High and mighty stoop to visit the dirt-poor


February 18, 2005

Given the constant stream of works on Victorian Britain, one sometimes feels that a moratorium is due. But occasionally a book comes along that makes one realise the exciting work that can still be done on that era. Seth Koven's Slumming is such a book, combining empirical richness with stimulating theoretical analysis and opening up questions for further research.

It addresses the curious fascination that "the slums" held for the privileged in Victorian Britain (focusing on London) and the desire to experience this alien realm so close at hand. This fascination teetered between the wish to investigate in order to advance understanding, philanthropic concern and shameless voyeurism seguing into the sensational.

Koven's treatment of the individuals and organisations engaged in this project is subtle and nuanced. He eschews the depiction of key figures as disinterested observers or saintly saviours of the outcast and desperate while refusing simplistic dismissal of those who ventured into the slums as either sleazy hypocrites or cranky eccentrics.

The book is built on an "abundance of sources - letters, diaries, memoirs, books, articles, speeches, newspaper stories, annual reports, visual images" - generated by those who went slumming or reacted to the findings of those who did. Less has survived from those who "lacked the time, desire or need to write down their thoughts and feelings": still, their voices sometimes emerge from contemporary documents or in later memoirs.

Koven introduces an intriguing cast of characters, and although a few of the usual suspects appear, new or previously marginalised figures come to the fore. In the introduction Koven invokes the occluded figure of that "philanthropic hedonist" James Hinton as a neglected influence on late Victorian ideas and ideals of revised relationships between the classes and between the sexes. He was written out of history because a "deliberate campaign of rumour and innuendo" made association with him too risky for other reformers working in the area.

Koven has disinterred James Greenwood's articles on "A night in a Workhouse" (published in The Pall Mall Gazette as by "An amateur casual"), and uncovered their previously unnoticed implications concerning male-male sex in workhouse casual wards. Debates about Thomas Barnardo, the scandals around his home for ragged children in the East End of London, and the accusations of faking the pathetic photos of waifs and strays used to promote his work are teased out in an intricate analysis of the personalities involved and the issues at stake.

The account of Elizabeth Banks, "the American girl in London", discusses her use of class masquerade as a stratagem to produce successful journalistic articles, in the context of the emergence of journalism as a profession for women. It also touches on the idea of the "new woman" and attitudes towards the US in general and American women in particular.

In an exploration of the settlement movement, both male and female, Koven provides a masterly analysis of dirt as a real and tactile presence and as a loaded symbolic substance.

His account of the homosocial settlements of the East End avoids simplistic interpretations of the choice of celibacy or desires for same-sex community. It is a pity, however, that he did not go further in examining how individuals in these communities were attempting to reconstruct heterosexual relations given that several marriages of comrades in philanthropic work and social activism resulted.

This important work will be of substantial interest to historians in several fields and to academics in literary studies.

Lesley A. Hall is archivist at the Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine.

Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London

Author - Seth Koven
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Pages - 398
Price - £18.95
ISBN - 0 691 11592 3

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