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  • Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London
  • William A. Peniston
Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London. By Seth KovenPrinceton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004. Pp. 399. $29.95 (cloth).

Seth Koven has written a very "queer" book. It is an engaging study of philanthropy in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century London. By philanthropy, he means the activities of journalists, such as James Greenwood and Elizabeth Banks, who exposed the conditions of the poor in [End Page 215] their writings, as well as medical missionaries, like Thomas John Barnardo, who documented his work among the orphans of London in pamphlets and photographs. He also examines the work of other educated men and women from the middle and upper classes who devoted time and energy to the assistance of the lower classes. In particular, he is interested in women's charity work in general and men's involvement with the settlement houses of East London, especially with Toynbee Hall and Oxford House. He points out that these men and women were engaged in a phenomenon called "slumming," which had, by the late nineteenth century, lost its traditional connotation of "sensationalism, sexual transgression, and self-seeking gratification" (8) and which had been redefined as "charity, sociological research, Christian rescue, social work, [or] investigative journalism" (9). However, as Koven demonstrates throughout his book, the boundary between these two meanings was never so clear and simple. Behind the moral altruism of the elites lay "a kind of passion"—to use Henry James's phrase—that Koven sees as distinctly "queer," a term that he uses throughout his book. As he explains himself, "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" (4).

Koven pursues his subject through a close reading of texts and images. He claims to use no single methodological or theoretical approach, although one could classify the work as an example of cultural history at its best. He writes: "If a methodology makes it possible to tease out meaning from my evidence, I have used it to the best of my abilities" (18). His analysis of class and gender differences allows him "to recapture the altogether messier mingling of good intentions and blinkered prejudices that informed [the reformers'] vision of the poor and of themselves" (3). In the process he provides some astonishing insights into the erotic and sexual nature of those well-meaning but prejudiced reformers.

James Greenwood was "The Amateur Casual," the pseudonym under which he wrote his sensational account of spending the night in one of the casual wards for homeless men in Lambert, London, in 1866. What made his account so sensational, according to Koven, was the not-too-subtle implication that the casual wards had turned into male brothels. Upon his arrival at the ward Greenwood was forced to perform a kind of "striptease" (39), after which he plunged his naked body into a pool of cold and dirty water that had been polluted by all the other men who had gone before him. This bath, which was supposed to have cleansed him, had in essence brought him into "a disconcerting intimacy" with the physically corrupt and morally degenerative inhabitants of the ward (39). The sleeping quarters only accentuated the promiscuity of the bath, since it was in the cold dark dormitory that men paired off to "club together," as Greenwood described the physical proximity of the scantily clad men. By playing off of the sexual [End Page 216] anxieties of his readers, Greenwood was able to initiate further investigations into the conditions of the casual wards by politicians and officials, who ultimately enacted a number of bureaucratic and parliamentary reforms, culminating in the 1898 Vagrancy Act. Furthermore, Greenwood inspired "a tradition of writing about culture and society, poverty and sexuality" (74) that included the works of Matthew Arnold, Blanchard Jerrold and Gustave Doré, Jack London, and George Orwell. What fascinates Koven about Greenwood's "A Night in the Workhouse" is "the complex links between sexual...


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