“I’ve always been respectable”
The peace of mind of ordinary English people has been disturbed! A widow has been sued for possession of her flat at Bow County Court, on the ground that she was an annoyance to other tenants in the house. The annoyance was visits by a man she intended to marry.
“The thought of a couple living in the house adulterously. perhaps, and certainly immorally—worried them,” said the prosecuting lawyer. When asked “What is your attitude to this man living with this woman?” a tenant of the basement replied, “I take a very poor view of it. I’ve been married 28 years and I’ve always been respectable.”
Counsel for the Defence: “The fact that two people who are sleeping together have no marriage lines, doesn’t make their conduct an annoyance to people in an adjoining flat.”
Judge: “The average women in the East End doesn’t like to have an unmarried woman living as though she were married next door to her. They come here in their scores and tell me so.”
Counsel for Prosecution: “The poorer classes are very often much more fastidious in these matters than the top layer.”
Judge: “We won’t say the top layer. We’ll say the wealthier classes . . . anything that disturbs the peace of mind of other inhabitants of a house is an annoyance. This sort of conduct is something that I am pleased to say in these days still disturbs the peace of mind of ordinary sensible English people.”
Making an order for possession, suspended so long as visits ceased, the Judge told the widow, “If you choose to sleep with Mr. —, I can’t prevent it, but you must choose somewhere else!” Or, as a certain Mr. Henry Ford used to say, “The customers can have any colour they like, as long as it’s black.”
In such cases is much material for study. The “poorer classes’’ are more fastidious about “marriage lines’’ than the wealthy ones. They are very worried if somebody lives next door as though they are married, when they are not. They are unlike the proprietors of some expensive West End hotels, which provide accommodation mainly for persons not married to each other.
These hoteliers would get “very worried” if their guests were married couples, since then they would be on the way out.
In addition to all their other advantages and privileges (No Taxation or Death Duties, no financial worries, no servant problem, no wrangles about places in the Coronation procession; or what to do with the old ancestral hall, or Kenya or the Soudan) the poorer classes have, as their most cherished possession, their respectability. Come rain or shine, fair weather or foul, nobody can deprive them of this most precious jewel.
Rich men may marry a new film-star every year; even in the basement, we’re respectable.
Neither does this extend to “marriage lines” only, as every inhabitant of those quarters occupied by the “poorer classes” knows; behind those threadbare “respectable” curtains lurks the prying eye, the sharp inquisitive nose eager for the slightest sign of a minor slip or lapse. Let Mrs. Brown forget to whiten her doorstep when the snow is on the ground; how the bush telegraph crackles over the garden wall!
Crammed together in numbers which ants would find uncomfortable, in parts of dilapidated houses at the rate of more than 2½ to one small room; not merely next to each other, but literally on top of each other, dependent upon a husband whose job is so deadly dull and monotonous that a Coronation Tea party is a thrilling adventure, their greatest experience a visit to a cheap local cinema, small wonder that their main pre-occupation is to be “cleaner” “brighter,” “nicer” or when all else fails, more “respectable” than the woman next door. “Them mats haven’t been touched these last two days!”
“Marriage lines” is the popular slang term for the Registrar’s Certificate, issued under the Matrimonial Act to persons legally entitled to it. This Act ensures chiefly that monogamy (one wife or husband only) is observed, the breach of this, bigamy, being severely punished as a criminal offence. “Sleeping together” without these “lines,” annoys scores of poorer women in the East End, though whether many or few do this, we cannot say.
Though not guilty of infringement of the Matrimonial Act, the lady in question, a widow, had no “marriage lines” for her visitor, which annoyed the other tenants. They, unlike heathens and foreigners, are “respectable.”
These rules of the matrimonial game, or “gamble,” as it is sometimes called, are the result of the growth of private property. Monogamy is essential to ensure that a fortune goes to a man’s own children, it is the maintenance of private property. Since it is a social law of Capitalism, the poor, like the rich, must not flout it openly. Had the lady been rich she would not have appeared in Court, since she would not have rented a flat in Bow.
Neither could she have been sued for possession of her own property. She could invite as many visitors to as many of her houses as she chose. Had her “visitor” been wealthy, he could have invited her anywhere he pleased (yachts are popular) without risking Court proceedings, seagulls not having heard of “marriage lines.” As is well known, some very wealthy people still practice what in earlier days, or other places, was commonplace, the maintenance of an “unofficial” harem as an advertisement of opulence.
As long as working class women are condemned to grim, mean little lives of grinding poverty, “respectability” will be a straw to clutch at in face of premature age and hopeless exhaustion. The lady suffered from a lack of what becomes yearly more expensive and unobtainable; personal privacy. This is a form of poverty. The occupants of a typical house of working-class “flats” have about as much seclusion as a professional footballer on Saturday afternoons.
As our “modern conveniences” increase, so our lives become more inconvenient. As if the Atom Bomb, gastritis, influenza, the Floods and the Mau Mau are not enough “disturbance,” that woman upstairs “ has got ‘im ‘ere again. There’s too many in the house already without her bringing more in.”
In his vastly entertaining account of his stay in the Marquesas Islands entitled “Typee.” subsequently authenticated, the American writer Melville, comments wittily on the happy lot of the Polynesian in the 1840s
“There seemed to be no cares, griefs, troubles or vexations in all Typee. The hours tripped along as gaily as the laughing couples down a country dance.” He says there were “no bills or mortgages, no lawyers, no beggars, no prisons, no ‘proud nabobs’—in a word—no money.” (Page 136, Penguin Edition.)
“No cross old women, no cruel step-dames, no withered spinsters, no love-sick maidens, no sour old bachelors, no inattentive husbands, no melancholy young men, no squalling brats. All was mirth, fun, and high good humour.” (Page 136.)
To which should be appended “no marriage lines” because there was no private property.
Should the reader be contemplating speedy departure to this haven let us disillusion him. From the introduction we quote, “The modern visitor would find little trace of the life described in ‘Typee,’ for the population which at one time was 100,000, has dwindled to less than 2,000; contact with whites has brought syphilis, leprosy and tuberculosis,” and, may we add. Respectability?