Friday, January 21, 2022

Urban legend

Henry Mayhew, the great chronicler of 19th-century London's working poor, collected the following tale in the course of an interview with a lively street "patterer" who specialized in hawking printed broadsides containing accounts of notorious murders:
Then there's the Liverpool Tragedy - that's very attractive. It's a mother murdering her own son, through gold. He had come from the East Indies, and married a rich planter's daughter. He came back to England to see his parents after an absence of thirty years. They kept a lodging-house in Liverpool for sailors; the son went there to lodge, and meant to tell his parents who he was in the morning. His mother saw the gold he had got in his boxes, and cut his throat - severed his head from his body; the old man, upwards of seventy years of age holding the candle. They had put a washing-tub under the bed to catch his blood. The morning after the murder the old man's daughter calls and inquires for a young man. The old man denies that they have had any such person in the house. She says he had a mole on his arm in the shape of a strawberry. The old couple go upstairs to examine the corpse, and find they have murdered their own son, and then they both put an end to their existence.
I recognized the outlines of the tale immediately: it's more or less the plot of Albert Camus's 1943 drama Le malentendu, usually translated as The Misunderstanding. Camus shifts the action to Czechoslovakia, replaces the homicidal father with a sister, and changes the machinery of the eventual revelation scene, but it's clearly the same basic story.

Camus had come across the incident in an article published by the Hearst Universal Service, which described it as having taken place in Yugoslavia; he included a brief reference to it in The Stranger before developing it into the play. But it was a shopworn tale even in Mayhew's day. Folklorist Veronique Campion-Vincent, in a 1998 article in the Nordic Yearbook of Folklore (PDF here) traces it back to several versions dating from 1618; within three years versions of the tale had variously located the supposed events in London, Languedoc, Ulm (in what is now Germany), and Poland. Clearly it was too good a yarn not to pass on. (Elements of it — the failure to recognize a long-lost family member — arguably date back to Oedipus Tyrannus and the Odyssey.)

Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, incidentally, is a revelation in itself. A contemporary and acquaintance of Dickens, he combined statistical analysis (mostly omitted in the abridged Oxford University Press edition shown above) with oral history to provide a kind of non-fiction counterpart to the work of the great novelist. He keeps the moralizing to a minimum and allows individuals who would have been long forgotten by now to speak in their own voices. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst aptly calls his four-volume work "the greatest Victorian novel never written."

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