Seth Koven on “Slumming” in Victorian London
Victorian Britain was a society in the midst of extraordinary change. Britain’s empire achieved global hegemony, and at home there was an unprecedented explosion of wealth. There was, however, another, disturbing phenomenon: the concentration of the poor in segregated districts, most notoriously in London.
On April 27, Dr. Seth Koven, associate professor of history, shared his insights on the fascinating social and intellectual history of this time and place, as part of the Scholarship @ Villanova series sponsored by Falvey Memorial Library. His book Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London (Princeton UP, 2004), which served as the basis for this talk, was the winner of the 2005 Sonya Rudikoff Book Award from the Northeast Victorian Studies Association.
In the book he describes his subject as the “intimate, turbulent, and often surprising relationship between benevolence and sex, rich and poor, in Victorian London” (p. 3).
Upper class Britons went “slumming” to see how the poor lived. Slumming is defined as a descent into the precincts of the poor, where, as a privileged person, one definitely doesn’t belong. It became a fad for those who went on tours of the most destitute districts of London, to see how the poor lived. Others made longer excursions, to learn more and to provide help.
It became an obsession, for many an attraction for revulsion. What could be done for these unfortunates? The more the privileged became aware of the state of the poor, the more they wanted to help. Often, this was inspired by a sense of Christian charity and mission.
The poor themselves were a diverse group, ranging from the homeless and unemployed to laborers and skilled workers on low incomes. Government policy was inadequate. Laws like the Houseless Poor Act (1865) served mainly to get the poor out of sight, rather than to alleviate problems.
Those who went slumming sometimes left behind sources – books, articles, memoirs, diaries, and letters – that enable historians to reconstruct their social and mental worlds. As Dr. Koven read through these sources, he discovered an interesting dichotomy. Was slumming philanthropy, or was it a way to enter forbidden spaces and indulge in forbidden behaviors? Was it for sex or altruism? The history of slumming shows that benevolence was often linked to sexuality.
There was also sensationalism. In 1866 news reporter James Greenwood decided to sleep one night with the poor. He described a cold night, with little protection and warmth, as men and boys huddled together in an arena of sex and sodomy. Whether this really happened the way Greenwood described is unclear, but the story made his career. One of the few poor men who commented on similar situations admitted that the homeless had to share body heat to survive.
Chapters in the book explore these themes in depth. Several chapters explore deceptive practices used to reveal “truths” about the poor, and two chapters deal with the tension between rhetoric and practice on the one hand, and erotic sexuality and politics on the other.
Dr. Koven admires the Victorians in many ways. They left us with the lesson that with privilege and wealth comes responsibility, unlike a prevalent contemporary attitude that emphasizes having rights for oneself but taking few responsibilities for others.
Contributed by Dennis Lambert