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Harper's MagazineA bountiful, provocative, and piquant 'genealogy of benevolence and social welfare,' with more than enough sex to frighten the horses.
— John Leonard
In the 1880s, fashionable Londoners left their elegant homes and clubs in Mayfair and Belgravia and crowded into omnibuses bound for midnight tours of the slums of East London. A new word burst into popular usage to describe these descents into the precincts of poverty to see how the poor lived: slumming. In this captivating book, Seth Koven paints a vivid portrait of the practitioners of slumming and their world: who they were, why they went, what they claimed to have found, how it changed them, and how slumming, in turn, powerfully shaped both Victorian and twentieth-century understandings of poverty and social welfare, gender relations, and sexuality.
The slums of late-Victorian London became synonymous with all that was wrong with industrial capitalist society. But for philanthropic men and women eager to free themselves from the starched conventions of bourgeois respectability and domesticity, slums were also places of personal liberation and experimentation. Slumming allowed them to act on their irresistible "attraction of repulsion" for the poor and permitted them, with society's approval, to get dirty and express their own "dirty" desires for intimacy with slum dwellers and, sometimes, with one another.
Slumming elucidates the histories of a wide range of preoccupations about poverty and urban life, altruism and sexuality that remain central in Anglo-American culture, including the ethics of undercover investigative reporting, the connections between cross-class sympathy and same-sex desire, and the intermingling of the wish to rescue the poor with the impulse to eroticize and sexually exploit them.
By revealing the extent to which politics and erotics, social and sexual categories overflowed their boundaries and transformed one another, Koven recaptures the ethical dilemmas that men and women confronted--and continue to confront--in trying to "love thy neighbor as thyself."
"A bountiful, provocative, and piquant 'genealogy of benevolence and social welfare,' with more than enough sex to frighten the horses."--John Leonard, Harper's Magazine
"Koven's study is undoubtedly one of the most important new contributions to the study of the Victorian city. . . . It is, after all, a testimony to the provocactive brilliance of this book that the reader is left with not just answers to class and gender relations in Victorian London, but with new questions."--Lynda Nead, American Historical Review
"A significant study . . . that illuminates the complicated relationships between London's rich and poor from the mid-1800s to the start of World War I. . . . [A] thoughtful, cogent, and copiously referenced work."--Library Journal
"Given the constant stream of works on Victorian Britain, one sometimes feels that a moratorium is due. But occasionally a book comes along that makes one realize the exciting work that can still be done on that era. Seth Koven's Slumming is such a book, combining empirical richness with stimulating theoretical analysis and opening up questions for further research."--Lesley Hall, Times Higher Education Supplement
"We tend to think of Victorian haves regarding the have-nots--when they thought of them at all--as another species whose sinful idleness accounted for their place below the bottom rung of the ladder. Slumming shows us how infinitely more complex and varied the response actually was. . . . [T]he world [Koven] uncovers and its astonishing gallery of characters deserve the attention of a wider readership. . . . How the rich nations treat both the third world and the claims of their own poor is an issue that is very much with us. Koven has done a great service to this continuing debate by charting how the Victorians met--and didn't meet--the challenge to their conscience."--Desmond Ryan, The Philadelphia Inquirerer
"Slumming is a provocative, insightful study of one set of contradictions embedded in the ideology underlying Victorian middle- and upper-class relationships with the poor. . . . Seth Koven has written more than a fine contribution to the historiography of Victorian poverty: this is a book that makes one think, about the present as well as the past."--Deborah Gorham, Labour/Le Travail
"With assurance and grace, Slumming synthesizes the methods, topics, and insights of urban studies, gender history, queer studies, media analysis, and social history. . . . Slumming does an exemplary job of integrating men and women into a single historical framework."--Sharon Marcus, Victorian Studies
"Koven analyzes complex dynamics with non-judgmental subtlety. This fine-tuned approach allows Koven to dissect the uneven power dynamics of slumming a settlement work in a more nuanced fashion than many before him."--Matt Cook, History Workshop Journal
"Slumming is a well-written and -researched book that will be of great use to scholars in history, literature, women's studies, and gay studies. Koven is a gifted writer and has used newspapers, novels, institutional records and newsletters, and several pictures and artworks to make his case. It is also a beautifully produced book, though the absence of a bibliography, particularly in such a thoroughly researched study, is frustrating. Still, Slumming will stimulate historical and literary work for many years; it asks important questions and gives fascinating answers."--Ginger Frost, H-Net
"Slumming is a highly readable and important reassessment of the late Victorian phenomenon of visiting and experiencing the poverty of the East End first-hand. . . . Despite the book's heavily theoretical base, Koven's prose races along, imparting a page-turning quality in places. Koven is excellent at exploring the little-known corners of the world of the 'slummers.'"--Antony Taylor, H-Net Reviews
FOR THE BETTER part of the century preceding World War II, Britons went slumming to see for themselves how the poor lived. They insisted that firsthand experience among the metropolitan poor was essential for all who claimed to speak authoritatively about social problems. To a remarkable degree, the men and women who governed church and state in late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain and dominated social welfare bureaucracies and the emerging profession of social work felt compelled to visit, live, or work in the London slums at some point in their careers of public service. Even the fiery Welsh radical Lloyd George, champion of popular rights against aristocratic privileges, sought out a friend to take him on a tour of the East London slums soon after he arrived in London in 1890 to assume his seat in parliament. Lloyd George may have been intent to witness the scenes of human misery and sexual degradation made famous the world over by the serial murderer Jack the Ripper, but he also embarked on a journey routed for him by thousands of well-to-do men and women. By the 1890s, London guidebooks such as Baedeker's not only directed visitors to shops, theatres, monuments, andchurches, but also mapped excursions to world renowned philanthropic institutions located in notorious slum districts such as Whitechapel and Shoreditch.
We will never know precisely how many men and women went slumming, but the fact that slums became tourist sites suggests it was a very widespread phenomenon. At any given time there were hundreds of private charitable institutions and agencies in the metropolitan slums, each visited regularly by scores of donors, trustees, and volunteer and paid workers. No doubt slumming was merely an evening's entertainment for many well-to-do Londoners, but for many others, the slums of London exercised powerful and tenacious claims over their minds and hearts, drastically altering the course of their lives.
One such man was James Granville Adderley. Adderley was far too iconoclastic to be representative of anything, but his life provides one point of entry into the world of the women and men whose philanthropic labors are the subject of this book. Even those who disliked Adderley's radical ideas liked the man himself. He bristled with righteous indignation about the world's injustices, but he also radiated an inner calm and a joyful enthusiasm that drew people of all sorts and conditions to him. Well-born, charming in conversation, blessed with even-featured good looks, and bright without being ostentatiously intellectual, Adderley seemed destined for a lucrative career in law and politics. However, within a short time of leaving Oxford in the mid-1880s, he found himself the toast of philanthropic London as head of one of the metropolis's newest institutions for translating vague ideals about cross-class brotherly love into concrete form: the Oxford House in Bethnal Green. A residential colony of idealistic university men planted in a slum district, it was devoted to constructing bridges of personal friendship between rich and poor through Christian work and wholesome "rational" recreation. There was something absurd about Adderley's instant celebrity as an expert on social questions, and he knew it better than anyone else. He cannily recognized that his contemporaries saw him not as he actually was but rather as an embodiment of a new type of man: the "'ecclesiastical young man,'" called upon to "address all kinds of meetings, and looked upon as a sort of freak-the fellow who might live in luxury in Belgravia but preferred [the poverty of] Bethnal Green."
Impatient with the unending stream of visitors, reporters, and transient do-gooders to Oxford House, Adderley took his clerical vows and moved farther east into ever less glamorous slum districts. He joined the Catholic prelate Cardinal Manning and the trade unionist Ben Tillett in championing the cause of London's grossly exploited dock laborers in their world-famous strike in 1889; he defended the rights of laboring men against puritanical attempts to deny them the pleasures of the stage and music hall; he threw his heart and soul into club work with the "rough lads" in his adopted neighborhood of Poplar and invited large numbers of them for holidays on the grounds of his ancestral home, Hams Hall. He helped form a new religious community within the Church of England that was founded on the rules of St. Francis: The Society of Divine Compassion. Adderley and his brothers in poverty exalted the beautiful while despising the exuberant materialism of late Victorian London. Jolly fellowship among men went hand in hand with severe austerity. "There was no carpet on the floors, a fire only in the common room, and the brothers did their own crude cooking," one visitor recalled. A bare plank served as his only bed. Adderley felt that even this self-denying regimen kept him too far removed from the gritty struggles of the homeless poor. He spent weeks at a time disguised as a tramp, often sleeping rough on the streets. The depth of his compassion was matched by the breadth of his tolerance. He extended his hand not only to social outcasts but also to sexual outlaws like the celebrated playwright Oscar Wilde, convicted in 1895 for committing same-sex acts of gross indecency. Living in East London placed Adderley far from the starched-collar respectability and top-hatty conventions of bourgeois domesticity and freed him to develop distinctly heterodox ideas about class relations, male sexual celibacy, and social purity. When Adderley died in 1942, it was another man, Arthur Shearly Cripps, his "comrade in tramping, dossing, and in preaching the gospel," who memorialized their loving friendship in a tender poem of chaste but sensual couplets: "He to whose lips the taste of old wine clings/ Asks no new wine. Ah me! My friend's loss brings/ No wish for some new friend to fill his place."
Why did Adderley renounce the privileges of aristocratic birth and the comforts of family to live for six decades in voluntary poverty and sexual celibacy among the London poor as a bachelor slum priest? His only biographer discouraged readers from seeking the psychological roots of Adderley's singular devotion because he was "a man of simple ways and thoughts and friendships" who never worried about himself and instead did God's work as a parish priest. We need not posthumously coerce Adderley onto the psychoanalyst's couch to suggest that the private and public, sexual and social forces shaping his life choices may not have been as "simple" as his "ways."
This book tries to make sense of the ideas and movements, institutions and practices that made the slums of London and "slumming" seem so necessary to Adderley and thousands of members of the "comfortable classes." It examines the complex historical and cultural circumstances in which such women and men found themselves and to which they importantly contributed. I attempt to save them from the misguided goodwill of those who would make them into saints and the smugness of those who would dismiss them as marginal cranks, or worse yet, as hypocrites. They were none of these. Instead, I try to recapture the altogether messier mingling of good intentions and blinkered prejudices that informed their vision of the poor and of themselves. While exploring deep structures of thought and feeling in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century British culture, I attend to individuals' particularities. I portray slum reformers and workers not as mere tools of social or discursive forces outside their control-though such forces did influence their agendas-but as human beings who confronted ethical dilemmas and made difficult choices. I examine the interplay of sexual and social politics both at the micro-level of how women and men came to express and understand who they were and at the macro-level of public debates about poverty and welfare, gender, and sexuality. By so doing, I work within, but also reorient, a tradition of scholarship linking private conscience and public duty in Victorian culture and society.
The intimate, turbulent, and often surprising relationship between benevolence and sex, rich and poor, in Victorian London is my subject. I came to this topic circuitously through the history of elite men's and women's philanthropic endeavors to bring "sweetness and light" to the dark spaces and dirty inhabitants of the metropolis. As I immersed myself deeply in the sources, I found it impossible to keep sex, sexual desire, and sexuality out of their story. So what began as an inquiry into class-bridging institutions and social welfare programs took on a life of its own, propelled by several insights. First, it became clear that debates about "social" questions such as homelessness, social hygiene, childhood poverty, and women's work were often sparked by and tapped into anxieties about sex, sexuality, and gender roles. To understand how elite men and women thought about the poor required me to reckon with how they thought about sex, gender, and themselves. Second, I discovered that the widely shared imperative among well-to-do men and women to traverse class boundaries and befriend their outcast brothers and sisters in the slums was somehow bound up in their insistent eroticization of poverty and their quest to understand their own sexual subjectivities. But how and why were these movements, both literal and imaginative, connected? And what were the consequences of such linkages for the histories of class, gender, sexuality, and welfare? An inquiry into the set of social practices and relations that Britons called slumming promised a means to untangle and knit together in a new way the history of sexual and social politics. Once I started looking for slumming, it was hard not to find it everywhere.
The Oxford-educated journalist Henry Wood Nevinson, who lived with his talented wife Margaret and their growing family in an insect-infested slum flat in the 1880s, astutely observed that slumming expressed both "shamed sympathy" with the poor and an irresistible "attraction of repulsion" for them. Nevinson's paradoxical formulation points to the double optic through which elites viewed the slums of London. Men and women like the Nevinsons knew only too well that slums were real places of monotonous material deprivation and quiet human suffering which both rightly elicited their sympathy and called them to action. At the same time, when elites wrote about slums, they tended to romanticize and exoticize them as sites of spectacular brutality and sexual degradation to which they were compulsively drawn. Slums were anarchic, distant outposts of empire peopled by violent and primitive races; but they were also conveniently close, only a short stroll from the Bank of England and St. Paul's, inhabited by Christian brothers and sisters. They were prosaically dull and dangerously carnivalesque.
The metropolitan slums provided well-to-do philanthropic men and women with an actual and imagined location where, with the approval of society, they could challenge prevailing norms about class and gender relations and sexuality. These men and women may well have needed the freedom the slums offered them more than the poor in their adopted neighborhoods benefited from their benevolent labors. Such claims capture the complex social dynamics of philanthropic encounters between rich and poor, as well as my own ambivalence about them. Reformers' creativity and passion, their sincerely felt and lived ethos of service, inspire admiration. At the same time, many were deeply invested in the titillating squalor of the slums, which they used as stages upon which they enacted emancipatory experiments in reimagining themselves. Synonymous with squalid tenements and soiled lives, the slums of London ironically functioned as sites of personal liberation and self-realization-social, spiritual, and sexual-for several generations of educated men and women.
Upper-class men and women had long ventured into the low haunts of London in pursuit of illicit pleasure. In 1670, the Queen and the Duchesses of Richmond and Buckingham caused a public uproar when they disguised themselves as "country lasses" at Bartholomew Fair to mingle undetected with the common people. "They had all so over done it in their disguise," Sir Henry Ingilby reported in his diary, that they quickly drew the attention of the mob, which angrily pursued them all the way to the Court gate. Ingilby concluded his entry "thus by ill conduct was a merry frolic turned into a penance." It would be easy to trace an unbroken history of such self-serving escapades from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries. But by the mid-nineteenth century, altruists began to rival pleasure seekers in shaping public perceptions of the purpose and meaning of descents into the spaces of the poor. Well-to-do philanthropists justified their slum journeys as a way to do penance for the sins of their class, to investigate and study the poor, and to succor them. Far from concealing their slum explorations, they did their best to publicize them in the name of social science, civic duty, and Christian love. They used the materials they gathered-statistical, anecdotal, visual-to write sociological reports, political-economic treatises, novels, passionate sermons, and revelatory newspaper articles; to secure jobs in private voluntary associations and in expanding social welfare bureaucracies within local and national government; to bolster their credentials as expert witnesses before parliamentary commissions of inquiry and as members of parliament.
If slumming was an indispensable method of gathering knowledge about urban poverty, it also revealed the extent to which charity was, according to the expatriate American novelist Henry James, "a kind of passion." But what was the nature of this "passion"? How did this "passion" affect the ways in which well-to-do Victorians came to define social problems and their solutions? James's understanding of the London poor was at best superficial. He was, however, an astute observer of the inner longings of his English peers, those extraordinarily articulate "public moralists" who molded opinion and devised policies on social questions. His writings suggest that the Victorians' "passion" for charity was fueled by unconsummated and unacknowledged desires for all sorts of taboo intimacies between rich and poor, the clean and the dirty, the virtuous and the verminous, men and women, women and women, and men and men. James could not help thinking that there was "something indecent" about so much goodness.
Many kinds of love, sexual and nonsexual alike, animated Britons' engagement with philanthropy. I investigate how the histories of sexuality and sexual desires usually associated with the private lives of individuals intersected with the public histories of benevolence to shape metropolitan philanthropy and social welfare. While I do not anachronistically impose the vocabulary of twentieth-century psychoanalysis on my nineteenth-century subjects, I do attempt to illuminate their psychological and sexual complexities. I examine the motives, representations, meanings, and consequences of their forays into the slums of Victorian and Edwardian London. At the same time, I reconstruct as best I can the responses of the poor to their uninvited visitors. The circumstances and survival strategies of the poor necessarily shaped their vision of the world and of their social betters. This book reveals the extent to which politics and erotics, social and sexual categories, overflowed their boundaries, affecting one another in profoundly consequential ways for our understanding of poverty and its representations, social policies, and emerging sexual and gender identities in modern Britain.
How did Victorian men and women define the activity "slumming" and its closely associated verb forms "to slum" or "to go slumming?" What meanings did they associate with these terms? How do I define and use them in this study? Let me answer each of these questions in turn.
Excerpted from Slumming by Seth Koven Excerpted by permission.
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"Arresting. Koven's scholarship is excellent, and this book will appeal across a wide range of disciplines."—James Epstein, Vanderbilt University
"New, fresh and original. Koven is an indefatigable and energetic researcher, and he looks at cross-class benevolence and the settlement house movement from a new perspective."—Susan Pedersen, Columbia University
"This is a brilliantly crafted, deeply researched, and provocative cultural history. Seth Koven paints a vivid picture of Victorian and Edwardian slummers and the social and sexual politics that impelled their urban journeys. This book is essential reading for cultural critics, historians, urbanists, and scholars of gender and sexuality. It is interdisciplinary history of the highest order."—Judith R. Walkowitz, author of City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London
"Slumming adds a new and vital dimension to the modern history of London. Historians have spent much time examining the changing condition of outcast London but little on those whose investigations and explorations revealed that condition. As Seth Koven reveals, 'slumming' was more than a matter of religious or political concern. It was exciting, transgressive, and a way of discovering or releasing another person within the self."—Gareth Stedman Jones, author of Outcast London
"Seth Koven's much awaited Slumming gives us a vivid, authoritative, and astute new history of the Victorian phenomenon that took hundreds of middle-class men and women into urban 'nether worlds' of poverty and deprivation. More than any other previous chronicler of this cultural trend,Koven makes clear that motives for slumming were complex and morally ambiguous. He also reminds us that Victorian renderings of children and the poor inaugurated a tradition of representation in which compassion and voyeurism coexist uncomfortably and, perhaps, inevitably."—Deborah Epstein Nord, author of Walking the Victorian Streets: Women, Representation, and the City
"The stories Seth Koven tells in Slumming and his insights and analyses of them are intriguing and convincing. The reader will be fascinated by his intertwining of sexuality, particularly in its homoerotic dimension, with activities designed to help the poor. This brilliant book helps us better to understand both the past and the present."—Peter Stansky, author of Sassoon: The Worlds of Philip and Sybil
"Subtle, elegant, and insightful, Koven's book explores the remote, difficult world of Victorian philanthropy. It brings to life the wealthy men and women and their relations with poor, and far from deferential, slum-dwellers in all their complexity and confusion. Superbly written and wonderfully readable."—Pat Thane, author of Old Age in English History: Past Experiences, Present Issues
"Slumming is a brilliant exploration of urban class and gender relations as seen through the lens of philanthropy. Koven writes cultural history at its best."—Lynn Hollen Lees, author of The Solidarities of Strangers: The Poor Laws and the People, 1700-1948
"This is a wonderful book, replete with fresh insights about the complex relations between educated Victorians and the urban poor. A rich, compelling addition to our understanding of the past."—Martha Vicinus, University of Michigan, author of Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928