As I discuss here, I’m intrigued by the different attitudes people had in times past, and the realization that the attitudes that seem natural to me are just as much a product of my time.
This gave added interest to reading THE ITALIAN BOY: A Story of Murder and Bodysnatching in 1830s London by Sue Wise. The book retells a now-forgotten case—a boy killed by “burkers” to provide a body for anatomy classes—that was as sensational in its day as Burke and Hare; the fear that people could be dragged off the streets, murdered and dissected led to Parliament finally legalizing the dissection of human corpses in medical school.
Part of the attitudes I’m talking about are the era’s approach to crime and policing. The official London police force was a new creation and viewed with about as much enthusiasm as the far right views the United Nations: Not only was the force new, it seemed like a jackbooted threat to freedom. My god, these people could actually go around telling private citizens to go away or get off the street and the citizens were supposed to obey!
Equally strange to me was their approach to crime: The very idea of going to a suspect’s house to look for evidence other than stolen loot was a radical, strange concept in the era and people didn’t see much point in it (though some of the new cops did, and in this particular case, got results).
A third culture-shock moment was when Wise discussed the growing unease in London at how well the poor and middle-class were dressing, and that even servants of the rich were able to strut around in their master’s cast-offs. How was anyone supposed to tell the “quality” from the commoner if they looked and dressed the same.
The fear of class distinctions becoming permeable was one that crops up again and again in Britain the US, particularly as the merchant class grew in wealth and influence. British sumptuary laws of earlier centuries actually set limits on how well non-nobility could dress, in order to keep the aristocrats visibly distinctive (the flashy dress so many pirates affected amounted to giving the class system the finger).
Likewise, etiquette histories say one of the main reasons for our insanely elaborate table rules about spoons, forks, etc. was that the upper classes and old money used them as a kind of secret test that would weed out the parvenus who didn’t know the rules.
Anthony Lukas’ Big Trouble, in its sprawling look at the late 19th and early 20th century, mentions the same issue came up as hotels started to become popular: Staying in a hotel, away from anyone who knew them and could check their references, a man could pose as anything and who would be able to tell?
(Stephen Talty in Mulatto Nation points out that slaveowners making use of their female slaves brought up similar fears in 19th century America—how could anyone be sure who was a slave when some slaves were whiter than their masters? But I’m not sure it’s the same thing).
Like I said, what I assume is the natural way to think may not be.
Shifting topics, sort of … One of my friends gave me the recently completed edition of the 1927 film classic Metropolis. What struck me about the film (other than that it’s still an awesome achievement) was how much of the film’s concerns fit perfectly with our outlook today.
There’s a working class being ground into the dust, pushed to do more and more until it’s almost burning out. An upper class that firmly believes the workers should know their place and stay there. And the young protagonist, Freder, who discovers his life of privilege is only possible because it’s built on the backs of the oppressed. What makes him a hero is that unlike too many people in real life, he can’t accept that and sets out to change things.
Director Fritz Lang says in an interview on the DVD that he thinks it’s grown more timely with the years: He originally thought the screenwriter’s message (“The heart must mediate between the hand and the head”) was corny, but as the years have rolled on, he sees there’s more need for heart in the world.
In any case, both The Italian Boy and Metropolis are outstanding and recommended.