889) were in place and seeking to ensure that the welfare of children was officially the responsibility of the State. In theory at least, no Froggys were ever again going to need to look after their little brothers on their own, making street arab fiction effectively unnecessary.
Under these circumstances it has to be asked whether there is a need to revive this woeful tale. Its role today has changed in that its historical setting means that it is no longer explicitly addressing topical local problems in the way it did for its original readers. Nevertheless, bringing Froggy back into circulation offers some interesting possibilities for rethinking nineteenth-century experience and fiction and for interpreting how they were depicted.10 For instance, it has a clear value for (p. 271) what it reveals about the composition of Britain’s cities and the lived experience of the urban poor in the late nineteenth century. The insights it offers into such policies and practices as the ill-advised slum clearances (responsible for the closure of Froggy’s night school and his lack of contact with the teachers who would have helped him after his father’s death), charitable work, and the appeal of religion to the poor are more vivid and better contextualized in its pages than in formal histories. As developments in postcolonial studies expose the tenacious legacy of domestic orientalism, it is possible to use texts such as Froggy’s Little Brother as primary evidence about constructions of the poor that can be put alongside alternative versions such as Stephen Humphries’s Hooligans or Rebels? An Oral History of Working-Class Childhood and Youth 1889–1939 (1981) and Anna Davin’s Growing Up Poor: Home, School and Street in London 1870–1914 (1996). Both works offer firsthand accounts from those who were real-life street children. What they show is that writers of street arab fiction were giving very one-sided views of life in the poor parts of Britain’s cities. All was not as desperate as these books make it out to be, for there was a strong working-class culture in which many children thrived and that was the envy of some middle-class children in the freedoms it offered and the value it ascribed to the young. As these corrective voices start to be heard, it is necessary to reread street arab stories to see what they preserve and what they erase of this way of life. Froggy’s Little Brother may often misrepresent Victorian London’s poor children, but it is one of the key texts that sought to carve out a place for them in culture and helped create pathways by which their stories were gathered and told. Brenda’s novel is of more than historical interest, however: at a time when countries ranging from the United States and the United Kingdom to many countries in South America, Africa, and parts of the Indian subcontinent have their own multitudes of outcast children like Froggy and Benny, its message of compassion and attempt to make the vulnerable visible and valuable is as relevant as ever.
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(1) . This description comes from a letter to Brenda written by the 6th Earl of Arran on rereading the book as an adult, some forty years after first encountering it (Thiel 158).
(2) . For a more detailed discussion of postcolonial theory, see Bill Aschcroft et al., The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literature (1989); Homi K. Bhabha, Nation and Narration (1990); Clare Bradford, Unsettling Narratives: Postcolonial Readings of Children’s Literature (2007).
(3) . The original newspaper articles on which Mayhew’s book is based were published in the Morning Chronicle between 1849 and 1850; the first volume of the study appeared in 1851, but it took a further ten years for the work to be completed.
(4) . Those who have written at length about street arab fiction, also known as “waif stories,” include Cutt (1979), Bratton (1981), and Davin (1996; 2001).
(5) . Henry A. Giroux reveals the same process at work today. In Stealing Innocence: Corporate Culture’s War on Children (2001) he analyzes institutional bias such as “innocence profiling,” which tends to treat white, middle-class children who break the law as ill while those who are, say, black or Latino are designated criminal and deviant. Judith Plotz’s Romanticism and the Vocation of Childhood (2001) discusses in detail the effects of the way images of the poor child contradicted the ideal of childhood (34–39).
(6) . Augusto Boal explores this aspect of catharsis in Theatre of the Oppressed (1997).
(8) . This kind of feminization is consistent with orientalizing strategies, which often rely on making “others” feminine: for instance, by showing them as dependent, irrational, and good at practical tasks but lacking the ability to analyze or take command of situations.
(9) . Selecting her top ten reads for the Book Depository blog, writer and journalist Julia Gregson says of Froggy’s Little Brother, “My sister and I, well fed and nicely brought up, were so utterly gripped by this dark and melodramatic tale of two London orphans struggling to survive, that we slept under our beds for several weeks after we read it.” http://www.bookdepository.co.uk/blog/index/cat/tuesday_top_ten (accessed 17 March 2009).
(10) . While this essay focuses on fiction, many of the insights about representations of poor children pertain equally to the visual arts.