Poverty and Compassion

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Gertrude Himmelfarb has established herself as one of the leading articulators of the Victorian intellectual vision. Through biographical studies (of John Acton, 1952; Charles Darwin, 1959; and John Stuart Mill, 1974) and celebrated collective treatments (Victorian Minds, 1968, and The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age, 1984), she has extolled individualism and both the freedom of intellectual pursuit in England and its results. Since the early 1980’s, her work has become more polemical, lending academic weight to political and historiographical conservativism, both of which elevate the role of the individual in social development. In Marriage and Morals Among the Victorians (1987), she acknowledges the growing prominence of “morals” and “morality” in her work but suggests that the intellectual and moral nature of Victorian England has been close to the center of all of her books, beginning with Lord Acton, a Study in Conscience and Politics (1952).

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The subject of Poverty and Compassion 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 the worker. Regardless of the perception, however, reformers were moralistic, infusing their efforts with notions of what was decent and respectable in their own sight.

Himmelfarb begins by dispelling the common belief that Victorians generally were sentimental. Although much of the public was, not many reformers were. Instead, they generally sought “to infuse a sense of proportion into the sentiment of compassion” in order to provide practical, rather than utopian, solutions. Thus, Charles Booth rejected sensational stories of the poor in order to emphasize relation and proportion; the Charity Organisation Society (COS) proposed a “science” of charity that provided “appropriate” rather than “indiscriminate” help; and the economist Alfred Marshall proposed the removal of the “residuum” from the urban workforce for resettlement in labor colonies. Compassion, properly understood, was both stern and demanding, above all seeking the Benthamite good for the greatest number.

Those who loved humanity could be indifferent to individuals because they understood them “scientifically” in a way that previous generations had not. If there was a residuum of weak- willed, despondent, unambitious workers at the bottom of the economic ladder—the focus of philanthropic propaganda in the 1830’s and 1840’s—there was a far larger class of better character just above them for which humanitarian aid might be really efficacious. Too, once the statistics of social science made it clear during the 1880’s that the perception of poverty among the poor increased in tandem with real wages, reformers became convinced that their dispassionate objectivity alone could bridge the gap between real wants and perceived needs. It was not a case of abandoning morality, which had been prevalent among Christian humanitarians, but of embracing the scientific method in dealing with social problems.

The book’s introduction and first section, “The Arithmetic of Woe,” review the statistical measure of poverty in England in the late Victorian era. Based upon the contemporary research of Henry Mayhew, Charles Booth, Alfred Marshall, A. L. Bowley, and others, Himmelfarb assesses the historiography of poverty and associated concepts such as unemployment, class conflict, and the “Great Depression,” providing an economic overview by correlating current scholarship. The Great Depression and “Great Decline,” she concludes, have more to do with our values than with their economic conditions, and leftist attribution of respectability to middle-class morality is more closely related to twentieth century sensibilities than to contemporary fact. The bulk of the book utilizes the statistical portrait of an English economy in which most workers were considerably better off financially than workers had ever been as a basis for discussing the moral sensibilities of a constellation of social reformers, widely separated in approach but equally committed to the optimistic belief that individuals could and should alter the degrading conditions of the poor.

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 “significantly defined and explicated” the problem of poverty for his age. It was Booth who, in the course of seventeen years of personal research and writing, always after full attention to business affairs, discovered that almost one-third of London was poor, and who first quantified the classes of poverty on the basis of “scientific” investigation. Beatrice Webb, his cousin by marriage, considered him the perfect embodiment of the “Time-Spirit” of their generation, uniting “faith in the scientific method with the transference of the emotion and self-sacrificing service from God to man.”

Unlike Salvation Army and Barnardo Home reformers, who optimistically looked back to a time when individual help was the rule, and the socialists of various stripes, who hopefully looked forward to a new era of heightened social consciousness, Booth kept his feet firmly planted in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Like most of his contemporaries, he was not ready to abandon value judgments, yet he was sufficiently modern to take a wide view of what was decent and respectable. Hence, bouts of drunkenness among certain classes of the poor did not, he believed, make them morally worse, nor should such excesses require restriction of the means of relaxation and sociability properly enjoyed by rich and poor alike. He was foremost a businessman who considered fiscal responsibility a duty, but he never thought it necessary to apologize for being a philanthropist as well. Nor did Booth lean too heavily upon methodology, as did the advanced economists and statisticians of the day. Although a member of the Statistical Society, in which frequency curves and margins of error were already in vogue, he never mentioned such tools himself, deliberately content to approximate, emphasizing the great importance of “relation and proportion” over exactitude. Only a combination of qualitative and quantitative evidence, he believed, could do justice to the enormous plight of the poor in London. The willingness to recognize the impossibility of quantifying the problem, while making the gargantuan effort to do so, makes Booth a greater figure than many reformers whose broad horizons were wishful visions of humanity.

That Booth was one of the few reformers who occupied the middle ground between cultural philistines and visionary radicals says a great deal about the nature of Victorian philanthropy. For most middle- and upper-class Englishmen, answering frequent appeals for money was preferable to engaging the poor directly, as Booth did. The poor, especially the urban poor, became the charge of those most out of tune with mainstream social behavior. On one hand, there were those looking to the past for the philanthropic ideal of aid to the poorest on behalf of God; on the other, those gazing into the future, hoping to scientifically maximize their efforts and dollars on behalf of the religion of humanity. In between were the mass of comfortable Englishmen, eager to befriend a variety of social causes on behalf of “the poor.”

William Booth’s Salvation Army is the most notable example of organizations that fought against the tide of scientific philanthropy. Unlike middle-class, secular reformers who tended to disregard the individual for the sake of the whole, Booth’s army was composed of regenerate workers who deeply felt the plight of each man, woman, and child. His religious message, based upon the premise that a failure of character frequently caused poverty, was inimical to the mass of modern reformers. On similar principles, the Plymouth Brother Thomas Barnardo operated homes and villages for prostitutes, illegitimate children, and the destitute. Like the Salvation Army, his institutions were

attacked as retrograde by those who were redefining the social problems of the day in light of scientific principles.

The future of philanthropy would belong to these reformers, who felt quite capable of distinguishing between the deserving and undeserving poor on the basis of objective criteria rather than religious sentiment. Scientific philanthropy may conveniently be dated from the 1869 founding of the COS, which was organized on the principle that the impulsive nature of charity must be tempered by organization to be effective. Directly assisting the chronically unemployed would be wasteful and useless. Instead, one should help the “deserving poor” who because of illness or other temporary dislocations were in danger of slipping into the abyss of destitution. Although such principles were difficult both to define and to abide by, the COS, according to Himmelfarb, nevertheless set “the terms of social discourse for an entire generation and shap[ed] both the idea of poverty and the conception of the problem of poverty.” It did this in part by spawning a variety of reformers, such as Octavia Hill and Beatrice Webb, who took reform in new directions within the pale of social scientific reason.

The pillars of scientific reform were many, including the commitment to natural rights, which had resulted in the French and American revolutions, Jeremy Bentham’s concept of the utility of happiness, Robert Owen’s vision of supreme goodness in human nature, and Auguste Comte’s positivism. Yet it would take an Englishman to fashion these varied intellectual strains into a philosophy of humanitarianism that appealed to Englishmen, who generally thought that the Germans were crazed with abstractions and the French with systems. T. H. Green’s Philosophical Idealism was the synthesis that spoke to the broad spectrum of politicians and men of letters. Democratic and egalitarian, it viewed all men—workers as well as their social superiors—as equal in sensibility, spirituality, and morality. All had the means to be virtuous if they exercised the will, and because the individual was an integral part of society, serving society would naturally follow. Green’s philosophy, wedded to Alfred Marshall’s “Economics of Chivalry,” was a powerful marriage of objective, scientific principles for thoughtful philanthropists who intended to do more than subscribe to the ubiquitous appeals. The future of English socialism, and hence of the welfare state, thus fell into the hands of middle-class bureaucrats rather than revolutionary Marxists.

Ultimately, both scientific and religious philanthropic efforts in late Victorian England were linked by three assumptions. First, it was assumed that because the majority of Englishmen—two-thirds, according to Booth’s study—were living in comfort, radical social reform was not required. The minority living in poverty could be accommodated by reforms within the system. Second, it was assumed by most that government intervention should be called upon only as a last resort. It is ironic and telling that the most influential of English socialist groups in the nineteenth century, the Fabians, should have adopted a strategy guaranteeing the delay of government intervention. Third, the overwhelming majority of Victorian reformers viewed their task as a moral one. Whether it was the evangelical necessity of redeeming the spiritually lost (who happened to be in poverty), the positivist demand to do right as guided by the Great Being, or the Fabian insistence upon a high sense of duty and submission of the individual to the collective, Victorian compassion was infused with morality.

The ideal of respectability, however difficult to define, was important to the working classes as well as to the middle classes. As Himmelfarb cogently argues, later historians have imposed their values on the poor, pretending that thrift, prudence, cleanliness, industry, and other values that in various degrees composed the concept of respectability were imposed by the middle class when in fact they were frequently the values of the poor themselves. The moral to Poverty and Compassion is brief: Purely scientific reform has failed, and any future success in dealing with poverty will require recognition of both the moral and material aspects of the problem.

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.

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