Have you ever stood inside an underground tunnel? Not the run of the mill driving-to-Philly tunnel, I mean a legit cold, damp and incredibly eerie underground tunnel? How about one filled with coffins? How about one filled with coffins that are broken open? I can now say I have.
My “Ghosts and the Gothic: The Literature of Terror” class went on a study trip to East London this weekend, notably to go on a Jack the Ripper tour and visit the aforementioned Highgate Cemetery, where Karl Marx and George Eliot are buried, along with a slew of other upperclass Victorian families. The catacombs were the highlight of the cemetery trip, some people were understandably uncomfortable. We weren’t allowed to take pictures, either. There was something tangible in the air, something that set my teeth on edge and I couldn’t quite place what it was. All I know is that I would not want to be trapped in there! Some coffins had been vandalized and torn apart, in various states of disrepair. Alas, I didn’t see any bodies, because they had filled in the coffins with cement to spare people’s delicate sensibilities.
The Jack the Ripper tour wasn’t eerie or strange in the least. In case you haven’t heard, a freak heat wave has hit the UK the past week, sending temperatures as high as 80 degrees! For this area, in October, it’s unheard of (All y’all back in Virginia are used to this, no doubt). So the weather was incredibly sunny and cheerful, setting up irony in all sorts of funny ways. The tour guide first directed our attention to this, a thousand year old wall (no Jack affiliation, just something amazing!)
The tour began with our chipper guide giving us a background into the speculations of the Jack the Ripper case and walking us through East London. As it went on, we learned specific details of the murders (one thing is for sure, Jack was a messed up boy). The prostitutes are conventionally portrayed in movies as being young, pretty ladies who step out into a foggy night and are savagely torn apart. In reality, the prostitutes were all in their 40s, homeless so they wore all their clothes, and looking to earn enough money to just get a bed for the night. Apparently, the cheapest accommodation you could get for the night was sleeping slumped over in a bench with a rope tied to keep you upright. You’d get a lovely wake up call in the morning when the landlord pulled the rope away (shown in the Johnny Depp movie From Hell).
Since London has obviously changed a lot since the late 19th century, we only know the true location of three facets of the case:
After the tour, we had Indian food in the infamous Brick Lane district. I caught glimpses of Big Ben, Buckingham and the Tower and we got to drive over Tower Bridge! I need to go back to London ASAP and see all the fun touristy things. On an academic front, mid-term essays are due this week and next week. Since my professors are from Oxford, they expect a lot from you. My “Ghosts and the Gothic” essay is on the Miltonic concept of the Devil/God/Satan complex in Matthew Lewis’ The Monk and Shelley’s Frankenstein. Pretty interesting stuff! My “Fantasies of Youth” paper is on the construction of the orphan trope in Peter Pan and The Secret Garden. Basically, it’s all about mommy issues, and Peter Pan has a lot. I (ahem) haven’t started the other two….
Ah, and this was my view on the way back from London.