Hello, friends. The best thing about grad school, in my opinion? The really smart, interesting people I met, and how they’ve enriched my life and stretched my brain. One of my friends, Keri Walsh, recently blew my mind. (This has been an ongoing theme, recently. Other friends introduced me to Smiling Victorians and the Female Detective in past weeks, both of which are also completely awesome.) Keri posted on facebook about Seth Koven’s Slumming, an electrifying study of Victorian attitudes towards the poor. (Incidentally, you can tell when an academic book is especially juicy; they print a paperback version that, unlike the hardcover, costs less than $100.)
I knew that the nineteenth century was a time of major private philanthropy: serious-minded people worked hard to help the socially marginal, at a time when laissez-faire politics ruled supreme. What I didn’t know was that the term slumming was also coined at that time, to describe the fashion (yes, I said “fashion”) for touring slums to get a thrill from how the poor lived. Here’s a satirical example from Punch, which Koven discusses in his introduction:
The clergyman in the middle, with a well-dressed lady on either side of him, strolls through London’s East End as though it’s a zoo. The East Enders know why he’s there, of course, and stare right back at him, commenting on his hat. The cartoon is captioned “In Slummibus” because slum tourists often rented omnibuses in which to do their slumming. I guess they felt safer that way.
This is an extension, of course, of the English habit of visiting insane asylums as a form of entertainment. (The former premier of Alberta, Ralph Klein, revived this tradition in his own way in 2001 with a drunken visit to a shelter, where he shouted abuse at homeless men and threw pennies at them.) And many slum tourists had good intentions, as Koven points out. But it’s a new lens through which we can view the Victorians.
The Victorians are like us, in their urban chasm between rich and poor; in their desire to be daring, fashionable, and well-entertained; in their desire to do good; in the confusion, scandal, and constant one-upmanship of their media; and in the wild energy and tension with which they lived their lives.