Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London 
by Seth Koven.
Princeton, 399 pp., £19.95, September 2004, 0 691 11592 3
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In January 1866, on a bitterly cold night, a man dressed in ragged clothes begged for a night’s lodging in the male casual ward of Lambeth workhouse. On entering, he was made to strip and plunge into bathwater so polluted with use that it looked ‘disgustingly like weak mutton broth’; he was then issued with a towel and a regulation striped cotton shirt, and shown into a freezing, cavernous shed where some forty semi-naked paupers shared a smaller number of straw-tick mattresses laid on the stone floor. In the morning, after a breakfast of bread and oatmeal gruel, and a mandatory stint of labour (turning the crank for a miller’s wheel), he was allowed on his way. This ‘Amateur Casual’, who was in reality the journalist James Greenwood, then went home for a second, more restorative, hot bath. On 12 January, the first of three articles detailing his experience appeared in the Pall Mall Gazette under the title ‘A Night in a Workhouse’.

Seth Koven opens his rich and absorbing study of Victorian ‘slumming’ – middle-class men and women’s intrusions into the spaces and lives of the poor – with a virtuosic analysis of Greenwood’s classic articles. The winter of 1865-66, we learn, was a tense time for class relations: revelations about workhouse deaths already had metropolitan authorities answering charges of callousness. Public interest in such matters ran high: Dickens and Mayhew had whetted an appetite for accounts of nocturnal rambles among the poor, and cheap papers scrambling for readers assured a ready market for sensationalism. Perhaps it was not so surprising, then, that Greenwood’s clever brother Frederick, the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, would come up with the idea of a workhouse masquerade and dare his brother to undertake it. As it happens, a stockbroker – one ‘Bittlestone’ – accompanied James Greenwood on his adventure, but Greenwood, with a canny sense of how to heighten a reader’s interest and trepidation, erased his presence from the text.

‘A Night in a Workhouse’ was contrived to make money and a stir, and did both exceptionally well. As the Pall Mall’s circulation climbed and provincial newspapers reprinted Greenwood’s articles, rival journalists and social reformers donned disguises with a view to challenging his account. Poor Law officials and charitable workers delivered themselves of self-justification and soul-searching in equal measure, while their clients in turn argued about Greenwood’s claims. A few of his characters – the old inmate known as ‘Daddy’ who monitored the baths and assigned sleeping places, and the young and depraved pauper ‘Kay’ – even found themselves propelled onto the music hall stage or living a ghostly afterlife in fiction and verse. Traces of Greenwood’s prose and characters can still be heard in Orwell’s ‘down and out’ accounts, written more than fifty years later.

What gave ‘A Night in a Workhouse’ this power? What made it at once so riveting and so seminal? It was, Koven insists, the text’s ‘striptease’ narrative structure and veiled hints of sodomy that kept readers coming back for more. From the spectacle of Greenwood’s carefully tended white body forced to bathe in other men’s filth, to the pen-portrait of the ‘remarkable-looking’ Kay calling in a voice ‘as soft and sweet as any woman’s’ for a companion to share his bed, ‘A Night in a Workhouse’ depicted poverty and sexual transgression marching hand in hand. Of course, Greenwood’s prose was pitched at the level of titillation: we are never quite told what the half-naked men ‘clubbing together’ under inadequate rugs are up to. True to the laws of prurience, Greenwood closed his third instalment by implying that he could easily reveal ‘horrors . . . infinitely more revolting than anything that appears in these pages’.

The many scholars who examined ‘A Night’ before Koven have been slow to recognise Greenwood’s persistent, if coded, harping on the spectre of male sexual deviance, but his Victorian readers had no trouble grasping his meaning. His was one in a long series of publications that insinuated a link between vagrancy and homosexuality (so effectively that public-order legislation came to conflate the two), while his essay was appropriated and reworked by middle-class men with sexual anxieties of their own. ‘A Night in a Workhouse’, John Addington Symonds recalled, ‘brought the emotional tumour which was gathering within me to maturity,’ inspiring him to write a long passionate poem about cross-class love between men, including a section entitled ‘Kay’.

Were the sexual ‘horrors’ Greenwood alluded to largely in the eye of the beholder? One concerned philanthropist corresponded with a down-and-out draughtsman who had been in Lambeth workhouse on the night of Greenwood’s visit. This ‘Real Casual’ interpreted the half-naked ‘clubbing’ that so discomfited Greenwood only as the men’s desperate effort to ward off the cold. But how flesh met flesh, Koven insists, is hardly the point. Whatever transpired in workhouse, orphanage or slum, the motley assortment of journalists, thrill-seekers, social investigators and philanthropists who descended on them depicted them as ‘queer spaces’ where oddness and heterodoxy flourished, and where slummers felt free to experiment with new gender roles and sexual subjectivities of their own. For the slummers at least, poverty and heterodoxy, eros and altruism, were inextricably entwined. And that is the heart of the matter.

What does a history of ‘slumming’ look like when written from this standpoint? It is at once familiar and utterly new. Those hallowed ‘founders of the welfare state’ who discovered and disciplined Victorian poverty don’t disappear exactly, but they fade into the background. Ruskin, F.D. Maurice and T.H. Green, whose writings and teachings drove so many idealistic students to the slums, give way to the unconventional socialist and sex-radical James Hinton, a man who longed to live among the poor, in his own words, ‘as a man longs for his wedding day’. Beatrice Potter and Charles Booth figure, but more as urban explorers and dabblers in cross-class masquerade than as sociological researchers. Toynbee Hall’s ubiquitous Samuel and Henrietta Barnett show up, but their sexually conflicted acolyte, C.R. Ashbee, quickly elbows them out of the way. Bosanquet, Beveridge and that crowd of ambitious Oxford students for whom settlement work was a stepping-stone to Whitehall make way for Oxford House’s Winnington Ingram and the celibate slum priests who spent their lives bringing ‘brotherly love’ to the poor. The Women’s University Settlement, springboard of so many philanthropic and feminist careers, is passed over quickly in favour of the work of Mary Higgs, Muriel Lester and other reformers so determined to share poor women’s travails that Higgs at least was sometimes taken for one of the tramps she was trying to help. A dense collection of earnest, striving and ‘queer’ characters people this book, and Koven moves among them, a sharp-eyed but not unsympathetic chronicler, zeroing in on moments of ‘particularly acute ethical ambiguity’.

One such moment occurred in 1877, when Thomas Barnardo, the philanthropist and ‘child-saver’, was charged with tolerating drunkenness, sodomy and cruelty in his children’s homes. Most of the charges were unproven, but it is easy to see why they arose, for Barnardo – then young, dandified and remembered by his fellow medical students as a ‘queer fellow’ and a ‘dark horse’ – was another reformer who (in his wife’s words) was driven by ‘a desire he could not suppress . . . to save the souls and care for the bodies of ragged children’. Prone to incognito nocturnal ramblings (sometimes with a ragged child as his guide), he searched for young innocents to pluck from the shadows and bring into the spiritual light. One charge, however, was proved: the claim that Barnardo’s famous ‘before and after’ photographs of rescued children were not literally ‘true’ – that is, the ‘before’ photographs were often taken ‘after’, with the children stripped, re-grimed and displayed in suitably evocative poses. Barnardo, predictably, retorted that these representations expressed an essential ‘truth’, but the conflict is revealing, for such photographic practices laid bare not only the children’s vulnerable bodies but also an erotics of benevolence: a demand for a spectacle of degradation which could then be righteously disavowed.

Here we are on familiar ground. We live in a world full of eroticised images of children, many of them disseminated to combat the very sexualisation they display. Koven is acutely aware of this, and discusses the disturbing images of child sexual abuse purveyed in 2002 by – who else? – Barnardo’s. These show children flinching as male hands stroke their hair, shrinking away as men undo their belt buckles, the children’s faces digitally aged to reinforce the message that ‘abuse through prostitution steals children’s lives.’ Unlike the Save the Children Fund, which in the 1980s broke with similar traditions to espouse rigorous new guidelines, Barnardo’s continues to assume that shocking images are needed to catalyse reforming zeal. ‘As part of its effort to outlaw the sexual commodification of real children’s bodies,’ Koven remarks, ‘Barnardo’s continues to raise money by producing eroticised – and falsified – images of them.’

This awareness of the long reach of the erotics of ‘slumming’ gives the book much of its power, but it also occasionally gives pause. Koven hopes that his revelation of the persistent entanglement of the erotic and the altruistic ‘may perhaps inspire and chasten those intent to better the world to reflect deeply on the implications of the choices made by like-minded men and women a century ago’, and no doubt that hope is sincere. But it is worth asking whether the approach deployed here – the genealogical one of tracing this particular set of entanglements to the exclusion of others and without much attention to the working-class response – enables readers not only to appreciate that entanglement but also to gauge its significance. And can a book so closely focused on an erotic subtext that it both exposes and deplores, a book that plays on the alignment of its readers and ‘slummers’ by, for example, deliberately replicating Greenwood’s loaded language and ‘striptease’ structure, really help us to think outside this frame?

Years ago, as a graduate student living on a just-adequate stipend in a draughty apartment during the long New England winters, I remember never feeling really warm. I used to wear fingerless gloves indoors, typing away next to the stove as ice formed on the inside of my windowpanes four feet away. I was a healthy, well-fed young woman with prospects, but even so, for those few months I didn’t have sexual fantasies, I had heat fantasies: dreams of a time when, possessed of a job and with the dissertation behind me, I would spend my winters warm. Is it true that ‘we’ – the ‘we’ of Koven’s assumed audience, of the LRB readership – now so rarely experience even this modest degree of discomfort that the dragging horror of real cold and hunger can’t arouse our interest or empathy? Does it take the whiff of sex to make us read on? Eroticisation, Greenwood and Barnardo showed, was the route to an audience and to social action, and while Koven lays bare that assumption, his own method suggests that he thinks they were not wrong.

I wonder. Two of the most intriguing chapters in this intriguing book deal with women slummers – women journalists, social workers, graduates of the women’s colleges and even the occasional bored West End matrons whom Punch delighted in lampooning. In tackling these women and their work, Koven examines a wealth of contexts and conditions before, once again, setting out in search of the erotic subtext. But in this case, his subjects prove recalcitrant: the language of erotic attraction that came so easily to some male slummers’ lips appears to have been hard to find. Female slummers were no less empathetic or intrepid: we encounter them scrubbing out rooms for settlements and girls’ clubs, donning disguises to investigate the conditions of women’s casual wards, trying to organise labour unions and sweated workers. But they refused to eroticise their poorer sisters, and indeed appear to have seen sex as one of the hazards and trials of subjected women’s lives, a tool of male entrapment they themselves had happily escaped.

Koven does what he can with these stubborn women, attributing their reticence to their investment in ideas of purity, writing illuminatingly about their intense physical and emotional struggles with dirt, and turning to novels to find traces of cross-class erotic encounters when other sources fail. But these women’s lives so confound any Foucauldian (or Hintonian) assumptions about the body’s necessary claims that we are forced to ask whether late Victorian men and women in fact construed the relationship between ‘sex’ and ‘slumming’ quite differently. The women social workers of the 1890s whom I have studied were anything but obsessed with ‘purity’, a concept they treated with robust contempt; instead, they set themselves against a social system that assessed women’s value in terms of their sexual status (‘pure’, ‘impure’). These women had intense and sometimes erotic relations with one another, but they didn’t eroticise cross-class ‘sisterhood’ in the slums, quite possibly because – the evidence of poor women’s sexual vulnerability being everywhere around them – to do so would have been to align themselves with attitudes and behaviour they defined as predatory, exploitative and male. This was a world in which many feminists (and a great many slummers were feminists) saw sex as incompatible with – even a barrier to – freedom, and had little trouble deciding which side they were on.

Which is why it is such a delight to make the acquaintance of Elizabeth Banks, the ‘American girl’ journalist who took London by storm in 1893 by donning various disguises and then publishing her experiences in the popular press. A number of Banks’s masquerades crossed class lines: she became a flower-girl and a maidservant, a laundress and a crossing-sweeper, not to mention impersonating an American heiress in order to expose Englishmen’s hypocritical greed for transatlantic wealth. Koven shows how Banks cleverly negotiated the hazards and opportunities of ‘new women’ journalism, but before long the tell-tale rhetorical questions start mushrooming. ‘Why is there no sex in Banks’s social reporting and in her writings about herself?’ Why were ‘men, sex and titillation’ so conspicuously absent? Banks, Koven suggests, was too anxious to protect her respectability, too aware of her vulnerability as a single woman, to risk crossing these particular lines.

This hardly convinces; or rather, Koven’s rhetorical questions prompt questions of their own. Was eroticisation so intrinsically enticing for women as well as men that we can explain its absence only by falling back on the usual assumptions about repressive Victorian norms? If anxiety hadn’t held her back, would Banks (who appears to have been a supremely un-anxious person) really have adopted the language of titillation that Greenwood deployed to such effect? Perhaps Banks didn’t investigate the ‘seamy side’ of poor women’s lives because she consciously rejected such representations, perhaps even because – optimist that she was – she found variation, even the possibility of a measure of freedom, in their labouring, and not their sexual, lives. Banks was obsessed with work, other women’s and her own: playing at other women’s labour was how she earned her own bread. At least some of her Victorian readers found her mercenary frankness shocking, but she sashays through this book like a breath of fresh air. ‘I’m not a hypocrite and won’t pose as a reformer,’ she told one outraged do-gooder; it was the promise of ‘copy’ and not the lure of degradation that brought her to the slums. Uninterested in benevolence, deaf to erotic suggestion, she escapes the entanglement of eros and altruism altogether.

But was she immune to fellow-feeling? Having disdained eroticisation, was she unable to offer her readers an imaginative entrée into the world of the slums? Her account of her own transformation when living in immigrant communities in New York for a spell suggests that she wasn’t. ‘As the days and the weeks went on I could even feel myself growing,’ she wrote:

growing in grace, growing in charity, putting aside such narrow creeds and prejudices as had been a part of my upbringing . . . . Life! Life! Seething life was all about me. The life of a great city, its riches, its poverty, its sin, its virtue, its sorrows, its joyousness – there it was, and I was in it. This life was no longer like a panorama spread out for me to look at simply, to smile or weep over and then to turn away my eyes from beholding it. I entered it and, while I studied, became a part of it, learning how akin was all humanity, after all, and how large a place had environment and circumstance in the making of character and the moulding of destiny.

There isn’t any reforming agenda here, nor any eroticisation either, but in its grasp of the nature and transformative possibilities of modern urban subjectivity, it can hardly be bettered.

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