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Charity and Condescension

Victorian Literature and the Dilemmas of Philanthropy

Daniel Siegel

Publication Year: 2012

Charity and Condescension explores how condescension, a traditional English virtue, went sour in the nineteenth century, and considers the ways in which the failure of condescension influenced Victorian efforts to reform philanthropy and to construct new narrative models of social conciliation. In the literary work of authors like Dickens, Eliot, and Tennyson, and in the writing of reformers like Octavia Hill and Samuel Barnett, condescension—once a sign of the power and value of charity—became an emblem of charity’s limitations.

Charity and Condescension argues that, despite its reputation for idealistic self-assurance, Victorian charity frequently doubted its own operations and was driven by creative self-critique. Through sophisticated and original close readings of important Victorian texts, Siegel shows how these important ideas developed even as England struggled to deal with its growing underclass and an expanding notion of the state’s responsibility to its poor.

Published by: Ohio University Press


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Title Page, Copyright Page, Dedication

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pp. vii-vii


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pp. ix-x

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Introduction: Charity and Condescension

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pp. 1-36

She stands before us: scattering tracts, ordering the children about, peering into cupboards, tripping over the furniture, crowing lines of scripture, blocking the exit. She marshals the forces of sound doctrine, domestic economy, and hygienic science against whatever comforts the poor might have been able to salvage...

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Chapter One: Help Wanting: The Exhaustion of a Dickensian Idol

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pp. 48-85

In July 1860, Dickens published a piece in All the Year Round containing a devastating scene of philanthropy gone wrong. The article relates Dickens’s own experiences as, during a night of insomnia, he rambles “houseless” through central London and Southwark. A bell tolling three o’clock finds him on the steps of St. Martin’s:1...

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Chapter Two: Preacher’s Vigil, Landlord’s Watch: Charity by the Clock in "Adam Bede"

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pp. 75-100

If condescension, as Dickens contends, concealed histories of neglect and mystified social relations, it drew its power to do so from the discourse of spontaneity. As I discuss in the introduction, the condescension scene unfolds as a spontaneous, interruptive moment, relying for its force on the sense that something out...

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Chapter Three: Why Settle? : Samuel Barnett, Octavia Hill, and the London Slums

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pp. 101-128

In the crowded and unsanitary homes of the poor, Victorian charity found both its loudest call to arms and its best theater of engagement. To be sure, many forms of philanthropy were not centered on the home: Sunday schools, mothers’ meetings, workingmen’s clubs, charity hospitals, and children’s outings, to name just a few. But philanthropists generally agreed that the most important way to reach poor families was in the...

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Chapter Four: Tennyson’s Salvation Army

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pp. 129-162

The slum settlers sought to enter into the organic life of the poorest neighborhoods and to reproduce a wellregulated middle-class life for the poor to share. This was an effort to solve the problem of condescension: by having a fuller contact with the poor than a typical charity worker could ever do in an occasional visit, the settler would reveal aspects of his or her authentic self...

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pp. 163-167

Were the Victorians condescending? They say they were, and ask us only to believe them. Before we ever had a chance to take offense, the Victorians had already developed a withering critique of their own condescension. They knew it was not conciliatory, far from it; it was a goad to rebellion and rupture. They knew it had to go...


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pp. 169-193


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pp. 206-215


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pp. 205-209

E-ISBN-13: 9780821444078
Print-ISBN-13: 9780821419915

Publication Year: 2012

OCLC Number: 805581858
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Charity and Condescension

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Subject Headings

  • Social values in literature.
  • Literature and society -- England -- History -- 19th century.
  • English fiction -- 19th century -- History and criticism.
  • Charity in literature.
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