Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians

by Gertrude Himmelfarb
Knopf, 475 pp., $30.00

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…

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