Sunday, 28 October 2012
Jimmy Savile and the Victorian Novel
In Morris’s The Water of the Wondrous Isles the heroine Birdalone is kidnapped as a baby and brought up abusively by a witch in the aptly named forest of Evilshaw. The figure of the harshly abused child – often an orphan, as Birdalone is not – is one of the recurrent icons of Victorian fiction: Jane Eyre in Charlotte Brontë’s novel, Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, David Copperfield, or Pip in Great Expectations. I’ve been teaching these books to students for years with the comfortable feeling – never explicitly formulated between us, but I think definitely in mind on both sides – that such child abuse was specific to the Victorian period and that it certainly was not, could not be, happening pervasively around us in our own enlightened epoch.
But now the Jimmy Savile case has blown that complacency right out of the water. It is not just that the eccentric BBC disc jockey has been exposed as a sexual predator on children on an industrial scale, but rather that we are seeing how widespread such abuse is, with the Rochdale child sex ring recently and many victims of other abusers now coming forward in the wake of the Savile scandal. And child sex abuse then links up with other kinds of abuse of vulnerable groups that we have learnt of lately – the Patients Association 2009 report into nurses’ neglect of and cruelty towards the elderly in the NHS, or the brutality of private care nurses at Winterbourne to patients with learning disabilities – to the point where you can begin to feel, as indeed is the case in the Victorian novel, that almost the whole of society is riddled with cruelty and exploitation.
I’m inclined to feel that it is capitalism itself which is ultimately behind all such specific instances of abuse, that its predatory ethos which involves treating others as mere opportunities for personal gain (what Morris himself might have termed ‘devil take the hindmost’), ripples out from the economy into all aspects of human life, in both the Victorian period and our own. But that confidence has been shaken too; perhaps this is too glibly political a point to make, though I don’t want to tip over into a theory of original sin either. For I still feel that even if there were the occasional case of child or elder abuse in a socialist society like that of News from Nowhere, at least the prevailing cooperative ethos of that culture would prevent it from ever becoming systemic, as it now seems to be with us.