Poverty and Compassion

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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).

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...

(The entire section is 2010 words.)