The Making of Society’s Outcasts:
Discourses of Alterity in the Work of Hesba Stretton.

Elaine Lomax

University of Bedfordshire

The Victorian author Hesba Stretton (1832-1911) is known today primarily for her evangelical ‘waif’ narratives, which include the best-selling Jessica’s First Prayer (1867). However, the range of Stretton’s writings is extensive, traversing the often uncertain boundary between adult and juvenile literature, and embracing articles and stories for periodicals and full-length novels.[1] A striking feature is her preoccupation with those on the margins of society, and her participation in a multifaceted, profoundly ambivalent discourse of otherness involving issues of class, race, gender and generation.

This essay focuses on specific aspects of Hesba Stretton’s engagement, across contexts, with the concerns of diverse marginalised or excluded figures and groups, encompassing not only women, juveniles and the poor, but so-called social deviants including the prostitute and delinquent, and minorities such as Jews and gypsies. Highlighting the intertextual relationship between Stretton’s writings and wider forms of expression, it identifies her work as a forum for examining cultural responses to the outcast or other in all its various manifestations. The discussion locates Stretton’s oeuvre within a network of mutually-constituted discourses embracing religion, sexuality, poverty, pollution, the body, social and moral reform, education and colonialism - strands which intersect, compete and commingle in diverse permutations. The interconnectedness of concerns and motifs draws attention to the role of language in creating, harnessing, sustaining and ‘naturalising’ perceptions and mythologies through the repetition of particular images and associations across a range of contexts, with ambiguous symbolism opening up multiple meaning. The concept of an overarching discourse of otherness illuminates patterns within and between classes, genders and groups, between structures of authority and the individual or subculture, between processes of division in society and within the self. Embodying contemporary social and cultural uncertainties, these narratives tap into desires and fears in the individual and collective psyche, revealing interrelated and equivocal responses to that which appears alien, undesirable or threatening. The exercise of power, the construction or negation of identity and the centrality of discourses of the body emerge as dominant concerns, raising questions of agency, subversion and resistance to authority.

The concept of otherness is implicit in the construction (involving both valorisation and denigration) of the child as ‘other’ to the adult, and between categories of child according to character and social status. It operates in the dyadic relationship between the sinful child and the innocent, angelic model, between the primitive or heathen and the educated or enlightened. The poor or working-class child is defined against the middle-class ideal, with physical and moral traits entangled or elided. Within the classification of poor child, the street urchin or delinquent is constructed in opposition to the ‘respectable’, industrious or law-abiding child, and grouped with the reprobates of the lower stratum as the feared, despised or excluded of society. This process of separation and categorisation reflects the actual fragility of borders, the anxiety that one may all too easily become ‘the other’.[2]

Although Stretton’s ‘street Arab’ narratives invite particular discussion of this figure, the waif is only one among many outsiders. Perceptions of ‘otherness’ operate across a spectrum of outcast identities within Stretton’s texts, underlining the perpetual drive to create boundaries or categories, and to construct difference. The notion is encoded in the pervasive subordination of women - a central concern for Stretton - and in the common attribution of inferiority or excess which reflects both the threat to patriarchal authority and the acceptance of normalised codes. It is inherent in mythologies and versions of womanhood - in the opposition between virgin and whore and consequent responses to the prostitute or fallen woman. It characterises the idealisation, and simultaneous marginalisation, of motherhood, similarly marking divisions between the self-sacrificing and nurturing maternal ideal and the neglectful, slatternly or otherwise role-transgressing deviant. 

Constructions and assumptions of otherness shape attitudes towards the old, the poor, and those whose difference is inscribed in their nationality, race, religion or supposed lack of civilisation. Experiences of oppression, rejection and alienation are common to diverse categories of outsider, across private and public spheres. All figures and groups are subject to broadly comparable systems of surveillance, control and discipline, and parallel practices and discourses - both overt and insidious - of repression and exploitation, enculturation and domestication, exoticisation and sentimentalisation. Across areas, responses evidence a complex interplay of fascination and disgust, compassion and distancing; a belief in the idea of a shared humanity commingles with the urge to manage or deflect a seemingly ubiquitous threat which, in its diverse guises, embodies the potential for disorder and social upheaval. 

The hybrid character of Stretton’s writings, which interweave popular fiction, historical fact, melodrama, evangelical message and social polemic, invites a hybrid critical approach. For Stretton, the child figure is of crucial importance, rendering her narratives, as Mitzi Myers (1995:2-3) suggests of child-centred texts, ‘ideal investigatory sites’ for the application of different forms of theory, and for the examination of issues of ‘alterity’ (Myers 1999:49). The multiple concerns represented - not least, the shared interests of women and children - prompt recourse to a number of overlapping approaches, integrating materially-grounded accounts with insights generated by feminist, new historicist and ideological perspectives.

Critics such as Perry Nodelman have drawn attention to postcolonial theories which foreground the inherent ‘inferiority’ of both child and colonial subject - their shared position as object of the outsider’s gaze and an essentially imperialist enterprise. Drawing on the ideas of Edward Said, Nodelman (1992) identifies parallels between descriptions of Orientalism and representations of childhood. He discusses the work of Foucault, Derrida and Lacan on discourses of power, difference and the unconscious, and underlines the role of discourses of the other in the process of self-definition (32). Significantly, the other is ‘what defines the self … by being … what it both fears and desires’ (34, n.2); as Nodelman emphasises, our ‘eternal desire and failure to understand the other confirms … its paradoxical attractiveness and danger to us’ (31). Reflecting overlapping issues of power and subordination, the identification of the child with the immature or uncivilised of race and society underpins Victorian imperialist assumptions: in contrast to the European, ‘The Oriental is irrational, depraved (fallen), childlike, “different”’ (Said 40). Such insights become particularly relevant when we consider the colonialist implications of Stretton’s undertaking - its involvement in agendas of education and socialisation, and its pervasive demonstration of the overlap or interplay between discourses of the child, the outcast and the foreigner or ‘savage’.

The focus on relations of power, mechanisms of control and the role of discourse invites engagement with the ideas of cultural theorists such as Michel Foucault. In Discipline and Punish (1979), Foucault suggests that ‘the individual is carefully fabricated in [the social order], according to a whole technique of forces and bodies’ (217). Social, cultural and literary practices, discourses and representations are involved in this process. Images are not neutral reflections of reality, but embody ideologies and assumptions implicated in the formation of individual and group subjectivity/identity, in Bakhtinian or Althusserian processes of ideological ‘becoming’.[3]   

Texts of all kinds interact dynamically with wider mechanisms, mythologies and lived experiences. Critics including Peter Hollindale (1988) and John Stephens (1992) have highlighted the operation of ideology and power in literature for juveniles, and the reproduction, interrogation or subversion of dominant codes through narrative and linguistic processes. Evangelical writers, and publishers such as The Religious Tract Society, who produced many of Stretton’s texts (often with the school ‘prize’ system in mind) are implicated in a wider educational and disciplinary enterprise involving the raising of spiritual and social awareness across classes and the concomitant dissemination of moral and cultural values to the ‘uncivilised’ masses, at home and abroad.

Although Stretton’s reputation associates her with the juvenile market, boundaries in terms of audience are often blurred, not only with regard to thematic content and address but also to broader agendas. Tract Society archives confirm that where books were ostensibly directed at a young audience, publishers frequently also targeted parents and adults of the ‘lower-classes’. Texts such as Stretton’s The Children of Cloverley (1865) were likely to ‘interest adults as well as the young’; Jessica’s First Prayer reportedly reduced sailors to tears.[4] Readers may be subordinate in power or position, if not in age. The child is potentially elided with the less educated, less sophisticated adult; he or she is equated with the less spiritually-mature reader (‘young’ in faith), and with those unschooled in civilised values, underlining processes of infantilisation not only in respect of age, but also in relation to class, education and race.[5]  Here, we might suggest the relevance of a Locke-inspired view of the child, summarised by Ashcroft (2000:189) as ‘an unformed person who through literacy, education, reason, self-control, and shame may become a civilized adult’. Tract Society language exposes overlapping religious and cultural messages suggestive of Foucauldian networks which embrace both institutional agents of socialisation and practices or discourses of self-policing or gratification. Reports, underpinned by words or phrases such as ‘struggle’, ‘overcome’, ‘self-conquest’ or ‘self-denial’, evidence the intention to administer ‘valuable lessons’ to the young, promoting qualities seen as socially or morally desirable and discouraging unwelcome tendencies ranging from idleness and self-indulgence to more sinister vices. Those who were both poor and young were deemed particularly susceptible to the dangers surrounding them, although, across classes, individuals who strayed from the moral path, or suffered a fall in circumstances, might find themselves prey to untold evils.[6]

As I argue elsewhere, aspects of Hesba Stretton’s project can be regarded as radical and subversive, with religion harnessed as a force for equality.[7] Nonetheless, these texts constitute sites of enculturation and regulation; representations are implicated in the production and elision of motifs and meanings and the transfer of associations. Stretton is on the side of the outcast, but her undertaking is bound up with society’s ambiguous approaches towards containing and reclaiming this figure. Despite the fact that, drawing on personal observation, she sought to speak on behalf of the disenfranchised, her writings inevitably reflect the perspective of the spectator or educator, with all its ambivalence; dominant ideologies are replicated as well as undercut, with competing registers existing side by side.


The notion of outcast society is both general and particular, an abstract concept enmeshed with ideas of place, people and specific groups or sub-cultures. A focus of particular anxiety was the Victorian city, with its overcrowded slums and rookeries, and its criminal underworld – perceived in 1870 as a ‘common sink of everything that is worst…’ (Trevelyan, qtd. in Stedman Jones 1984:244), where ‘religion, propriety, and civilization were impossible’ (Stedman Jones 283). The perceived threat posed by the ‘residuum’ underlies responses to those elements recognised, on the one hand, as in need of support and succour, and envisaged, on the other, as a simmering mass of potential anarchy and unrest. Approaches to charity and philanthropy, although influenced by a range of economic and political forces and ideas, embody an underlying fear of the urban ‘other’ (and, of becoming that ‘other’), anxieties which are stimulated by, and help to shape, images and discourses of the city. 

Fiction and non-fiction alike reveal the preoccupation with observing, studying and regulating the urban poor. The proliferation of representations over the period evidences the deep-seated, complex nature of class anxieties, and underlines society’s obsession with the ‘outcast’ - an obsession paralleled by, and interacting with, an unprecedented interest in ‘the child’, in terms of both symbolic value and, increasingly, material condition. Examination of diverse forms of media reveals the construction and reinforcement of personal and group identities or projections of ‘otherness’, operating within a web which incorporates, and works to maintain, prevailing social, political and psychological fears and guilts.

Although Stretton depicts poverty and inequality in diverse contexts, numerous stories have urban themes and settings. Sometimes, as in Pilgrim Street (1867), the city is Manchester; often it is London. These representations resonate with the plethora of images in reports, visual texts and novels. Underlining the commonality of the representational or discursive field on which they depend, descriptions of the slums and their inhabitants echo those in newspaper articles and the accounts of social explorers. The pent-up alleys and light-starved courts, the ‘sickening smells’ of refuse and decay (Alone in London 1869, inscription 1872:8; Ch.1) belong to the same physical and mythological landscape as Dickens’s miserable streets and stagnant gutters and the later sensational journalism of George Sims and Andrew Mearns.[8] The repeated intermingling, in different configurations, of material fact, fiction and myth, and the convergence of language and metaphor across the various genres, contribute to a linguistic ‘naturalising’ of perceptions which establishes them as common-sense realities, serving to perpetuate divisions and sustain unequal power relations (Fairclough 1989:84).

The threat of disorder is characterised by particular images; many of the figures around whom Stretton’s narratives revolve became, in the Victorian imagination, representative of the dirt and lawlessness of the ‘nether’ regions. If the ideal child symbolises a longed-for, uncontaminated past (of society and self), the deprived gutter child, signalling a tainted community, stands in for both lack and excess in the individual and social body. Images of the young beggar or delinquent and adult outcasts including the slum mother and the prostitute (actual or potential) are conflated with notions of criminality and degeneracy; they symbolise, and are seen as the instigators of, moral, physical and social disintegration. A close relationship exists between the topography of the urban streets and that of the female body, encoded in the multiply-nuanced gothic depictions of the East End in Little Meg’s Children (1868), with its labyrinthine alleys, low-arched passages and dark gullies (Ch.1). The assumed link between the spread of bodily disease and moral decay within confined areas (Mason 1994:234) finds expression in this literal and symbolic imagery, evidencing widespread concern regarding the permeability of social borders.

Drawing on Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger (1969), Judith Butler (2004:107) discusses the body as synecdoche for the social system, and underlines the relationship between social and bodily margins as sites of danger and transgression. The rhetoric of disease, decay and contagion is routinely applied to descriptions of the city and its outcasts, from spiritual and moral contexts to debates surrounding health and housing. Metaphors of the body, waste, pollution and contamination permeate the overlapping discourses; phrases such as ‘stagnant pools of  moral filth’ and ‘effluvia of our wretched cities’ are employed to describe the regions inhabited by the poorer classes, underlining the ‘disturbing equations … between the sanitary and the human condition’ (Davidoff 1995:105). In fictional narratives and factual accounts, Stretton uses expressions such as ‘quagmire of foulness’, ‘weltering mass of slime’ (Cobwebs and Cables 1881, n.d.:202; Ch.29), and ‘slime of the pit’ (‘Women’s Work for Children’ 1893:11). Such equations bring to mind the characteristics of the ‘abject’, the insecure boundaries between inner and outer, self and other - the required expulsion of that which defiles but sustains the ‘clean and proper body’ and disturbs identity, system and order - as discussed by Kristeva in Powers of Horror (1982:71 & 4). They also underline the Foucauldian notion of the body as a ‘fundamental site of social construction and control’ (Gooderham 1996:227).[9] According to Foucault (1979:25), ‘power relations have an immediate hold upon [the body]; they invest it, mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs’. Foucault discusses the body as ‘object and target of power’, and the notion of ‘docility’, whereby bodies ‘may be subjected, used, transformed and improved’ (136). Discourses of the body interact with wider perceptions; concepts of dirt and cleanliness are harnessed to sustain class and gender identities, utilised as strategies of separation and regulation. As Stretton shows in In Prison and Out (1880), David’s bodily grease - which evokes disgust and deters contact - is both a literal and a metaphorical marker of his social and moral degradation and ‘foulness’ - a symbol of the ‘gulf’ which separates and excludes him from respectable society and family (151; Ch.17).

Outcasts and inhabitants of the city’s ‘lower regions’ are identified by their physical appearance - reduced to corporeal images which embody elements of the grotesque. Individuals are mistaken for, their image elided with, ‘heaps of rags’, as with the eponymous Jessica’s Mother (c.1904, label 1925:34; Ch.3) or Dickens’s human ‘bundle of tatters’ (‘The Haunted Man’ 1848:295). Self-image is inextricably bound up with body image: the ‘ragged’ Joan, in The Lord’s Pursebearers (1883), feels ‘… all grime with dirt’ (n.d.:81; Ch.3). Status is defined by outward appearance, which establishes social acceptability and circumscribes actions and choices. Cassy’s ‘unwashed face’, ‘uncombed hair’, and ‘dirty and ragged frock’ (Cassy 1874, c.1888:34; Ch.4) render her unfit for decent employment; Jessica’s heathen raggedness threatens to prove offensive to the delicate sensibilities of middle-class churchgoers (Jessica’s First Prayer, n.d.:35; Ch.3).

As Pamela Gilbert (1997:39) observes, physical dirt was seen as intrinsically immoral and potentially responsible for wider degeneration. In Stretton’s Lost Gip (1873), identities of good and bad mother are defined partly by dress and states of cleanliness or ‘decency’, reflecting fears of literal contamination and embodying social and moral coding. The Russian Stundists of In the Hollow of His Hand (1897), treated as ‘beasts’ or ‘naughty children’ by the Orthodox Authorities, face exile alongside criminals. The moral distinctions between the clean-living Stundists and their companions are underscored by reactions to bodily states; the ‘matted hair’ and ‘begrimed faces’ which evidence ‘enforced defilement’ engender in the former an unaccustomed sense of degradation (label 1903:107; Ch.18).

Physical appearance and attire function as multiply-charged signifiers, circulating within discourses which, as Foucault (1981) confirms, exhibit a preoccupation with issues of sexuality whilst simultaneously seeking to repress them. Tapping into prevailing social Darwinist-inspired, imperialist-related anxieties concerning poverty, immorality and race degeneration, the ragged, thinly-clad child who figures so prominently in Stretton’s texts (and who is ambiguously ‘reconstructed’ in Lewis Carroll’s erotically-charged, cross-class photographic representations) carries a commonly understood, yet complex subtext.[10] Novelists such as Dickens, and philanthropists and reformers including Thomas Barnardo (1885/6) and Benjamin Waugh (1873), emphasise the free, unrestrained adventure-life of the street-child, and the wild energy of the streets. The barefoot waif, devoid of parental control, represents the antithesis of the restrained, dependent and (supposedly) innocent middle-class child in its protected environment and normalised ‘unbroken childish happiness’ (The Lord's Pursebearers 248; Ch.19). Its wildness or unbridled savagery is enmeshed, in complex configuration, with the Romantic child of nature; with the dirt, disorder and licentiousness of the residuum; and, for the girl-child, the wildness, sinfulness and allure of the sexualised female. If, across classes, puberty transforms the pure, unsullied child into the pubescent female whose sexuality places her, and others, at risk, the precarious boundary between childhood and adulthood is accentuated in the street-child. At once innocent and eroticised, she is simultaneously made to stand in for her middle-class counterpart, and constructed as a species apart. Engaging with a heightened moral, social and legislative focus on social purity, the link between sexual precocity or availability and the street-girl, between watercress vendor and seller of sexual favours, lies insistently close to the surface. As Seth Koven (1997:27) concurs, the raggedness of the nearly-naked Bridget, of Barnardo’s ‘A City Waif’, presages a life of prostitution.[11] The torn-sleeved attire of Stretton’s Cassy, or the inadequately-clothed body of Jessica - wild-faced, meagre and barefoot, her tattered frock ‘slipping down over [her] shivering shoulders’ (12; Ch.1), and frequently portrayed with a direct, open expression - signify more than physical neglect, embody more than the pathos of poverty. Pubescence, with its untold dangers, is signposted by the ‘overgrown’ street girl’s too-short frock, barely-covered legs, ‘promise of beauty’ and potential for earning ‘a mint o’ money’, rendering this body simultaneously pitiful, threatening, disgusting and alluring (The Lord's Pursebearers 37; Ch.2).

It is clear that proximity to what might be designated the ‘slum body’ is to be avoided. In the case of the wayward, dark-haired Carola, others recoil from her because she is contaminated by her association with street life (Carola 1884, label 1898:146; Ch.15). Carola exists like a ‘wild creature’ (11; Ch.1), connoting an animalistic sexuality; she eats and sleeps as she pleases, passing the hours in pubs and gin palaces - places associated with sexual licence. Her ‘knowledge’ of this unregulated, vice-ridden environment is antithetical to notions of purity, both physical and moral; her suitor’s life and standing will be tainted by contact with her. Language is consistently ambiguous and charged, generating fluidity of meaning. The idea of sex as taboo, ‘a dirty subject put against the clean holy of holies’ (Maynard 1993:5) in turn fosters its equation with sinfulness; religious metaphors underpin constructions of morality, femininity and respectability. The terms ‘good’ and ‘bad’ girl are nuanced; notions of wickedness operate judgementally and euphemistically in Little Meg’s Children, where Kitty has ‘grown up bad’; her particular ‘wickedness’ means that she can never again be considered ‘good’ (62; Ch.6). In this context, ‘good’ can be translated as ‘a-sexual’ or morally untainted, bad or wicked interpreted as ‘sexually immoral’ and ‘defiled’ (although, for Kitty, spiritual and social, if not physical, restitution is available, through the discipline of shame and confession and the appropriation of forgiveness). In Stretton’s An Acrobat’s Girlhood (1889), concern for the physical distortion of the body is juxtaposed with the shame of its indecorous exposure (fit only for ‘heathen and Hottentots’). Here, the likelihood of that ultimate loss - an innocent creature’s virtue - is more than hinted at in the compensatory message that, mercifully, ‘only … her life’ has been forfeited (74; Ch.4).

Although such discourses may function repressively, that which is prohibited also constitutes a point of resistance, opening up counter-discourses (Foucault 1981:101). Arguably, even veiled allusions to sex may appear consciously transgressive (6). Regulatory discourses embody the object of regulation - not least through silence, suggestion or ambiguity; a focus on ‘otherness’ incorporates constituents of that otherness, inviting interest and identification. As Gilbert confirms, texts written in response to the ‘low’ cannot exist without that context (1997:10); literature designed to condemn or discourage the undesirable may also engender the ‘frisson’ of the forbidden. Symbols of a world crying out for rescue and redemption, the streetwalker, criminal or drunkard figure as part of the semiotics of an alluring underworld, a projection of the darker side of self and society. The black mysteriousness of the city, albeit disturbing and alienating, appeals to the imagination, inspiring a ‘fascinated disquietude’ (The Soul of Honour 1898, label 1905:117; Ch.11). The governing message of narratives such as the young-adult novel Carola is the imperative to break away, both physically and morally, from this environment. Yet, Carola chafes at authority’s rules and restrictions; the vitality of a life free of shackles, full of ‘change and stir’ (11; Ch.1), is presented with a sense of recognition and empathy which conceivably derives from Stretton’s own independence and resistance to regulation and containment, generating currents which trouble conservative or didactic design.

If the poorest classes are represented as ‘highly sexual’, they are also perceived as ‘scarcely human’ (Davin 1990:50). Constructed as ‘closer to nature than the rational adult middle-class man’ (Davidoff 1995:105), certain sections of society are represented as sub-human and monstrous, designated ‘wild’, ‘brutish’ and ‘barbarian’, their treatment and status as ‘animals’ taken for granted but nonetheless resented. Stretton’s narratives incorporate analogies which underline the bestial characteristics of the residents of the underworld, who inhabit styes, are swinelike, akin to vermin or lower than brutes, and who expect to die or be buried ‘like a dog’. Protagonists also draw attention to the bestial ‘otherness’ of the male sex, whose impenetrable, alien ways recall the behaviour of ‘savage wild beasts’ from the zoological gardens (A Thorny Path 1879, c.1882:44; Ch.6).

An emphasis on the visceral materiality of the body - its reduction to the animal properties of flesh and waste - functions to evoke pity and inspire shock or revulsion, eroding dignity and human identity. The gutter child, as in Barnardo’s ‘A City Waif’, is identified as ‘something’, rather than ‘somebody’ (5; Ch.1); Stretton’s skeletal Fidge is less a human being than a ‘living mass of misery’ (The Lord's Pursebearers 227; Ch.11), an ‘object’ too harrowing for West End eyes, underlining the separation of the masses from the ‘tender susceptibilities of … the middle classes’ (Engels, qtd. in Nord 1995:147). East and West within the city are as two countries, a ‘sea deeper than the ocean’ between them (Bede’s Charity (1872, c.1890:141; Ch.18). Objectification, generalisation and clichéd repetition serve to obscure individualities, denying heterogeneity and fuelling the impression that ‘To the genus poor there are no species’ (Waugh 169-70). Stretton reproduces stereotypical perceptions, but undermines assumptions by concretising and personalising experiences, generally permitting the outcast an individual, often interrogatory voice. She offers, both through characters and through narrative tone or comment, a critique of social hypocrisy and structural inequality, simultaneously exposing the effects of material and psychological exclusion on subjectivity. The nomadic street-child originates from ‘nowhere particular’; he is literally or effectively a filius nullius, belonging to no-one and possessing no name, having ‘lost it afore I can remember’ (A Thorny Path 17; Ch.2).[12] Permitted ‘no bis’ness anywheres’ (Lost Gip 13; Ch.2), he finds himself, like Dickens’s or MacDonald’s crossing-sweepers,[13] perpetually moved on, without hope of destination, by society’s agents of authority.

Spatial entitlement is circumscribed by social status and/or gender. Sandy (Lost Gip), rescued by a working-class family (whose son, by contrast, appears almost a gentleman) is initially deemed, and believes himself, unfit company. Evidencing the operation of intra-class classification, he is relegated to the dark shop, to wait among the coffins (61; Ch.8), although, significantly, it is the perceptive Sandy who later demonstrates agency by assertively exposing the hypocrisy of the patriarchal figure (78; Ch.10). Hard-working women (whose domestic enslavement Stretton decries) practice self-denial and make themselves ‘small’, ‘to take up as little room as [possible]’, while loud-voiced men stretch their legs across the hearth (A Thorny Path 45; Ch.6; Lost Gip 59; Ch.8). Such physical manifestations of normalised hierarchical patterns evoke Foucauldian ideas of the ‘inferiorisation of women’s bodies’, with female ‘spatiality’ restricted while men ‘expand into the available space’ (Bartky 1988:66-67; 73). Engaging with cross-class experiences of oppression, Stretton highlights women’s invisibility, their lack of identity apart from their husbands: ‘by the law a married woman is nobody’ (Under the Old Roof 1882, n.d.:49; Ch.4). In outcast Siberia, women and children are omitted from a sign numbering village inhabitants - ‘34 houses, 65 males’; denied social validity, their existence symbolically effaced, they literally do not count (In the Hollow of His Hand 152; Ch.26). Female wrongdoers, transgressing the laws of society and nature, have ‘lost all womanhood’ (The Lord's Pursebearers 238; Ch.14), and are again doubly outcast.


Intersecting with recurring metaphors of bodily and spiritual cleanliness in Stretton’s work are the evaluative Manichaean polarities of black/white, dark/light, good/evil, savage/civilised, which mark discourses of underworld degradation. These nuanced binary oppositions, which overlap, coalesce and compete across discourses, operate to construct and sustain categories of ‘difference’, reinforcing class barriers and those of self/other. Leonore Davidoff (1995:127), in her analysis of class and gender, discusses the significance of black and white imagery, with its biblical roots and overlap with the discourses of colonialism. Such antagonisms are harnessed in the representation of the physical appearance, and the moral and spiritual constitution, of the outcast city; Stretton’s preoccupation with religious themes, social conditions and civilising endeavours ensures that the pervasive presence of these mutually-supporting discursive terms.   

In The Storm of Life (1876), such imagery foregrounds, through the juxtaposition of the language of individual sin and that of material privation, the ambiguous relationship between ideas of depravity and deprivation. The stifling courts, where no sunlight penetrates the gloom, embody a moral, emotional and physical blackness, signifying destitution, despair and wickedness. Intimations of sin and wretchedness are juxtaposed with multiple allusions to darkness, dirt and cleanliness. The dark streets and river, prompting thoughts of suicide, are set against the white-curtained, brightly-lit house of Rachel’s rescuer. The furnishings are as ‘spotlessly white as they could be in the smoke of London’, in pointed contrast to the ‘degraded’ appearance of the bedraggled ex-criminal and her forlorn, dirty, vagrant child (label 1910:72-3; Ch.8), whose impending maturity signals her imminent ‘value’ to Rachel’s vicious husband (119; Ch.14). The language reflects the Victorian obsession with domestic order; cleanliness is associated with moral regeneration. The ‘dark thread’, ‘woven into … her life’ is in turn contrasted with the ‘pure and glittering white’ snow and the ‘thin white covering’ shrouding her baby - saved from the contamination of a city whose slums represent a ‘hell upon earth’ (Ch.20). Oppositions of black and white, clean and dirty, pure and impure, reflecting conventional religious imagery, call to mind the polarities which (incorporating also the implied conflation of class and race) pervade texts such as Kingsley’s The Water-Babies (1863). The symbolism, employed to multiple effect and juxtaposed with overt social comment, renders the effect complex, blurring material and moral causation; in Stretton’s narratives, the idea of the city as a dark den or inferno created by the depravity of its inhabitants sits alongside an understanding of the environmental hell to which the materially deprived slum-dwellers are subjected in their daily lives.

As part of a complex network of interdependent meanings, the rhetoric of Hell and Heaven further intersects with discourses of town and country. The regenerative peace, order and stability of the countryside function - morally and emotionally, as well as physically - as the antithesis of urban chaos and degeneration. Visitors to the city find themselves ‘pant[ing] for green fields’ at the sight of listless, ‘pallid children’ and ‘sallow women’ gasping for a breath of air in the suffocating streets (The Soul of Honour 194; Ch.20). The rural landscape, with its refreshing breezes and purifying streams symbolises, and is sometimes expressly presented as, an ‘Eden’ of uncontaminated innocence and perfection, pitted against the evil ‘knowledge’ of the corrupting city inferno. Such notions in turn overlap with metaphors of childhood: in the open fields one is ‘as far from … sin as a child’ (Hester Morley’s Promise 1873, 1898:152; Ch.22). By contrast, the moors of Half Brothers (1892) - their menacing atmosphere often evoking Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847) - embody both an alluring sense of liberation and a primitive, savage wildness incompatible with dominant ideas of civilisation and progress.

Within this web of images, not only are the inhabitants of the distant colonies infantilised, but ideas of a Dark Continent are exploited in the depiction of outcast regions at home. Across diverse representational contexts, the dark, matted hair and bare feet of the city child (associated, for Barnardo, with a ‘negroish’ look, and presented, more ambiguously, in Stretton’s Alone in London, as dirt/mud-black feet (68; Ch.10) reflect physical impressions and feed into wider discourses of darkness and difference relating to the metropolis. Lindsay Smith (1996), investigating photography, street Arabs and the rhetoric of colonialism, has noted the convergence of childhood, class and ethnicity in the context of the East End; she posits the child as a ‘reduced form of the ethnic other’ (29), with the term ‘street Arab’ suggesting ‘a knowable other interposed between self and absolute other’ (31). 

In journalism and factually-based reports, the presentation of the outcast city as a foreign or ‘dark’ continent infuses accounts with a degree of drama or ‘fantasy’ (Mason 1994:134) which contributes to the narrative element and promotes the suspension of disbelief. The philanthropist-protagonist of Stretton’s novel Half Brothers (for whom the poor represent an ‘interesting problem’) compares the sights encountered in unexplored areas of London to ‘the strange scenes in foreign lands’ (58; Ch.8). This view matches the assessment of social investigators that the English ‘dark continent’, with its primitive ‘wild races’ and ‘savage tribes’, would stimulate as great a measure of interest and sympathy as ‘those newly-explored lands which engage the attention of the Royal Geographical Society’ (Sims 66). Commentators such as Henry Mayhew (1861-2) had earlier employed similar analogies between foreign and outcast regions, but such comparisons assumed growing significance in terms of colonialist-inflected constructions of class and race difference, and the reinforcement of relations of power. Richard Stein (1995:245), highlighting the connection between the poor and the natives of empire, underlines the imperialist link and relates it to our ‘capacity to subject and colonize others, to treat them as Others’.


George Behlmer (1985:242) notes the shared status as ‘earth’s eternal outcasts’ of the Jew and the gypsy - both peripheral figures, and recurring social and literary tropes. As a foreigner and member of a minority religion, often living in conditions of poverty, the East End Jew - part of a sizeable community by the late nineteenth century, and the focus of increasing anxiety – finds himself, from multiple perspectives, marginalised, separated and excluded. Perceptions of his alterity are again marked by ambivalence and contradiction; the character is exoticised and vilified, admired for particular traits or mistrusted out of hand. Historian Judith Walkowitz (1992:35), discussing Charles Booth’s depictions of both the labouring poor and the Jews, identifies the biological racism underlying the social commentator’s classifications, and the inconsistencies which complicated the process of demarcation. As Walkowitz observes of his analyses, ‘like other “urban primitives”, Jews bore the physical stigmata of racial Otherness’. At the same time, their family-centred way of life and avoidance of street-brawling and domestic violence did not conform to the pattern of degradation normally associated with such otherness (Walkowitz 36).[14]

Stretton’s representation of the Jew as surrogate parent and moral guardian in Carola is markedly different from the model inherited in the figure of the evil Fagin (labelled generically as ‘the Jew’) of Dickens’s Oliver Twist. The positive qualities of sober, self-disciplined and honest living identified by contemporary social investigators are among the characteristics with which Stretton endows the elderly Jew who assumes responsibility for Carola’s upbringing in the East End slums, where crime and immorality are rife. Stretton depicts Matthias as an industrious, caring and protective mentor, who puts Carola’s welfare and interests above his own - a portrait at variance with commonly accepted views of ‘the Jew’ as artful and self-interested (people are ‘accustomed to think of all Jews as cunning and avaricious’ - 63; Ch.5). It is principally on account of his Jewish identity that Matthias is unpopular with his neighbours (191; Ch.20), but Stretton’s account makes clear his moral superiority over those who consider themselves as Christians. Undeniably, Stretton sees Matthias’s acceptance of Christianity as the desirable outcome; she harnesses his faith as a catalyst in Carola’s spiritual awakening (evoking J.R. Seeley’s suggestion in Ecce Homo (1865) of the Jew as midway between heathen and Christian), but ensures his ultimate conversion. However, by alternating the perspectives of Jew and non-Jew, she draws attention to the processes through which errors and misperceptions between different faiths and communities become accepted as reality, and pernicious mythologies and prejudices are established and perpetuated.

If there is a ‘constant, ubiquitous marker of otherness’ contained in nineteenth-century English literature, it is, as Nord (1998:189), confirms, the gypsy. This figure, viewed as romantically, and sometimes disconcertingly, dark and different - again evokes a range of responses spanning fascination, superstition, fear and envy, the multifaceted gypsy motif intersecting with wider discourses of evil and savagery, with their religious and colonialist connotations. The rhetoric which functions to construct the inhabitants of the slums as unsavoury ‘dregs’ or ‘refuse’, of lower status even than the animals, also operates in respect of the gypsy, who, unlike the partially integrated Jew, ‘hovered’ at the edge of English society (Nord, 189), a signifier of all that is unanchored, alien and lawless.

As Behlmer (1985:234) notes, the label ‘Gypsy’ was applied loosely; it covered itinerant workers and vagrants of various types - members of Mayhew’s ‘wandering tribes’, many of whom worked on the land during the better weather and migrated to the city as winter set in, mingling with the resident population. As a consequence, Stretton’s Gip - whose parentage is manifestly open to question - is deemed a ‘reg’lar little gipsy, with black eyes, and black [tangled] hair all over its head’ (Lost Gip 4; Ch.1). Reflected in the gypsy characters who feature in works such as Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) and George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860), this wild, unconventional and disturbing gypsy ‘otherness’ - emblematic of the dark underside of self and society, and epitomised in Emily Bronte’s ‘ragged, black-haired’ ‘gipsy brat’, Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights, 51) - invites both identification and rejection.

Commonly vilified, the gypsy is represented as a figure to be distrusted – a harbinger of ill fortune; the villagers in Stretton’s Two Secrets (1882:18) are reluctant to take in a ‘strange child’, who belongs to ‘nobody but gipsies’. On the other hand, the unfettered open-air existence, symbolising moral and social freedom and autonomy, could also attract envy on the part of those confined to a more conventional lifestyle. Behlmer (1985:238) discusses the romantic image of the free gypsy, associated increasingly with precious rural values in response to the threatened extinction of the countryside. The gypsy was perceived not only as a contaminating influence and a threat to order and civilised values, but alternatively, as a guardian of the simple life in the face of uncomfortably rapid material advances, this romanticised vision of the gypsy lifestyle popularised by artists and writers such as George Borrow.[15] Stretton draws on the figure as a symbol of freedom and resistance to socialisation in the three-volume mature novel, The Doctor’s Dilemma (1872), in which the protagonist likens herself to a gypsy ‘caught and caged’ by over-civilised urban life. (Pt.3:231; Ch.22).

Like other social outcasts, gypsies were the object of voyeuristic interest as well as social anxiety or philanthropic concern; their habits and activities provoked controversy and debate in press and periodicals. An intermingling of curiosity, apprehension and condescension is evident in Stretton’s own reactions following a visit to a neighbouring gypsy camp late in 1868, and a subsequent meeting with members of their community at a local reception. In her diary she records a ‘… droll and interesting scene’ (Logbook: 3.1.1869). Her experiences are transposed to an article entitled ‘Gipsy Glimpses’, which appeared during 1869 in Dickens’s All The Year Round.  In this account, diverse facets of the gypsy myth converge; the complex, contradictory attitudes which surround this exoticised but marginalised figure are brought into focus. The gypsy women and ‘black haired’ child are framed as unfamiliar, but intriguing performers in a dramatic spectacle; the element of superstitious fear traditionally associated with the trope is set up through the image of the threatening dog which guards the site, and further developed in references to the baby’s ‘fortune-telling face’ (539). At the same time, the brilliantly coloured tent furnishings, the homely cooking utensils and richly decorated china create an alluring impression of comfort and romance (537). Stretton draws on the prevailing linguistic framework to describe this ‘vagrant tribe’; she comments on the dignity and civilised comportment of the ‘strange guests’, who, to the surprise of the local community, generally conduct themselves like ‘any other gentlemen’ - observations which simultaneously reinforce and undermine perceptions of difference. Interestingly, those of ‘the true gipsy race’ are anxious to distinguish themselves from the Epping Forest gypsies, perceived as ‘a mongrel lot’ with ‘low and dirty habits’ (537-9), the pervasive tendency to categorise and draw boundaries evident even within the broader group.

Stretton’s earlier magazine story ‘A Provincial Post-Office’ (1863) had drawn attention to the ‘talismanic’ labelling of young children perceived to be at risk of abduction by strangers and gypsy ‘baby-stealers’ (12). In narratives such as Cassy, Stretton brings into play both negative and positive aspects of the gypsy lifestyle. She contrasts the leisure outings to the forest undertaken as a means of temporary escape by better-off Londoners with the habitual living conditions endured by the ‘strange wandering population’, whose encampments nonetheless represent a precious freedom denied them during their urban winter confinement (Cassy, Chs.1 and 10). Cassy’s rough, muddy forest campsite and the meagre, broken or rotting contents of her tent encapsulate the deprivation and abuse to which she is continually subjected. Juxtaposed with this image is the picturesque gypsy caravan of her Christian rescuer, which represents a sentimentalised pastoral idyll and a site of domestic security which carries no trace of more sinister or mythical gypsy powers.

Stretton was to return much later to the gypsy trope - this time a much wilder version - in her full-length novel Half Brothers (1892), clearly addressed to an older reader. Martino, the child of a secret marriage, is abandoned, following his mother’s death, in a remote mountain region of Italy, where, less valued than the animals, he leads a ‘savage and uncivilised’ life (n.d.:29; Ch.3). In this figure, multiply-charged discourses which encode ideological and psychological oppositions of civilised/savage, converted/heathen, educated/ignorant, English/foreigner, self/other are brought together, laying bare commonly accepted notions of class and racial superiority. Contemporary motivations and prejudices regarding ‘civilisation’ and ‘civilising missions’ are played out in the attempted taming and rehabilitation of this ‘feral’ figure. Martino can be read as an alter ego, constituting, in his monstrousness, both the embodiment of the consequences of his father’s undesirable liaison, and a symbol of self-division at a wider level. Also reflected are the power relations embedded in colonialist discourses, harnessing educational, cultural and socio-scientific attitudes regarding the heathen or barbarian ‘other’.

The ‘nearly naked’ form of the mountain-child, his matted hair, dirt-encrusted skin and ‘savage uncouth grin’ (76-7; Ch.11) evoke descriptions applied to city ‘street Arabs’ and the associated ‘barbarian’ licence confirmed in contemporary accounts. Martino suggests the ‘wild man type’ - representative of ‘anti-social man’ and a threat to civil society - posited by Paul Brown (1994: 52) in his discussion of Shakespeare’s Caliban. The adult Martino remains an unsocialised being - a ‘wild beast’ and outsider even among the mountain community. ‘Barely human’, he clings to his den ‘like an animal’, but displays ‘a certain susceptibility inherited from his educated and civilised parentage…’ (264-6; Ch.38). When he is brought to England to be re-educated, there are fears that, as a ‘wild, ignorant’ and probably ‘untamable’ peasant, he is beyond reclamation from his ‘savagery’. Now renamed Martin, he is consistently likened to a child, further drawing attention to the processes of infantilisation applicable to both child and savage. Martin rejects attempts to rehabilitate him, refusing to abandon his accustomed prowling and scavenging. Sadly, his failure to be re-educated according to the mores of the educated classes forecloses all hope of a liaison with his ‘white angel’ mentor, whose fresh, unfettered disposition represents the acceptable synthesis of romantic wildness and civilised norms (Chs.38-40).

Underlining a belief in the intrinsic superiority of English values and education - supposedly equated with the state of civilisation - this text reflects imperialist notions of ‘civilisation’ as, subject to these guiding influences, potentially within the reach of all, including ‘barbarians’ and those of other races. It exposes a presumption of English-speaking as the norm, and the impossibility of identity residing in anything other than Englishness. However, the factors which stand in the way of Martin’s integration are highlighted, and the family’s ‘civilising’ and ‘humanising’ endeavours interrogated. In stressing the need to communicate with Martin in his own language (349; Ch.51), Stretton promotes identification with his experiences of alienation, and foregrounds the crucial relationship between language and identity.

Throughout, English ‘civilised’ values are alternately affirmed and dismantled; the narrative challenges the imposition of cultural norms and the power of ‘civilisation’ to transform the ‘other’. Despite apparent internalisation of dominant discourses, Stretton undoubtedly identifies with the situation of a human being who is subjected to constant surveillance and involuntary enculturation. The chapter title ‘Captured’ (Ch.42) encodes both the oppressor’s assessment of the victim and the perspective of the oppressed. Martin, more at home wandering the surrounding moorland, feels ‘like a wolf shut up … and fastened by a chain’ (355; Ch.51) - reminiscent of Stretton’s descriptions of the literal or metaphorical containment suffered by female protagonists under patriarchal tyranny. Despite a dog-like obedience, he refuses the fetters of civilisation, escaping to the moors and the womb-like refuge of the cave which evokes the surroundings of his childhood. The narrative tone betrays ambivalence towards this continued rejection of a life ‘cramped by custom and conventionality’; the ‘right to freedom’ is paramount 369-70; Ch.53). Valorisations of the ‘noble savage’ again commingle with notions of the uncivilised as unenlightened, threatening outcast. Interestingly, although Martin is ‘not a civilized man according to our notions’, ‘civilization’ is deemed ‘more a fashion than a reality’ (282; Ch.40) - a surprisingly modern identification of civilisation as a social construct. There is a sense that the removal of individuals from their cultural environment may be ill-judged: Martin’s sufferings, though different, ‘were not less in this strange country’ (368; Ch.53). Although Stretton does not consistently question the desirability of rescue missions or emigration schemes (the latter often reflecting eugenics-related anxieties), this suggestion resonates with a modern interrogation of wider colonialist or philanthropic projects – such policies of intervention, manipulation and separation no longer regarded as unequivocally beneficial.


The perceived equation of poverty with criminality ensures in Stretton’s settings an inherent proximity to a criminal environment. In his ‘Bitter Cry’, Andrew Mearns describes the city’s ‘low parts’, where ‘entire courts are filled with thieves, prostitutes and liberated convicts’ (98). Stretton, like Dickens, drew characters from among the most ‘degraded’ - the ‘dregs’ of society (Preface to Oliver Twist 1838, 1966:33). Sometimes protagonists are slightly removed - of ‘better stock’, or displaying innate goodness (signalled by blue eyes and blond hair), suggesting a reluctance to identify fully with the criminal perspective. However, whilst not condoning criminality, Stretton uses the villain  - as she does the often unknowingly perceptive street-child - as a vehicle for her critique of social structures and forms of authority, permitting him agency and raising issues both historically specific and transhistorical.[16] Her protagonist justifies robbery, refusing to starve, while folks ‘roll in money’ and oppress the poor as ‘slaves’ (Chs.12 & 14). The gospel is an ‘old woman’s tale’, harnessed in order to ‘have us poor folks believe, to keep us down’ (107; Ch.12), a perception frequently invited by Victorian sermons, as Hart (1977) discusses in relation to the appropriation of religious themes for purposes of social regulation and the legitimation of inequalities.

If the future of the street-girl is inevitable - literally and morally ‘fatal’ - comparable perceptions and prejudices apply to the young male on the edge of this criminal world, with juvenile lawlessness bound up with fears of wider unrest. The regulation, education and reformation of the young was judged crucial - the basis upon which the future of the nation depended (Stretton, ‘Women’s Work’ 12). Hugh Cunningham (1991:107) discusses the proliferation of literature concerned with delinquency, and the overlapping discourses surrounding the representation of street-children from the mid-Victorian period.[17] Whilst the figure of the street-urchin is often sanitised, sentimentalised and made picturesque - reflecting both the drive towards commodification and an underlying urge to domesticate that which is potentially threatening - the fear of what the street Arab represents evokes contradictory responses. Images are exoticised in order to appeal, but, at the same time, this otherness is variously exploited, degraded and manipulated. Whereas the Rousseauesque noble savage is prized for its natural wildness, the wild street-boy becomes a scapegoat for society’s ills and the object of its programmes of reform and ‘remoralisation’. 

Set against Hesba Stretton’s vision of the deviant as deserving of understanding, or susceptible to rehabilitation, is the image of a ‘criminal type’, evoking Lombroso’s theories of an inbred capacity for vice. Stretton’s narratives incorporate, expose and trouble prevailing assumptions or judgements concerning a propensity to idleness and crime. The street-boy is, in the public imagination, ‘no doubt … a thief and pickpocket’ (Alone in London 68; Ch.10), or ‘a rogue and a thief, no doubt’ (Lost Gip 65; Ch.9 - my italics). Issues of authority and control (bound up, for Stretton, with cultural distortions of Christian patriarchal patterns across classes and contexts) are central. Benjamin Waugh - a co-campaigner for reform of the juvenile justice system - speaks, in The Gaol Cradle: Who Rocks it? (1873), of the figure of the official ‘dominat[ing] the poor-boy world’ (29), and the police as the ‘autocrat[s] of the street’ (37); to survive, and ‘keep clear of [them] is the chief aim of … day-to-day life’ (141). Stretton records the deep-rooted ‘instinct of the City Arab to escape from a policeman’ (Pilgrim Street 76-7; Ch.9), and exposes a self-fulfilling sense of worth and destiny in her protagonists, who are persistently hounded and marked out - often simply by their appearance - for jail. Along with other outcasts, they find themselves constantly under the searchlight of authority - forced, like runaway Cassy, to retreat into hidden, unlit spaces, away from ‘… the too busy policemen’ (32; Ch.4). Illustrations which serve to reinforce Stretton’s interrogation of unequal relations of power make clear the operation of ubiquitous surveillance; the urchin, the destitute or fallen are exposed as frightened or submissive figures under the accusing beam of torchlight, as in Pilgrim Street (94f; Ch.12) - images which evoke Gustave Doré’s popular drawings of the outcast masses.[18] The powerlessness of those charged, and often arbitrarily convicted, the inevitability of recidivism and effects of labelling, branding and internalisation highlighted by Waugh: having ‘call[ed] him a dog, [the system] makes him a dog’ (9), are laid bare in texts such as In Prison and Out (and, significantly, remain areas of contention today).[19]

A different morality operates in an environment where the poor are ‘pinned down to suffering and crime’ (In Prison and Out 195; Ch.22); stealing becomes necessary to supply basic needs. Like Waugh, Stretton exposes the arbitrary, class-related construction of childhood boundaries, and concomitant responses to misdemeanours. Offences which lead to prison for the street-child are deemed heroic or ‘naught but a lad’s trick’ in upper-class society (No Place Like Home 1881, inscr.1904:37; Ch.3), where the transgressor, considered ‘but a boy still’, would be dealt with comparatively lightly (In Prison and Out 140; Ch.16). Reflecting religious influences and progressive educational and sociological ideas (and suggesting, from a Foucauldian perspective, the deflection of a threat through more subtle mechanisms of control), Stretton accentuates the need for more enlightened, humanitarian approaches towards the young offender or outcast; it may not be possible to remove such individuals from the environment of the streets, but, as she urges in Pilgrim Street (28; Ch.3), it should be feasible, by means of social and spiritual redirection, to mould them into something other than they are. Yet the seeming inability to respond to socialisation and re-education displayed by outcasts such as Martin of Half Brothers brings to mind the question she raises concerning the thousands of ‘bare-headed, bare-footed little urchins, and the shivering little girls in their thin rags’, whom the hours are ‘ripening … into thieves and prostitutes’:

the half-starved, half-naked child, … grown up amid depraved and vicious surroundings, is it possible he can avail himself of the teaching which suits his happier school-fellows? (‘Ragged School Union Conferences’ 1883:268).

Such questions and associations underline the complex interimbrication of strands and patterns operating within this multi-directional web. Encompassing facets of otherness and resistance beyond the scope of this essay, Stretton’s writings negotiate the ambiguous construction and representation of alterity, from the figure of the child to the savage, heathen or unregenerate and back again, exposing the ‘other’ as both victim and agent. Stretton consistently shows that ‘difference’ is dependent upon factors such as material environment, financial status, education, opportunity or choice, its creation, ordering and policing bound up with society’s desires, insecurities and ambivalence. As in wider areas of discourse, a progressive commitment to the situation of the poor or outcast vies with deep-seated prejudices which reflect a concomitant investment in positioning individuals or groups as inferior or ‘other’. Embodying the mingled ‘charm’ and ‘half-dread’ inspired by the village outcast of Stretton’s Michel Lorio’s Cross (1876, inscr.1888:25), cultural attitudes, then, as now, exhibit something not unlike Foucault’s ‘binary branding and exile of the leper’ (1979:199) in respect of those whom we consciously or unconsciously construct as outsiders or outcasts - as different from (yet, perhaps, uncomfortably similar to) ourselves.


[1] The question of audience for Stretton’s texts is complex. Even the short – often deceptively simple – texts, such as Jessica’s First Prayer (1867), Little Meg’s Children (1868), Alone in London (1869) and others, which might appear, at first sight, to be aimed at younger readers, reflect the concerns of both adult and child protagonists; they address – overtly and obliquely – surprisingly adult themes, and offer layered readings. It is clear that these texts were read by adults as well as children, sometimes as part of a shared reading experience; archives show that publishers such as The Religious Tract Society targeted both audiences, as discussed below. A number of Stretton’s longer novels are plainly addressed to a mature or young-adult readership, whilst stories such as Cassy (1874), The Storm of Life (1876), A Thorny Path (1879), The Lord’s Pursebearers (1883) and Carola (1884) occupy a rather more ambiguous, perhaps transitional, position on the borders of adult and juvenile literature. I have dealt with these aspects in more detail in my section on Stretton in Thiel, Lomax, Carrington & Sebag-Montefiore. A Victorian Quartet (forthcoming, Pied Piper Publishing) and in my full-length study, The Writings of Hesba Stretton: Reclaiming the Outcast (forthcoming, Ashgate).

[2] Paradoxically, by virtue of its fluidity as signifier, the child is also harnessed to transcend difference, enlisted to bridge as well as reinforce borders.

[3] See Louis Althusser ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.’ Eds. A. Easthope and K. McGowan (1992). See also Lynne Pearce Reading Dialogics (1994). Pearce (65) discusses Mikhail Bakhtin’s analysis of the role of language in the ‘ideological becoming’ of subjects, which anticipates Althusser’s theory of interpellation but differs in the degree of freedom, resistance and potential for renegotiation allowed to subjects.

[4] USCL/RTS Archives (H8501:3.10.1865); Memoir. Sunday at Home 1911:123. Subsequent general examples of Tract Society language are taken from USCL/RTS Minutes H8501 and H8502.

[5] Books were often categorised as ‘for children and the poor’. Dickens notes the common strategy of talking to the poor as though they are children (Bleak House 711), a practice eschewed by both Dickens and Stretton. 

[6] In fact, Stretton’s narratives potentially address diverse audiences in terms of class. Many texts were published in a range of editions, with cheaper versions aimed at a working-class audience including Sunday and Board School scholars, and more elaborate and costly editions produced for a middle-class readership. Publishers anticipated that readers of the poorer classes would identify with, and learn from, the trials, experiences, mistakes and triumphs of poor and working-class protagonists; middle-class readers could acquaint themselves with the lives of those less fortunate than themselves, and consequently be moved to compassion and encouraged in the exercise of charity. They could also be made aware of moral dangers to which they were not immune - and which might, as melodramatic narrative, serve to attract their attention and interest - and they could absorb moral and spiritual lessons which might be applicable to them. A number of Stretton’s works feature protagonists from a range of social spheres, highlighting commonality as well as difference. Importantly, she raises awareness of inequalities and broaches difficult issues, such as oppression and abuse, which potentially have cross-class resonance and are liable to remain unvoiced in middle-class settings.

[7] See my forthcoming publications listed in footnote 1 above.

[8] See P. Keating, ed. Into Unknown England 1866-1913 (1976).

[9] Gooderham focuses on the influence on subjectivity of discourses of the body in children’s literature.

[10] See ‘Alice Liddell as “The Beggar Maid”’ (c.1859), reproduced in Higonnet (1998:124).

[11] See Davin (1990) for a discussion of the extent (actual and perceived) of nineteenth-century child prostitution. Thomas Barnardo’s accounts cite girls as young as ten ‘drawn into the practice of the worst vices’ (‘A City Waif’ 10). Significantly, Barnardo’s allusions to ‘fishing’, ‘baiting the hook’, ‘nibbling’ and ‘catching’ overlap with the discourse of seduction; his waif, like Stretton’s Jessica, is easily enticed by the warmth and fragrance of the coffee.

[12] This protagonist acts to create an identity for himself, appropriating the name of a local dog because ‘folks kept callin’ me anythin’…, till I didn’t even know who I was’ (18; Ch.2).

[13] Bleak House (1853); At The Back of The North Wind (1871).

[14] Bryan Cheyette (1993), discussing the instability and fluidity of ‘the Jew’ as signifier (8), posits the harnessing of the figure to represent the ‘best and ‘worst’ of selves; it also signifies both a ‘powerful “self” and a powerless “other”’ (12).

[15] Lavengro (1851) and The Romany Rye (1857).

[16] See also Cassy’s ironic identification of women’s naturalised subjection (Cassy 64 & 75; Chs. 8 & 9), and her telling approval of Jesus’ treatment of women and children ‘as if they were almost as good as men’ (138; Ch.16).

[17] Cunningham explores the intersection of discourses of primitivism, savagery and the nineteenth-century delinquent.

[18] For example, ‘The Bull’s Eye’ (1872), reproduced in Treuherz (1987:67).

[19] Nodelman (1992) discusses the extent to which a discourse of the other becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, implicated in the manipulation of actions and outcomes.


(Texts by Stretton are listed, as far as possible, with dates of first publication in volume form and edition cited.)

Althusser, Louis. From ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.’ Eds. A. Easthope and K. McGowan. A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader. Buckingham: Open University Press, 1992.

Anon. ‘Hesba Stretton - Born 1832.’ (I. Memoir). The Sunday at Home:121-4. 1911.

Ashcroft, Bill. ‘Primitive and Wingless: the Colonial Subject as Child.’ Ed. W.S. Jacobson. Dickens and the Children of Empire. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000.

Barnardo, Thomas, ed. ‘A City Waif: How I Fished for and Caught Her.’ Tracts on Dr. Barnardo’s Homes. London: Shaw and Company, 1885/6.

__________________. ‘“God’s Little Girl. ”’ Tracts on Dr. Barnardo’s Homes. London: Shaw and Company, 1885/6.

Bartkty, Sandra Lee. ‘Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power.’ Eds. I. Diamond and L. Quinby. Feminism and Foucault: Reflections on Resistance. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1988.

Behlmer, George K. ‘The Gypsy Problem in Victorian England.’ Victorian Studies, 28: 231-53, 1985.

Borrow, George. Lavengro. 1851. London: Dent, 1961.

Borrow, George. The Romany Rye. 1857. London: The Cresset Press, 1948.

Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. 1847. Ware: Wordsworth, 1992.

Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. 1847.  Ed. L. Peterson. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992.

Brown, Paul. ‘“This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine”: The Tempest and the discourse of colonialism.’ Eds. J. Dollimore and A. Sinfield. Political Shakespeare: Essays in cultural materialism. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994.

Butler, Judith. ‘Bodily Inscriptions, Performative Subversions.’ 1990. Ed. S. Salah with J. Butler. The Judith Butler Reader. Malden, Oxford, Carlton: Blackwell, 2004.

Cheyette, Bryan. Constructions of ‘The Jew’ in English literature and society: Racial representations, 1875-1945. Cambridge, New York, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Cunningham, Hugh. The Children of the Poor. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.

Davidoff, Leonore. Worlds Between: Historical Perspectives on Gender and Class. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995.

Davin, Anna. ‘When is a Child Not a Child?’ Eds. H. Corr and L. Jamieson. Politics of Everyday Life. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1990.

Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. 1838. Ed. P. Fairclough. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966.

______________. ‘The Haunted Man.’ 1848. Christmas Books. Ware: Wordsworth, 1995.

______________. Bleak House. 1853. Ed. N. Bradbury. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1996.

Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger. London, Boston and Henley: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969.

Eliot, George. The Mill on the Floss. 1860. Ed. A.S. Byatt. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979.

Fairclough, Norman. Language and Power. Harlow: Longman, 1989.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. A. Sheridan. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979.

Foucault, Michel. The Will to Knowledge: The History of Sexuality Vol.1. Trans. R. Hurley. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981.

Gilbert, Pamela K. Disease, Desire and The Body in Victorian Women’s Popular Novels. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Gooderham, David. ‘“These Little Limbs …” Defining the Body in Texts for Children.’ Children’s Literature in Education 27.4: 227-241, 1996.

Hart, Jenifer. ‘Religion and social control in the mid-nineteenth century.’ Ed. A.P. Donajgrodski. Social Control in Nineteenth-Century Britain. London: Croom Helm, 1977.

Higonnet, Anne. Pictures of Innocence: The History and Crisis of Ideal Childhood. London: Thames and Hudson, 1998.

Hollindale, Peter. ‘Ideology and the Children’s Book.’ Signal 55: 3-22, 1988.

Keating, Peter, ed. Into Unknown England 1866-1913: Selections from the Social Explorers. Glasgow: Fontana, 1976.

Kingsley, Charles. The Water-Babies. 1863. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1995.

Koven, Seth. ‘Dr. Barnardo’s “Artistic Fictions”: Photography, Sexuality, and the Ragged Child in Victorian London.’ Radical History Review 69, 6-45, 1997.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon Rodez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

Lomax, Elaine. The Writings of Hesba Stretton: Reclaiming the Outcast. Forthcoming Ashgate, 2008/9.

MacDonald, George. At The Back of The North Wind. 1871. New York: Airmont, 1966.

Mason, Michael. The Making of Victorian Sexuality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Mayhew, Henry. London Labour and The London Poor. 1861-2. Ed. V. Neuburg. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985.

Maynard, John. Victorian Discourses on Sexuality and Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Mearns, Andrew. From ‘The Bitter Cry of Outcast London.’ 1883. Ed. P. Keating. Into Unknown England 1866-1913. Glasgow: Fontana, 1976.

Myers, Mitzi. ‘The Erotics of Pedagogy: Historical Intervention, Literary Representation, the “Gift of Education,” and the Agency of Children.’ Ed. F. Butler et al. Children’s Literature 23. New Haven and London: University of California Press, 1995.

Myers, Mitzi. ‘Reading Children and Homeopathic Romanticism: Paradigm Lost, Revisionary Gleam, or “Plus Ca Change, Plus C’est La Meme Chose”?’. Ed. J. Holt McGavran. Literature and The Child: Romantic Continuations, Postmodern Contestations. Iowa City, University of Iowa Press, 1999.

Nodelman, Perry. ‘The Other: Orientalism, Colonialism, and Children’s Literature.’ Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 17.1: 29-35, 1992.

Nord, D. Epstein..  Walking The Victorian Streets: Women, Representation, and the City. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1995.

Nord, D.  Epstein. ‘“Marks of Race”: Gypsy Figures and Eccentric Femininity in Nineteenth-Century Women’s Writing’. Victorian Studies 41.2: 189-210, 1998.

Pearce, Lynne. Reading Dialogics. London: Edward Arnold, 1994.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. 1978. London: Penguin, 2003.

Seeley, J.R. Ecce Homo. 1865. London: Dent, 1907.

Sims, George.  From ‘How the Poor Live.’ 1889. Ed. P. Keating. Into Unknown England 1866-1913. Glasgow: Fontana, 1976.

Smith, Lindsay. ‘The shoe-black to the crossing sweeper: Victorian street Arabs and photography.’ Textual Practice 10.1: 29-55, 1996.

Stedman Jones, Gareth. Outcast London. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984.

Stephens, John. Language and Ideology in Children’s Fiction. Harlow: Longman, 1992.

Stein, Richard L. ‘Street Figures: Victorian Urban Iconography’. Eds. C.T. Christ and J.O. Jordan. Victorian Literature and the Victorian Visual Imagination. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1995.

Stretton, Hesba. ‘A Provincial Post Office.’ All The Year Round. 28.2.1863: 12-16.

____________. The Children of Cloverley. 1865. London: The Religious Tract Society, label 1876.

____________. Pilgrim Street. 1867. London: The Religious Tract Society, inscription1890.

____________. Jessica’s First Prayer. 1867. London: The Religious Tract Society, n.d.

____________. Little Meg’s Children. 1868. London: The Religious Tract Society, label 1889.

____________. Alone in London. 1869. London: The Religious Tract Society, inscr.1872.

____________. ‘Gipsy Glimpses’. All The Year Round. 8.5.1869: 536-40.

____________. Bede’s Charity. 1872. London: The Religious Tract Society, c.1890.

____________. The Doctor’s Dilemma. London: H.S. King, 1872.

____________. Lost Gip. 1873. London: H.S. King. London: C. Kegan Paul, 1878.

____________. Hester Morley’s Promise. 1873. London: H.S. King. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1898.

____________. Cassy. 1874. London: H.S. King, c.1888.

____________. The Storm of Life. 1876. London: H.S. King. London: The Religious Tract Society, label 1910.

____________. Michel Lorio’s Cross. 1876. London: H.S. King. London, The Religious Tract Society, inscr.1888.

____________. A Thorny Path. 1879. London: The Religious Tract Society, c.1882.

____________. In Prison and Out. London: Isbister, 1880.

                        . Cobwebs and Cables. 1881. London: The Religious Tract Society, n.d.

____________. No Place Like Home. 1881. London: The Religious Tract Society, inscr.1904.

____________. Under the Old Roof. 1882. London: The Religious Tract Society, n.d.

____________. Two Secrets. 1882. London: The Religious Tract Society, inscr.1901.

                        . The Lord’s Pursebearers. 1883. London: Nisbet. Day of Rest Annual. London: Strahan and Company, n.d.

____________. ‘Ragged School Union Conferences.’ The Sunday at Home. 7.4.1883: 266-268.

____________. Carola. 1884. London: The Religious Tract Society, label 1898.

____________. An Acrobat’s Girlhood. London: SPCK, 1889.

____________. Half  Brothers. 1892. London: The Religious Tract Society, n.d.

____________. ‘Women’s Work for Children.’ Ed. A. Burdett-Coutts. Woman’s Mission.London: Sampson Low, Marston, 1893.

____________. In the Hollow of His Hand. 1897. London: The Religious Tract Society, label 1903.

____________. The Soul of Honour. 1898. London: Isbister. London: The Religious Tract Society, label 1905.

____________. Jessica’s Mother. [c.1904]. London: The Religious Tract Society, label 1925. (This text first appeared 1867 in the Sunday at Home, but although it was included in the RTS Penny Tales for the People series before 1900 and issued by The Bible Institute Colportage Association, Chicago, as Part II of the complete ‘Jessica’ story [1897], it is believed that a separate-volume hardback edition did not appear until early in the twentieth century.)

____________. Log Books 1858-71 &1875 (Material by permission of Shropshire Archives. Ref. 6001/5556).

Thiel, E., Lomax, E., Carrington, B. and Sebag-Montefiore, M. A Victorian Quartet: Four Forgotten Women Writers. Forthcoming, Pied Piper Publishing, 2007/8.

Treuherz, Julian. Hard Times: Social realism in Victorian art. London: Lund Humphries in association with Manchester City Art Galleries, 1987.

Walkowitz, Judith. City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London. London: Virago, 1992.

Waugh, Benjamin. The Gaol Cradle: Who Rocks It?. 1873. New York and London: Garland, 1984.


United Society for Christian Literature/The Religious Tract Society, University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies.

Shropshire Archives, Shrewsbury.