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William Morris on the "Maiden Tribute" Scandal RSS
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Posted by Elizabeth Carolyn Miller on Jan 29, 2011 05:24PM

    William Morris’s 17 August 1885 letter to the Pall Mall Gazette, hitherto unpublished since its original appearance in W. T. Stead’s newspaper, addresses the rise of a social purity movement among English reformers in the wake of the “Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon” scandal. In measured tones, Morris’s letter reiterates an argument already made by himself and other members of the Socialist League: that while exposure of vicious corruption can only serve the ultimate ends of social reform, the particular reforms championed by Stead and his followers will be ineffective, if not counter-productive, in addressing the root cause of such corruption. In this letter and in his writings for the Socialist League newspaper Commonweal, Morris sought to translate public anger aroused by the scandal into class-consciousness. The letter is notable not only for its formulation of this key socialist “talking point,” but for the prescient fears Morris expresses about the social purity movement and its signature bill, the Criminal Law Amendment Act. That Act, of course, is now remembered less for raising the age of consent for girls than for its criminalization of acts of “gross indecency” between consenting male adults.
    Stead’s “Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon” series famously exposed the existence of child prostitution in London. The series had run in the Pall Mall Gazette (PMG) in July 1885, and come August, Stead was attempting to channel public outrage incited by the series into a broader reform movement aimed at prostitution and other “social purity” issues. To this end, he organized a conference and demonstration, to which Morris was invited. Morris’s letter explains his reasons for not attending or participating. The primary reason he gives – “I am quite sure that no legislative enactment will touch prostitution as long as the present condition of the people exists; as long, in short, as there are rich and poor classes” – was a point that had already been elaborated at length by the Socialist League. The Commonweal, the Socialist League newspaper edited by Morris, had a conflicted relationship with Stead’s paper. Morris saw the PMG as part of the “Liberal press,” which was just a wing of the “capitalist press” and was governed by revenue interests despite its instincts for reform. In the 17 July 1886 issue of Commonweal, for example, Morris charged the PMG with taking sides against Irish Home Rule, alleging that, “the reactionist press, including the perfidious Pall Mall Gazette, … hardly takes the trouble to veil its exultation at the Jingo victory” (121). Elsewhere, however, Morris acknowledged that the paper did have some “semi-Socialist writers on the staff” (25 September 1886: 201). When the “Maiden Tribute” series broke, the Commonweal praised the PMG for its muckracking exposé. Eleanor Marx wrote a long response in the August 1885 issue, which began: “It has more than once been our duty to fall foul of the Pall Mall Gazette in this journal. We have attacked it and its editors unsparingly. And we are the more anxious now to say how sincerely we sympathise with them and thank them for their efforts – not without risk in this land of hypocrisy – to make generally known a condition of things almost too hideous for belief” (69).
    Despite approving of the series’ effort to uncover hidden corruption, however, Morris and the Socialist League took issue with Stead and his followers’ mode of addressing the corruption. While Stead successfully pushed Parliament to enact stricter legislation against social vice, Morris, as he says in his letter to the PMG, was “far from sure as to the wisdom of some of the main provisions of the bill.” Morris wanted instead to attack what he saw as “the real cause.” When the Socialist League held a special meeting on 5 August 1885 to discuss the PMG’s revelatory series, they immediately saw that the disclosures presented an opportunity to make the case for socialism before a public primed to resent corrupt authority. Morris argued at that meeting, as reported in the September 1885 Commonweal: “We have nothing to do with the mere immorality. We have to do with the causes that have compelled this unhappy way of living; the causes that drive girls and women into the streets, to sell their love, not to give it. These causes are the same that make a man degrade himself by over-hours and competition. There is the closest of relations between the prostitution of the body in the streets and of the body in the workshops” (78). “The real Minotaur,” Morris said, “is Capital – not one man, but the whole system is guilty.”
    Such a response, which insisted that child prostitution be considered as just one symptom of a wider social disease, proved less attractive to the public than the more local and immediate response offered by Stead. Nevertheless, Morris argued in his letter to the PMG that “it is misleading and dangerous to put any other view than this before people.” The argument that child prostitution can be addressed through social purity legislation, Morris says, is not only misleading, it is actively harmful. Morris’s response to this issue might be viewed as emblematic of a broader failure on the part of late-nineteenth-century socialists to seize on events of the day to generate public will for change; E. P. Thompson has argued, for example, that the Socialist League’s insistence on ideological “purism” cost them many converts during the New Unionism labor movement of the 1880s (438). And yet, we can also view Morris’s letter as expressing an admirable restraint in opposition to the slippery slope of reactive legislative offered by the more opportunistic Stead.

Bibliography: Thompson, E. P. William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary. New York: Pantheon, 1955.
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