Like the twentieth-century United States, Victorian England was a society that combined an average level of prosperity far above anything the world had ever seen with pockets of poverty and misery that periodically became the occurrence of a high level of moral, intellectual, and political anxiety. In neither case was it the bare fact of inequality that provoked the anxiety. The middle- and upper-class academics, investigators, and social workers who debated the issue of poverty and its resolution in Victorian England did not think Christ had meant them to ignore the inhabitants of London’s East End slums when he said, “The poor you have always with you,” but they rarely doubted that there would always be a social, economic, and political hierarchy of some kind.
Their American contemporaries and successors, too, have numbered far more welfare-state liberals among their ranks than principled egalitarians. Nor is this surprising, since it is the sharp contrast between top and bottom that catches the eye of most liberals, not the gradations of lesser and greater affluence. These similarities lend the social history of Victorian England a decided contemporary interest, never far below the surface in every treatment of the field, and prominent in Poverty and Compassion.
This is the second book that Gertrude Himmelfarb has devoted to the Victorians’ encounter with poverty. The Idea of Poverty, published in 1984, dealt with the English “discovery” of poverty in the early nineteenth century, though it really covered the terrain from Adam Smith to Charles Dickens.1 It was a fascinating essay in social and intellectual history, enlivened, as all Professor Himmelfarb’s work is enlivened, by her eye for paradox and her ear for pre-echoes of our own debates. Poverty and Compassion both is and is not a companion piece.
It certainly began as a companion piece, and in some obvious ways it remains one. The earlier book ended to all intents and purposes in the 1850s, and 250 pages of Poverty and Compassion elaborate a story sketched out in the epilogue of The Idea of Poverty. There Ms. Himmelfarb looked forward to what social historians have called the “rediscovery of poverty” in 1880s England, and observed that the poor described by Mayhew and Dickens—sly creatures living on the borderline of criminality with no regular work or home—were not the poor that the 1880s “rediscovered.” The poor who were “rediscovered” were neither a social threat nor glamorously criminal, but the ordinary working poor. Their “rediscovery” was the work of philanthropically minded social investigators, of whom the archetype was Charles Booth, the author of a seventeen-volume survey of the Life and Labour of the People in London. The centerpiece of Poverty and Compassion is the story of that work.
Another common feature of both books is Ms. Himmelfarb’s deep hostility to historians who ignore the moral and intellectual setting within which their subjects actually worked. One of the tasks she sets herself in Poverty and Compassion is to reconstruct just who was counted among the “poor” in Booth’s survey, and how and why Booth categorized them as he did. This requires a good deal more subtlety than one might think. Just as before, Ms. Himmelfarb reminds us how far the treatment of poverty was a moral issue, and urges us to take seriously the convictions of a vanished age whose views on poverty and the poor were determined by moral rather than by purely analytical considerations.
She brings to life Victorian England’s understanding of the line between the “comfortable,” the “poor,” and the “very poor,” and reminds us that the distinction between “respectable” poverty and “misery” was no fabrication of a middle class that understood nothing of working-class life. British readers will need less reminding than she thinks. Her emphasis on the importance to the working class themselves of the distinction between the “respectable” and the “unrespectable” working class is one that many of us grew up with, and it is only the most unreconstructed materialists who would try to explain away all the moral convictions of Victorian England as fragments of class ideology.
In other ways this book is very different from its predecessor. Ms. Himmelfarb says that her
original intention was to write a volume that would be symmetrical with the first in theme and structure. Adam Smith would be paralleled by Alfred Marshall, Malthusianism by Social Darwinism, the New Poor Law of 1834 by the Poor Law Commission of 1909, Chartism by socialism, Mayhew by Booth, Gaskell by Gissing. It was a neat and plausible schema—belied only by the reality of history.
I doubt whether Ms. Himmelfarb was long deceived; as she says, the economic debate of the 1830s and 1840s was dominated by Smith and Malthus and their “discovery” of poverty in a way that had no later parallels, and the first book could be built around one large intellectual issue in a way the second could not.
That issue was, to put it broadly, one of “optimism” versus “pessimism.” Smith had offered the hope that in a growing economy the poor would become less poor, Malthus the grim prophecy that anything done to alleviate misery would be rendered useless by the rise in population that would follow any improvement in the condition of the poor. Whether it was mid-Victorian prosperity or superior intellectual merit that did the trick is no doubt debatable, but in any event Smith triumphed, and his triumph was cemented by the “neoclassical synthesis” of The Principles of Economics that Alfred Marshall published in 1890.
Everyone agreed that over the past half century the conditions of the working classes had vastly improved; the contemporary economist Robert Giffen thought real wages had doubled in fifty years; the historian Leone Levi that they had gone up by 30 percent in twenty-five. Although, as Ms. Himmelfarb observes, commentators seized on Charles Booth’s finding that 30.7 percent of the population of London was either “poor” or “very poor,” Booth himself was at pains to point out that more than half the working class was “comfortable.” Anxiety about the condition of the badly off did not rule out gratitude that their numbers had fallen.
This cheerful background makes Poverty and Compassion a pleasant book to read; until she reaches such bêtes noires as the Webbs and the Fabian Society, Ms. Himmelfarb feels herself among friends and writes accordingly. It does, on the other hand, make for a somewhat fragmented story. The grand dialectic of The Idea of Poverty is missing, and Poverty and Compassion peters out in some rather perfunctory chapters on “New Liberalism” and assorted versions of socialism: none of these chapters says anything very novel, and several of them fall below Ms. Himmelfarb’s high standards of intellectual and literary liveliness.
Before that dying fall, Ms. Himmelfarb is at her best. She has, as they say, a hidden agenda—save that her agenda is not at all hidden. She wants not only to recover and render intelligible the mental and moral approach of late Victorian England toward the poor, and toward the duties of the compassionate middle class to the poor; she also wants to contrast the theory and practice of Victorian charity with the theory and practice of the welfare state. It will come as no surprise to her readers that the advantage lies with the late Victorians.
She begins by disarming an assortment of skeptical responses that later commentators have brought to Victorian talk about treating the poor with “compassion.” On the one hand, writers of the 1880s who urged that the poor should be treated with compassion were not unscientific sentimentalists; on the other, they were not muddled or hypocritical when they urged that compassion be applied scientifically. The prominent jurist Fitzjames Stephen (Leslie Stephen’s brother) earned his nickname of the “gruffian” by denouncing the spread of a “vapid philanthropic sentiment” as built on “maudlin benevolence,” but he was just wrong. The new philanthropists were determined to practice a controlled compassion, and they loathed the maudlin and the vapid. The reformers who brought the techniques of social science to the study of poverty wanted to do something useful, not just to feel good about themselves. They were well aware of the temptation to wallow in sentiment, and determined not to succumb.
Nonetheless, they were unabashed about their own moral preconceptions. When Charles Booth distinguished between the “poor” and the “very poor,” he had no qualms about distinguishing those who tried to live at a respectable level, but suffered from intermittent employment or low wages that barely allowed them to keep body and soul together, from those whose deep poverty sprang from moral failure—those who were unwilling to work or so debilitated by drink and irregular living that they were incapable of it. He had no compunction about displaying sympathy for those who were trying hard, and not much for those who had in various ways given up.
It was this moral perspective that explained what was wrong with poverty. There was a level of misery that rendered it impossible for people to remain full members of society; “respectability” was not a matter of holding the right views or being a regular churchgoer, but a matter of being able to hold one’s head up, to lead a reasonable social life, and to have aspirations for one’s children. Poverty was a moral problem because deep poverty made a decent life impossible. Such talk of equality as ever crossed the lips of Ms. Himmelfarb’s subjects was essentially about this minimal moral equality.
Why did the 1800s see such an upsurge of concern for and interest in the poor? On the face of it, it is a paradox that it happened in the decade in which statisticians like Giffen were recording a great improvement in the average well-being of ordinary working people. Ms. Himmelfarb offers no decided answer. One old but now discredited view was that although the working class was becoming more prosperous, it was getting a smaller share of an increased national income, and was suffering from what the Marxists call “relative immiseration” if not “absolute immiseration.” That appears to be the reverse of the truth. Ms. Himmelfarb seems more inclined to favor the idea that Tocqueville invoked to explain the outbreak of the French Revolution. People become indignant, he claimed, not when they are miserable, but when they have seen the possibility of improvement. In particular, they become indignant when they have seen that possibility and then see it recede. In 1867 and 1884 the vote was extended to almost every adult male, and this meant, too, that the indignant had a voice which they would not hesitate to raise when industrial depression and the dislocation of trade threatened their well-being. If “rising expectations” met a sudden setback, trouble could be expected.
That suggests that the so-called “great depression” of the last quarter of the nineteenth century coming on top of previous progress would indeed explain both working-class unrest and middle-class anxiety. But, the “great depression” is actually a misnomer. The industrial depressions of the period were short-lived and no deeper than in the previous several decades, while the long-drawn-out slump in agricultural prices and rents was good news for employed workers, whose cost of living fell while their wages did not.
In view of Ms. Himmelfarb’s concentration on Charles Booth and the poor of London, she rightly stresses some highly contingent factors—housing for one. London was the world’s largest city, a magnet to workers throughout England, and a place with many repulsive slums. The speed with which London had grown meant that the quality of housing available to the working class had not improved as much as the rest of their standard of living. Periodically, middle-class journalists ventured into the filthiest parts of the East End and returned to tell their readers how awful it was. Two years before Charles Booth began work on Life and Labour of the People in London, one of the most famous muckraking pamphlets in journalistic history had been published under the splendidly inflammatory title of The Bitter Cry of Outcast London. Both “bitter cry” and “outcast London” passed at once into the vocabulary of protest and social history alike, and have remained there ever since.2
Oddly, the pamphlet’s author was not a journalist; though the pamphlet was anonymous it is usually credited to a Congregationalist minister, the Reverend Andrew Mearns. Readers were at any rate invited to address any thoughts provoked by the pamphlet to the Reverend Mearns. Its sensational impact, however, owed much to W.T. Stead, whose Pall Mall Gazette had just been launched. Stead was an early practitioner of the peculiarly English form of populist journalism that mixes sexual titillation with the language of shock and outrage, and he promptly ran The Bitter Cry as a serial. The Bitter Cry painted a gruesome picture of life in hovels where two families might be crammed in a single room in a house full of similar rooms, with no water and no sanitation, no fresh air, the whole place riddled with vermin, and malodorous to a degree. But, it insisted, the real horror was the vice that flourished in such misery and such an absence of privacy. It was bad enough that men took to the bottle and women sold themselves on the streets. What shook the reader was the bald claim that “incest is common.” Here was a crime that usually dared not speak its name.
The Bitter Cry maintained in a general way that such things were commonplace and the misery it depicted was not untypical. The question was, How typical was such misery? Nobody really knew. The hero of Ms. Himmelfarb’s story, and the man who set out to establish the facts was a Liverpool leather merchant and shipowner. Charles Booth was described by his cousin Beatrice Webb as “an attractive but distinctly queer figure of a man.” Ms. Himmelfarb is at pains to point out that this referred to his physical appearance, which was the only odd thing about him. To us it may seem strange that he combined a full-time career as an owner and director of the Booth Steamship Company with a full-time career as social investigator and philanthropist—though W.G. Runciman has done something similar in our own day. To Ms. Himmelfarb he was all of a piece. He was an employer who paid the highest wages he could afford, a social scientist who was much more interested in the usefulness of the information he had gathered than in large theoretical and methodological matters, and a lapsed Unitarian who placed his faith in the gospel of good works.
Unlike many industrialists, who have embarked on doing good after a lifetime of doing well, Booth took an active interest in radical politics in his twenties, and was only in his mid-forties when—probably in 1885—he began to collect the material for Life and Labour of the People in London. He did it as a (sort of) religious duty. For Booth was an ardent Positivist, a believer in Auguste Comte’s “religion of humanity,” though no fan of Comte’s wilder flights of fancy and no enthusiast for the rituals of the Positivist church. He defined this religion as follows:
I am a Positivist—by which as to religion, I mean that I worship humanity.
By humanity I mean the human race conceived as a great Being—and by worship I mean that I feel for this Being love, gratitude and reverence.
By religion I mean the double bond to the object of my worship and to others similarly bound. And to this bond and worship I look for hopefulness, strength and constancy in seeking and holding fast to the higher life.
Ms. Himmelfarb is surely right to emphasize the way Positivism united a religious attachment to human well-being with the promise of understanding and control through the “science of society” that Comte was the first to name “sociology.” Booth’s attempt to bring what he termed “proportion and relation” to the philanthropic urge to bring “outcast London” back inside the fold of citizenship seems a perfect fulfillment of his Positivist allegiance.
In chronicling Booth’s survey and its results, Ms. Himmelfarb deftly steers a delicate path between the two obvious temptations of this kind of history; she neither drowns in the details nor does she fly so high above the terrain that the detail gets lost. She is helped by Booth’s own fastidiousness. His aim was to discover how many people could properly be said to be “poor” in his sense of “those whose means may be sufficient, but are barely sufficient for decent independent life” and to distinguish them from the “very poor,” “whose means are insufficient for this according to the usual standard of life in this country.”
Booth divided the London population into eight classes, the lower six of which were strata of the working class—some 82 percent of the whole at the time. The most eye-catching layer was the lowest, a mere .9 percent, and often described as the “residuum,” a term whose connections with the treatment of sewage were not accidental. Booth dismissed them as “a disgrace but not a danger” and pointed out that their numbers were anyway declining. The class immediately above them formed the “very poor,” 7.5 percent who were incapable of holding down a job, because of drunkenness, incapacity, or a simple hatred of fixed routines.
Though he recognized the role of drink in crime and idleness, Booth was not overimpressed by the place of drink among the causes of the poverty of the working class. He had the sense to see that it was more often the effect of misery than its cause, and thought that even in combination with “thriftlessness” it only accounted for about a seventh of the poverty he saw. Unlike a very large number of his contemporaries, he had no time for temperance campaigns and positively praised public houses—most East End pubs were “comfortable, quiet, and orderly” and provided a natural base for the social life to which the poor were as entitled as anyone else.
The two classes he was most concerned for—labeled C and D in his schema—made up a little over 20 percent of the population; they were the employed poor who were either too irregularly employed to sustain a decent existence or who were steadily employed at very low wages. It was they who exercised Booth’s mind. For all Ms. Himmelfarb’s reminder that 60 percent of the working class was “comfortable” by Booth’s standards, that left 25 percent who were willing to work, not fecklessly self-destructive, not incapable of leading a decent existence, but nonetheless losing the battle for independence and self-respect. Booth’s thoughts about them were eminently humane and forward-looking—he urged that policies of full employment should be pursued and that employers should appreciate the benefits of a well-paid and fully employed work force. He had the wit to understand that good, highly paid workers were more productive and of more use to their employers than ill-paid and incompetent workers, and urged generosity as a good bargain as well as a duty.
These proposals rested on some rather more alarming ideas about how to treat the riffraff below. They, thought Booth, were a threat to the provident; they kept wages low, demoralized the districts they lived in, and were a simple drag upon society. He proposed to set up “industrial colonies” where they would be employed, housed, and fed under state tutelage. Since they were incapable of an independent existence, they had better be given a nondegrading but dependent existence. Booth did not flinch at describing this as “state slavery,” though this was a rhetorical device to get his readers to take the issue seriously. Curiously enough, these proposals were not attacked for their brutality but for their sentimentality; the Saturday Review thought that all that was needed was a “hard-headed determination to drive the weak into the workhouse and leave the idle to starve.” Most commentators, however, praised the idea as a serious response to a serious problem.
Booth’s seventeen volumes appeared between 1889 and 1902, and Ms. Himmelfarb is as interested in Booth as a representative of the late Victorian “spirit of the age” as she is in Booth himself; she is more concerned with the last thirty years of the nineteenth century than with the decade and a half in which he was working on his survey. In broadening her account of the period’s response to poverty, she illustrates her theme of the age’s talent for marrying warm-hearted compassion to hard-headed statistical analysis with a series of densely packed institutional and individual biographies. These are continuously interesting. Among the most interesting is her chapter on the Charity Organisation Society. As one might expect, Ms. Himmelfarb is friendlier to the COS—founded in 1869 as “The London Society for Organizing Charitable Relief and Repressing Mendicity”—than most of its chroniclers have been. Its reputation has been as an organization that drew a sharp line between the “deserving” poor, whom it would help, and the “undeserving,” whom it would not. The objection of later critics is that this forced the working class to choose between hunger on the one hand and an insincere profession of middle-class morality on the other. This complaint was memorably enshrined in the character of Eliza Doolittle’s father in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, the cheerful dustman who made an unlikely but articulate defender of the rights of the “undeserving.”
Ms. Himmelfarb argues that the line drawn by the COS was not a line between the deserving and the undeserving so much as a line between those whom assistance would help back into the “decent independence” that Booth later took as the crucial test of non-poverty, and those whom assistance would not help. The “visitors” who went out to find where help was needed and to give it were fulfilling the duties of citizenship toward their fellow citizens, not emulating Lady Bountiful. Condescension was shunned, and the COS’s volunteers were carefully taught how not to be inadvertently embarrassing to those whom they tried to help.
Ms. Himmelfarb is by no means the first to point out the extent to which the language of “citizenship” permeated the philanthropy of the period, just as it permeated the political philosophy of the time. The “settlement” movement of the 1880s, which took dozens of university-educated young men to live in the East End in institutions like Toynbee Hall and Balliol House, was a much chronicled expression of the urge to be a good citizen. The young men were told very firmly that they were expected to get as much from the East Enders as they gave them and that the educational experience was to be a two-way experience. Ms. Himmelfarb thinks rather well of it, and paints a picture of life at Toynbee Hall that makes one quite nostalgic for a world in which Sir Leslie Stephen and A.V. Dicey could travel to the roughest part of the East End to lecture to substantial working-class audiences. By the same token, it’s easy to see why a good many observers were doubtful whether it did as much good to the workers as to the young men from Oxford. It is at any rate true that the two great architects of post–World War II Britain were graduates of the settlement movement as well as Oxford. Clement Attlee spent some years at Toynbee Hall, while William Beveridge was a resident and later its warden.
It is unthinkable that Ms. Himmelfarb would pass up the chance to fight a few contemporary battles while she is chronicling the past. She has always subscribed to the view that history is philosophy teaching by example, and the tart tone of much of her writing is no doubt due to her sense that we live in an age of bad examples. Here she largely confines herself to a defense of the moral seriousness and high intelligence of such people as Booth, Barnett, and C.S. Loch, who surveyed London, created Toynbee Hall, and ran the COS. Only in the background can one hear the faint whining of ideological axes, and only when she comes to the Fabians and the Fabian vision of a welfare state does Ms. Himmelfarb bare her claws.
The late Victorian ability to check compassion with good sense, and the charity reformers’ ability to draw morally loaded distinctions without either embarrassment or excessive censoriousness contrasts for her with the welfare state’s inability to draw a rational line between help that is needed and help that does more harm than good. And the welfare state’s inability to do what it ought to do stems, in Ms. Himmelfarb’s view, from the Fabian passion for order, and for final solutions—I use the phrase advisedly, for one thing Ms. Himmelfarb holds against the Webbs, H.G. Wells, Shaw, and others of their number is their fondness for eugenics. Fabianism was committed to a wholly administered society, not a society of mutually concerned citizens. This showed in its long flirtation with imperialism as in its generally authoritarian view of reform at home. Fabianism was a fundamentally amoral view of society, and the reason why it had no need to draw moral lines was that they were irrelevant to its campaign for “national efficiency.”
This is, at best, a good deal exaggerated. The welfare state known to Britain or the United States is essentially an insurance state, as everyone who can read a pay slip is painfully aware.3 It may be a mild form of paternalism to compel the employed to contribute to their old-age pensions, Medicaid, or the National Health Service, but it is hardly a step on the road to Brave New World. Both the American and the British welfare systems build their benefits around the expectation that an able-bodied adult will support himself or herself, and neither offers much help to anyone who can work but does not.
Conversely, it is a mistake to see the Webbs as besotted by tidiness and efficiency alone; one of Sidney Webb’s strongest arguments for a planned economy was that it would replace the accidents of inheritance with justice. It was not in the least an amoral orderliness that he was after. By the same token, it comes close to playing dirty pool to make so much of the Fabians’ eugenicist fantasies when they were the common currency of the time. We have lived through what the Webbs, Bertrand Russell, Marie Stopes, and Woodrow Wilson—all of whom were eugenicists at one time and another—could never have imagined flowing from their ideas. In short, Ms. Himmelfarb is an excellent practitioner of the sympathetic historical reconstruction she commends when she writes about her likings, but no better than the rest of us when it comes to her antipathies.
November 7, 1991
Reviewed here by Noel Annan, March 1, 1984. ↩
See, e.g., Gareth Stedman-Jones, Outcast London: A Study of the Relationship between Classes in Victorian England (Oxford University Press, 1971). ↩
Theodore Marmor et al., America’s Misunderstood Welfare State: Persistent Myths, Enduring Realities (Basic Books, 1990) spells this out very persuasively. ↩