[Those curious about the history of the Victorian Web (which began before the WWW in another hypermedia environment) might be interested to learn that this document was one of the very first written specifically for what became this site by someone outside Brown University. (The materials on public health that Professor Wohl also contributed came from his previously published book [GPL].]

[W. M. Thackeray created the decorative initial "P" for Vanity Fair.]

Thackeray's initial erceptions of the urban working classes and their environment go through three stages, roughly corresponding to the early-, mid-, and late-Victorian periods. At the risk of much simplification, we can say that in the first, the prevailing tendency is to argue that it is the pig which makes the stye; in the second, that the stye makes the pig; and in the third, there is a serious questioning of what, then, makes the stye. The second stage represents a vigorous attempt to ameliorate the stye (the physical slum environment) and the third stage suggests a willingness to come to grips with broader socio-economic questions of distribution of wealth and its impact on the environment. Then the first stage is one which focuses on the characters of the poor, and involves a vocabulary ("thrift," "self-denial," "frugality," "industry," "abstinence," "sobriety" and so forth) full of moral injunctions and prescriptions.

In The Idea of Poverty (New York, NY: Knopf, 1984) Gertrude Himmelfarb argues convincingly that the old, relaxed, moral economy was replaced by a sterner, more scientific one, symbolized in the 1834 Poor Law, which to Disraeli "announces to the world that in England poverty is a crime," and which incarcerated the paupers in workhouses, the "bastilles." (W. F. Monypenny and G. E. Buckle, The Life of Benjamin Disraeli, I, 224, quoted in Himmelfarb, The Idea of Poverty, 182.) It is enacted by a society which increasingly condemns the poor as products of their own low and immoral natures. They are indolent, ignorant, degraded, fraudulent — pervasive language is one of criminality and anti-social behaviour. In short the very poor and the pauper class are placed at the farthest reaches of civilized society, and one consequence is that they appear as a separate race. A racial or quasi-racial view of the poor was not dominant: those who believed optimistically in the "levelling-up" theory (that the laborer would emulate the artisan, etc.) or who dwelt upon the possibility of teaching even the lowest the virtues and satisfactions of self-help, or who put their faith in education and the persuasive power of the "respectable" poor to serve as role models for the criminal and semi-criminal classes probably did not view the poor as a race apart, at least consciously. Nonetheless, there existed a racial frame of mind which was remarkably pervasive and which influenced perceptions of the working classes.


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Last modified 11 October 2002