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Latter-day Victorianism

September 12, 2010

So, it was thanks to Charles Dickens that I enjoyed a brief reputation as the class communist.

In the autumn of third year I did a unit on Victorian Literature. I didn’t want to be there – partly because I did not appreciate having to spend a precious module slot (it was compulsory) on a unit outside my Medieval/Renaissance stomping grounds, and partly because I don’t really read the Victorian novels even for pleasure. The poetry is good. The nonfiction is fine. But the chunky Victorian novel is one of those beasts I have never really got along with, same as some people are allergic to Romanticism or free verse.

So I was already moderately annoyed about the Vic Lit module before term even started, which probably contributed to the row (well – for a very academic value of ‘row’: particularly heated discussion) that started in the first seminar, reappeared in the second, and raised its head occasionally later in the course, about welfare and reform. And communism.

I still don’t think anything I said was particularly (specifically) communist, but whatever. Perhaps it was because we were also discussing Engels; perhaps just because ‘communism’ is probably a more familiar term to most than ‘socialism’, and also tends to be used in popular political discourse as a blanket term for systems that aren’t our present one. Who knows? Anyway.

People know that the Victorian era wasn’t, in hindsight, a great time. While plenty of people are worryingly nostalgic for its sexual and racial politics (and imperialism – resentment at losing ‘our’ Empire seems to underpin a peculiarly British form of racism), very few would willingly return to the smog and mud and sewage and lack of electricity and cars. It was not great, even for the rich. It was even less great if you were (as most people were) crushingly poor.

And this is where Dickens comes in. He’s is known for decrying the evils of the workhouses, but hailing him as a champion of rights for the poor is to go a little too far. Dickens’ tiny, oppressed, downtrodden heroes are always rescued not by state reform, but by individual charity – the benevolent hand of the bourgeois or upper class, who in their munificence lift the virtuous orphan out of poverty. In Dickens-land, this solves everything . . . for the virtuous orphan, at least.

Similar beneficence is not, however, extended to anyone else. Oliver Twist, had he existed, would have been one of thousands of street children who turned to or were forced into crime; but Dickens’ benevolent upper-class saviours only rescue Oliver. The old Victorian catchphrase ‘the deserving poor’ is lurking behind every line: we’ll help you out of poverty not because poverty is bad, but because you, you specifically, are good.

Sadly this kind of rhetoric didn’t die with the Victorians. It’s alive and well and it’s eating away at us every bloody day. It’s most blatantly stated in the particular brand of corporatist libertarianism that insists that we would do just fine without all those expensive governmental safety nets, because the work of welfare would be picked up by individual philanthropists. They never seem to quite get that for lots of us, the idea of being held up for scrutiny by someone with more money and power than you, who will decide whether you are worthy to be helped survive (and will then likely expect grovelling gratitude from you for the rest of your life) is just about a perfect description of hell. Especially for the people to whom it’s already happening.

Every time a marginalised group takes the field, the rhetoric of deserving-ness tends to pop up again – the desperate attempt by members of the group in question to prove that they are Not All Like [Insert Stereotype Here], that they are Deserving, and are therefore worthy of being treated like human beings.

It should not have to work like this.

People play by the rules because there’s only so much space in anyone’s life, only so many spoons to hand, and we all do what we need to do to survive. I blame nobody for deciding that their best option to get through the day is to conform as closely as they can to the existing rulebook. On a system-wide scale, though, that needs to change. Not just our ideas of what constitutes ‘deserving’; the whole damn concept that certain people have to deserve, have to earn, the same rights that others automatically enjoy.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Paul Skinner permalink
    September 12, 2010 2:42 pm

    “They never seem to quite get that for lots of us, the idea of being held up for scrutiny by someone with more money and power than you, who will decide whether you are worthy to be helped survive (and will then likely expect grovelling gratitude from you for the rest of your life) is just about a perfect description of hell.”

    This irks me. You presume quite without basis that rich people who are philanthropists expect grovelling gratitude.

    I’d suggest that is certainly less than “likely”.

    I actually happen to know a fair few very rich indeed philanthropists who require no validation of their status from those whom they help.

    Don’t go around tarring all rich people with the same stereotype, please.

    /sticking up for the rich (now there’s an area that really suffers from whatever the monetary equivalent of racism is)

  2. September 12, 2010 3:31 pm

    Good for them; honestly, good for them.

    I do contest the idea that there isn’t an expectation of gratitude (okay, perhaps not actual grovelling) attached to most if not all varieties of charitable gift, even if said charity is so piddling as to be next to useless – or worse than useless, like the people who donate unusably broken items to charity shops, thus transferring the cost of disposal onto the charity, and acting offended when charities then require that donations be in good nick.

    An expectation of gratitude is one thing if the giver is an individual and there’s a mutual understanding that there may be strings attached. On the other hand, the idea that the recipients of government benefit have to be grateful and deserving is also pretty common, and it’s completely unjustified there.

    A roof over your head and a means of subsistence are basic human needs – to deny them is utterly inhumane – and yet there is the running meme that knowing and taking advantage of your rights in this respect is somehow ungrateful or ‘scrounging’. It’s like demanding that people should be grateful that the government isn’t conducting mass executions: cause for a kind of meta-gratitude (that you live in this time/place), I guess, but not something for which you’re grateful to the government.

    And finally . . . dude, claiming any kind of systemic discrimination against the rich is on a par with saying that there’s even now a massive racist conspiracy against white people. Prejudice, maybe (possibly informed by the long history and continuing tendency of the rich dumping on everyone below?) – systematic discrimination, no, as that requires power on the part of the prejudiced party.

  3. Dominique Millette permalink
    September 12, 2010 3:36 pm

    This is something that also bothered me about Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo. Jean Valjean is the perfect icon of the “deserving poor” who is unjustly persecuted for stealing bread. I think the reasoning was that only with such a model could the conscience of the rich or the more fortunate at least be egged on to support reform. The same idea of “abused virtue” lies behind misogynistic rape narratives. The “virtuous victim” is “genuine” but the prostitute, or even the “four-mouthed” woman who dresses in anything other than a burqa, is seen as suspect and therefore, “not deserving” of help.

  4. Seamus permalink
    September 15, 2010 3:32 am

    No, I don’t think hailing Dickens as a champion of rights for the poor is going too far at all.

    What was he supposed to do? Have the story end with society suddenly seeing the error of its ways, thus rendering it implausible and silly? Have the young orphan die in poverty and squalor, thus aligning himself with the belief that the poor are simply fated to live in misery forever? Have his protagonist be a willing sinner and an enthusiastic criminal, thus escaping the concept of the “virtuous poor”, while also discarding any chance he might have had of inspiring sympathy for Oliver in Victorian society?

    Dickens’s role as a voice for political reform is most apparent when one looks at the effect of his writing; a great many people embarked upon charitable works, political agitation, inquiry into conditions, because they had read in Dickens how things were and they wanted things to change.

    Of course I don’t want individual charity to be the organ of welfare: it’s unreliable and prone to prejudice to a greater extent even than government is, and a healthy country treats the necessities of life as a right, not a privilege. But I don’t see the justification for pillorying Dickens because he stood up and encouraged his fellow citizens to be charitable at a time before the welfare state was even thought of. You admit you don’t read Victorian fiction unless you have to, and yet you’re prepared to dismiss Dickens on the basis of his second novel. That’s the Dickens who wrote this:

    Oh for a good spirit who would take the house-tops off, with a more potent and benignant hand than the lame demon in the tale, and show a Christian people what dark shapes issue from amidst their homes, to swell the retinue of the Destroying Angel as he moves forth among them! For only one night’s view of the pale phantoms rising from the scenes of our too-long neglect; and from the thick and sullen air where Vice and Fever propagate together, raining the tremendous social retributions which are ever pouring down, and ever coming thicker! Bright and blest the morning that should rise on such a night: for men, delayed no more by stumbling-blocks of their own making, which are but specks of dust upon the path between them and eternity, would then apply themselves, like creatures of one common origin, owing one duty to the Father of one family, and tending to one common end, to make the world a better place!
    Not the less bright and blest would that day be for rousing some who never have looked out upon the world of human life around them, to a knowledge of their own relation to it, and for making them acquainted with a perversion of nature in their own contracted sympathies and estimates; as great, and yet as natural in its development when once begun, as the lowest degradation known.

    Show me the writer who could do half as much; who could face a people ready to be cruel, to be cold, to accept the suffering of the poor as part of the natural order — could face them and confront them with the present humanity of the people they were stepping on, and make them believe it, and make them love him for it; show me the writer who could bear the burden of duty that Dickens bore and yet remain as optimistic, and generous-hearted, and witty, as he did.

  5. Seamus permalink
    September 15, 2010 3:51 am

    Hear the magistrate or judge admonish the unnatural outcasts of society; unnatural in brutal habits, unnatural in want of decency, unnatural in losing and confounding all distinctions between good and evil; unnatural in ignorance, in vice, in recklessness, in contumacy, in mind, in looks, in everything. But follow the good clergyman or doctor, who, with his life imperilled at every breath he draws, goes down into their dens, lying within the echoes of our carriage wheels and daily tread upon the pavement stones. Look round upon the world of odious sights—millions of immortal creatures have no other world on earth—at the lightest mention of which humanity revolts, and dainty delicacy living in the next street, stops her ears, and lisps ‘I don’t believe it!’ Breathe the polluted air, foul with every impurity that is poisonous to health and life; and have every sense, conferred upon our race for its delight and happiness, offended, sickened and disgusted, and made a channel by which misery and death alone can enter. Vainly attempt to think of any simple plant, or flower, or wholesome weed, that, set in this foetid bed, could have its natural growth, or put its little leaves off to the sun as GOD designed it. And then, calling up some ghastly child, with stunted form and wicked face, hold forth on its unnatural sinfulness, and lament its being, so early, far away from Heaven—but think a little of its having been conceived, and born and bred, in Hell! — Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son

    This is the Court of Chancery, which has its decaying houses and its blighted lands in every shire, which has its worn-out lunatic in every madhouse and its dead in every churchyard, which has its ruined suitor with his slipshod heels and threadbare dress borrowing and begging through the round of every man’s acquaintance, which gives to monied might the means abundantly of wearying out the right, which so exhausts finances, patience, courage, hope, so overthrows the brain and breaks the heart, that there is not an honourable man among its practitioners who would not give–who does not often give–the warning, “Suffer any wrong that can be done you, rather than come here!” — Charles Dickens, Bleak House

    Oh my friends and fellow-countrymen, the slaves of an ironhanded and a grinding despotism! Oh my friends and fellow-sufferers, and fellow-workmen, and fellow-men! I tell you that the hour is come, when we must rally round one another as One united power, and crumble into dust the oppressors that too long have battened upon the plunder of our families, upon the sweat of our brows, upon the labour of our hands, upon the strength of our sinews, upon the God-created glorious rights of Humanity, and upon the holy and eternal privileges of Brotherhood! — Charles Dickens, Hard Times

    I’d say the above passages were written by a sincere and tireless advocate for the poor. Am I taking it a bit far?

  6. September 15, 2010 1:27 pm

    @Dominique: Interesting comparisons, both with Les Mis and with the discourse surrounding who ‘deserves’ to get help and justice.

    @Seamus: Point taken with regard to Dickens and the rest of his oeuvre. He came to mind as an okay illustration of what I was trying to pin down, and then my general antipathy to Oliver Twist took over. I should have been more specific about my problems being with that novel in particular, especially as I’m really not qualified to deliver sweeping statements about stuff I haven’t read. (Not that this has ever stopped me, for my sins.)

    I think people tend to see him as more of a radical than he was (why don’t more people know about Thomas Paine?) But I can’t really blame Dickens for not going as far as I would have liked, especially given as how (as both you and Dominique point out) highlighting the plight of the ‘deserving’ poor is still the first step on the road to social justice for all.

    Eh. I just shouldn’t be allowed to post when I’m pissed off. The sweeping statements start coming out and I always end up having to clarify and/or retract and apologise. (I’m glad I have you around to pick up this sort of stuff, though.)

  7. Aviatrix permalink
    September 18, 2010 1:32 pm

    I love Dickens and still thought it was a wonderful post, pissed or not!

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