Numbers of well-meaning, religious people have been doing what is called “mortifying the flesh” during these forty days of Lent, and the close of the week will see the welcome end of their self-imposed abstinence. It is for churchmen and divines to set forth the meaning and the value of this custom of fasting; practical and simple-minded men, accustomed to think for themselves, will probably find it difficult to understand how a system of occasional semi-starvation can be either pleasing to God, or beneficial to man. But all conscientious motives deserve to be treated with respect; and it will be readily conceded that if a man is minded, for religious purposes, to injure his own health, eating too little is a more dignified and suitable method of effecting that purpose than eating too much. It is less easy to feel any sort of respect for that amateur, dilettante kind of fasting, which is in great vogue nowadays in fashionable circles among the upper classes. Well-to-do ladies and gentlemen of the West-End find it a pleasant and piquant change, after the pancakes of Shrove Tuesday, to inaugurate the commencement of Lent by a dish of carefully cooked salt fish on Ash Wednesday. To substitute fish for flesh on Fridays is no very serious disturbance of dietetic comfort. Good Friday itself, though the abstinence of that day is understood to be the severest of all, has some alleviation to offer in the shape of hot-cross buns. A slight fast on Saturdays, provided it is not too strictly enforced, may lend a zest to the festal profusion which the board will be spread on Easter Sunday and the following days. It would have been difficult to discover a more delightful and fashionable manner of exercising one’s piety, and gaining favour with God and man than this Lenten fast of the West End.
It is probable, nevertheless, that the inhabitants of the opposite quarter of London will be found at the end of this week to have fasted more strictly, though of course less “on principle” than their neighbours of the West. Eminent physicians have affirmed that the poor people of the East End suffer mainly from one disease, and that is starvation. To these the Lenten fast is a fast indeed; only it must be noted that it does not differ in this respect from any other period of the year; it is not preceded and followed by a feast. Ash Wednesday is here too a day of sackcloth and ashes, with the slight difference that there is no mention of salt-fish, that part of the ritual being confined to more fashionable quarters. Good Friday brings with it as severe an abstinence as the Church could require; so much so, that hot-cross buns are of the very rarest occurrence, and the day is not generally felt to deserve (in the East End at any rate) the appellation of “Good.” “Holy Week” it can scarcely be called; yet after all it is not more unholy than any other, in a region where starvation reigns equally all the year round. And lastly Easter brings with it, in the East End, no resurrection of hope, for the hopes of these poor people have long been buried—to rise no more. The West End may break the monotony of its feasting by occasionally playing at a fast; but in the East End it is a perpetual and unbroken Lent.
Let those amateur ascetics who sit down to an abundant table on Easter Sunday bethink them of this fact, which concerns them more closely than they may imagine. Every plus has its corresponding minus, and every feast has its corresponding fast. The luxury of the West End is the true, the inevitable cause of the destitution of the East, and until the former is removed it is unless to prate about remedying the latter. To search out the cause of the great social blot, this cancer that eats away the heart of our brutal civilization; to face the question boldly, with the determination that, come what may, justice shall be done, even to the detriment of “private interests”; to resolve that an end shall be put to the iniquitous system under which one half the population of London is for ever fasting that the other half may feast; this would be a more truly religious act, more acceptable to God because more serviceable to man, than to go through the mockery of pretending to fast during forty days of the year, while over-eating oneself largely during the remaining three hundred and twenty-five.
Justice, Vol. 64, April 4, 1885, p. 4