Poverty and Compassion Essay - Critical Essays

Gertrude Himmelfarb

Poverty and Compassion

Through a series of studies since 1952, Gertrude Himmelfarb has established herself as one of the leading articulators of the Victorian intellectual vision. The subject of this work is the perception of poverty by humanitarians and reformers and their suggestions for solving the problems they perceived. The thesis is that the 1880’s marked a watershed, after which poverty became increasingly recognized by “the self-conscious and self-designated bearers of the ‘time-spirit’” as a problem of the system rather than of the worker. The moral is that purely scientific reforms failed, and that future success in dealing with poverty will require recognition of both the moral and material aspects of the problem.

The dominant figure in the work is Charles Booth, the Liverpool shipping magnate and humanitarian whose seventeen-volume LIFE AND LABOUR OF THE PEOPLE IN LONDON (1891-1903) defined the problem of poverty for his age. In the course of seventeen years of personal research and writing, he discovered that almost one-third of London was poor, and first quantified the classes of poverty on the basis of “scientific” investigation.

Ultimately, both scientific and religious philanthropic efforts in late Victorian England were linked by three assumptions. First, that because the majority of Englishmen—two-thirds according to Booth’s study—were living in comfort, radical social reform was not required. Second, it was assumed by most that government intervention should be called upon only as a last resort. Last, the overwhelming majority of Victorian reformers viewed their task as a moral one. Whether it was the religious necessity of redeeming the lost who happened to be in poverty, the positivist demand to do right as guided by the Great Being, or Fabian insistence upon a high sense of duty and submission of the individual to the collective, Victorian compassion was infused with morality.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXVII, August, 1991, p. 2084.

Boston Globe. August 25, 1991, p. 63.

Kirkus Reviews. LIX, June 15, 1991, p. 770.

Library Journal. CXVI, July, 1991, p. 112.

National Review. XLIII, October 21, 1991, p. 37.

The New York Review of Books. XXXVIII, November 7, 1991, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, September 8, 1991, p. 14.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, July 5, 1991, p. 50.

The Wall Street Journal. September 27, 1991, P. A9.

The Washington Post Book World. XXI, October 20, 1991, p. 4.

Wilson Quarterly. XV, Autumn, 1991, p. 102.