Saturday 14 November 2009

Mord Em'ly


Pardon? you may well say. Well, Mord Em'ly (Maud Emily as she is known to the authorities) is one of the great unsung heroines (anti-heroines?) of Victorian fiction [and also the answer to the question I set in the previous post]. She appears in the novel Mord Em'ly by William Pett Ridge (1901) - a writer who rather specialised in teenage slum characters at the end of the 1890s.

A street-girl from Walworth (Elephant and Castle), we first see her involved in a girl-gang fight. She is both sarcastic, resourceful, aggressive, argumentative, a victim of her upbringing and yet a marvellous product of the slums ... ok, I'll stop the list, but she's a brilliant character. If you think that snappy witty females are a modern innovation, or possibly go back to the screwball comedies of the 1930s, then think again. This one's thoroughly Victorian. In fact, I think I'm in love. Here's how she deals with a young policeman who looks like he's going to arrest her:

    "Never merried that gel, did you?" asked Mord Em'ly loudly. The young constable was new to the L Division, and she had not seen him before. "I s'pose, as a matter of fact, she couldn't stand your fice. 'Tain't what you'd call 'andsome, is it now?"
    A few people stopped and listened. One man advised Mord Em'ly, with great relish, to continue.
    "She told me," said the small girl to the now scarlet-faced young constable—"of course, I don't know—but she told me that the sight of you used to turn the milk sour. That's what she said, mind. But, as I said, we're none of us perfect, and no doubt it was all the result of an accident. I s'pose when you was a lad you fell down and trod on your fice, and--"

Or, alternatively, here's the first proper meeting with the future love of her life

    "Know this feller, don't you?" asked Miss Gilliken, jerking her head in the direction of the youth.
    "Seen his mug before," said Mord Em'ly, looking at him casually. "Can't say I know his name."
    "Name of 'Enery Barden," said the youth, in a deep, hoarse voice, stepping forward, and introducing himself awkwardly. "Got a job at the Willer Walk Station; also to be met with, Saturday evenings, at the boxing-saloon of the Green Man."
    "Where did ye find it?" asked Mord Emily of Miss Gilliken, with a satirical accent.
    "Who are you calling 'it'? " demanded Mr. Barden aggressively. "P'r'aps you'll kindly call me "im ' and not 'it' "
    "P'r'aps I shall do jest as I like," replied Mord Em'ly. She turned to Miss Gilliken. "Did you win it in a raffle? "
    "I'll tell you presently," said Miss Gilliken.
    "Sometimes they give 'em away," said Mord Em'ly thoughtfully, "with a packet of sweets. I 'ave seen 'em offered instead of a coker-nut or a cigar at one of these Aunt Sally—"
    "Look 'ere!" interrupted Mr. Barden crossly. "You think you're jolly clever, no doubt."
    "Think? " repeated Mord Em'ly. "Don't I know it?"

Her creative origins, I think, are not literary but in the strong female characters of music-hall. She has a lot to contend with - a drunken mother; a vicious father, returned from the dead, a rabble-rousing 'socialist' who wants to exploit her naivety, and her only chance of a decent life emigrates to Australia. Well, now she's finally on the internet ...

Read the full story here!

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