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  • Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London
  • Sharon Marcus (bio)
Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London, by Seth Koven; xvii + 399. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2004, $29.95, £18.95.

No Victorian endeavor arouses more contemporary suspicion than philanthropy, not least because we moderns believe that prurience aroused the rich to rescue and reform the poor. In Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London, Seth Koven studies Victorians who observed and helped the poor, but he deliberately refrains from gleefully unmasking the impure motives of those who sought to purify the slums. Instead, he makes the original and daring claim that since Victorian morality was designed to inflame the passions and the imagination (138), desire could be a positive force for liberating and [End Page 376] connecting individuals. There was thus no necessary conflict between an "ethos of service" (5) and the philanthropists' "quest to understand their own sexual subjectivities" (4). The very use of the word "slumming" as a rubric that unites earnest reformers and opportunistic journalists embodies Koven's radical suggestion that the excitements provided by slumming—mobility and metamorphosis—cannot be separated from social reform, and need not be.

Koven defines slumming as any movement of descent across spatial, class, and gender boundaries (9), and he structures Slumming in two parts: the first is devoted to case studies of journalists and reformers who impersonated the poor in order to publicize hidden aspects of poverty; the second focuses on groups of women and men who sought to forge ties with the poor by living among them. Chapter 1 deals with a series of sensational articles James Greenwood wrote in 1866 about a night he spent in a Lambeth workhouse dressed as a male tramp. The essays' "sodomitical subtext" (57) suggested that the male casual ward was also a male brothel (27) and generated a lasting association between economic and sexual marginality (73). The second chapter focuses on philanthropist Dr. Thomas Barnardo, a famous rescuer of poor children, accused in 1877 of abusing his wards and of falsifying their photographs, of seducing the public with impersonations of poverty rather than genuine representations of it. The third chapter focuses on US journalist Elizabeth Banks, who masqueraded as both servant and heiress to create profitable copy about class differences and national identity while simultaneously promoting herself as a professional female journalist.

The second part of the book begins with a chapter on the erotics of dirt, showing how elite women's "fetishized obsession" (204) with cleaning up the slums allowed them to express their own "'dirty' desires" for freedom and same-sex contact (198). A final chapter on the "New Man" looks at male settlement houses and their ethos of "fraternalism" (236), the belief that direct contact with the poor would transform the anonymity of urban life into community (235). Looking closely at two East End settlement houses and a variety of individuals associated with them, Koven argues that settlements allowed elite men "to moralize all sorts of desires—to bind the wounds of a class-divided society and to free themselves, at least for a time, of the manacles of bourgeois respectability" (273).

With assurance and grace, Slumming synthesizes the methods, topics, and insights of urban studies, gender history, queer studies, media analysis, and social history. The book notably departs from Foucauldian premises by simply refusing to argue that gathering knowledge and building institutions extended the tentacles of discipline. Decades from now, Slumming may well be seen as an early contribution to a new humanist history that abandons abstract concepts of power in order to attend to individual actors. The first three chapters are microhistory at its best, thick descriptions of the complex circumstances surrounding the production of a text, a scandal, and a journalistic career. For example, Koven not only provides a history of the newspaper in which Greenwood published his articles on the workhouse, but also explains how the weather at the time affected their reception. The first part of the book also illustrates, however, the limitations of such an approach. The accumulation of contexts sometimes overwhelms the texts, and Koven's intentional emphasis on ambiguity and complexity can make...


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pp. 376-378
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