Thursday, 3 June 2010

Eliza and the Court of Miracles

In 1885 a tall, red-headed Irishman stood on a street corner in London selling copies of the Pall Mall Gazette. His name was George Bernard Shaw and he was one of many volunteers selling a newspaper publicising a story so scandalous that the usual distributors refused to stock the paper.

The story was headlined “THE MAIDEN TRIBUTE OF MODERN BABYLON” and it told the story of how W.T. Stead, the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, had joined forces with the repentant madam of a brothel to purchase a girl of thirteen from her father. He didn't intend any harm to the child. He simply wanted to prove the truth of tales he had heard: that, in the poorer parts of London, parents sold their virgin daughters into prostitution. The response of the authorities was swift; Stead and his assistant were arrested and sentenced to terms of imprisonment for assault and child-abduction. But the scandal brought about the result Stead desired. It drew attention to the existence of child prostitution in Britain – and parliament passed an Act which raised the age of consent from thirteen to sixteen.

Of course, it wasn't as simple as that. The Act expressed all kinds of moral prejudices of the time – and it was the same Act that made homosexuality illegal. Ten years later, Shaw's fellow Irishman and playwright, Oscar Wilde, was sentenced to two years' imprisonment with hard labour under its provisions.

Even the case of the child sold into prostitution may not have been as simple as it seems – journalists (and many others) have been known to distort and exaggerate facts in order to prove something they “know to be true.” Shaw may have come to this conclusion himself by the time he wrote Pygmalion in which the entirely willing Eliza, who shares a name with the child in the “Maiden Tribute” case, is sold to Professor Higgins by her father for five pounds. These are his “rights as a father,” Alfred Doolittle insists. Five pounds is exactly what Stead paid for the earlier Eliza.

There are numerous myths about what Shaw calls, in the Victorian phrase, “the undeserving poor.” These myths both console and terrify the better off. The idea that the poor are feckless and immoral, prepared to sell their own children at a fiver a time, suggests that charity is always misguided, equality a dream and that what is needed is containment and control.

Paris has another myth (though it isn't limited to Paris): the myth of the Court of Miracles. Colin Jones' history of Paris considers the potency of this myth in the seventeenth century. It tells of a dangerous alternative society thriving in Paris since the Middle Ages – a society of beggars and gypsies who adopted disguises – false wounds, apparent blindness – to exploit the charity of the hard-working bourgeoisie. The Court of Miracles was supposed to have its own king and laws governing this exploitation – and the so-called beggars were not poor and maimed, as they appeared, but living a life of luxurious indolence.

The myth falls apart as soon as it's examined. The beggars are supposed to be simultaneously disciplined and hard-working (as the rules of the Court of Miracles demand) and fecklessly lazy. As Colin Jones points out, the Court of Miracles never existed – though some beggars may have been fakes and liars. But the myth gave Louis XIV the excuse he wanted to round up paupers, beggars, the sick and corral them into hospitals. His main concern was making the streets safe for kings and their courtiers. As the French Revolution shows, this wasn't a complete success.

There are similar myths elsewhere. In the 18th century John Gay's The Beggar's Opera picked up the idea of the Court of Miracles and sets it in London – and Bertolt Brecht's Threepenny Opera gave the story new, even more richly parodic life. The thieves and beggars in Gay and Brecht don't inhabit a space as large as the Court of Miracles but they still combine idleness with industrious trickery. They seem to live outside the law – but at the same time they obey a different, equally strict code. They sing and dance too – it's a fine life being a thief and a beggar.

The myth of the Court of Miracles still flourishes. There are undoubtedly crooks and con-artists among beggars and the poor – just as the rich have their tricksters, whose deceptions are coming to light with the collapse of the markets. As a story, it's a delight – the fortunate who are neither poor nor beggars revel in its freedom - but it's also a dangerous excuse for repression, and for failure to see an equal humanity in the faces of the unlucky who need help and justice.

The story W.T. Stead tells in “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon” cannot help relying on the myth of the dangerous poor – the myth is too potent to avoid and the poor know it as well as the rich. His newspaper article is a rich mix – it starts with a lengthy and richly imagined account of the labyrinth in Crete and ends with the scream of a child. He insists that he doesn't oppose the freedom of the libertine rich, so long as the vulnerable poor are protected. He insists that the rich who prey on the young are his main target. Yet his account of the disorderly poor, who know just where to sell their daughters and whose profit is governed by a parody of market forces, recalls the Court of Miracles' parody of the establishment of its day.

Stead believed his own story and undoubtedly there were cases of child abuse, then as now. He served three months in jail for abducting Eliza – the repentant brothel-keeper who helped him served six months. I don't know what happened to her after that. Stead's fame as an editor was secured until his death brought him another kind of fame – he was drowned when the Titanic went down. As for Eliza – not Shaw's Eliza but the original girl – Stead gave her to the Salvation Army for safe keeping. They eventually returned her to her parents, judging that she was not at risk from them. I don't know what happened to her after that.

No comments: