- Sympathy, Humor, and the Abject Poor in the Work of May Kendall
Go, look into some dingy street Your mood aesthetic scorns to pace. Mark well the throng; you will not meet One happy or one careless face. Have these not failed on whom the rain Strikes cheerless from the sky of grey? No lurking comfort in their pain Or subtle self-esteem have they.1
That May Kendall (born Emma Goldworth Kendall, 1861–1943) should have published this somber stanza may seem surprising to readers who know her only as a writer of light verse. It testifies to the versatility of this author, whose works included poetry, critical essays, fiction, and sociology. It also affirms her social conscience. Beginning as a poet and New Woman novelist in the 1880s, she shifted her career in the 1910s to act as a social investigator, conducting door-to-door interviews with impoverished rural laborers across Britain.2 Kendall was to her collaborator Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree what Beatrice Potter Webb had been to Charles Booth twenty-five years earlier: a researcher whose straightforward accounts of the struggles of ordinary men and women lent vividness and clarity to the statistical conclusions of the census. Described by her contemporaries as delicate and ephemeral, she was nonetheless a cofounder of the branch of the Fabian Society in the city of York.
This particular poem, "Failures" (1887), chides a morose poet for his self-absorption and vanity and urges him to take note of the humble, silent misery of common people around him. Kendall was aware that she was living and writing in an era characterized by what Gareth Stedman Jones has since called an "epidemic of slumming," where wealthy people were descending on seedy, dilapidated neighborhoods for a cheap thrill.3 Ironically, Kendall here prescribes a kind of slumming [End Page 313] ("Go, look into some dingy street") while also disavowing that this investigation into the slums will be the product of leisurely curiosity (it is what the "mood aesthetic scorns to pace"—it is beneath one's aesthetic attentions). Through its self-contradiction, "Failures" articulates the ethical quandaries that preoccupied Kendall throughout her career. How can one effect social improvement without descending into mere voyeuristic slumming? Through what means can one genuinely come to understand working people, rather than merely using them to act out sentimental scenarios of patronage and gratitude?
Kendall's oeuvre also prompts modern readers to ask which literary genre proved most appropriate for educating other Victorians into compassion for the poor. Satire, while clearly effective at exposing human foibles and hypocrisies, was perhaps inadequate for eliciting readers' sympathy; it could even prompt laughter at the very subjects whom the author ostensibly sought to protect. At the center of this difficulty lay a doubt in universal social evolution. Theorists of the 1880s believed that the social order must develop to reflect each generation's finer tastes, higher desires, and sharper intellects, yet, accustomed to crude representations from both music hall and naturalist fiction, few middle-class writers credited the inhabitants of "Darkest England" with the same evolving sensibilities. Instead, they represented the poor as one-dimensional and static. This essay explores Kendall's treatment of these issues, tracing her movement from being an imaginative witness of the poor in her poetry to an actual observer of them in her sociological inquiry. It weighs the practical rhetorical value of these two genres in kindling readers' empathy and understanding.
As an educated New Woman and a social activist, Kendall claimed the interdependence between women's private aspirations and public responsibilities.4 Today's scholars frequently define the political engagement of late-Victorian intellectual women in terms of their own feminist lobby—with the goal, for instance, of gaining access to university education, entering the workforce as trained professionals, and living independently. However, in their capacity as philanthropists and reformers, many of these women petitioned not merely for themselves, but for others. The social and political fervor of the late 1880s had culminated in socialist marches through London's wealthy West End in 1886, the police repression at Trafalgar Square of working-class protesters of the conservative government on Bloody Sunday in 1887...