- Interclass Relations
The Imagination of Class is a suggestive, challenging analysis of accounts of interclass relations in nineteenth-century London. It considers the emotional, ethical, and above all psychic investments of the middle class in particular versions of the poor as reflected in and cultivated by its chosen texts. Insisting on complex, imaginary relationships beyond simple othering, The Imagination of Class claims that its texts of interclass encounters “tell us at least as much about what it meant to be … middle class as they tell us about what it meant to be poor” (5). Using fictional and nonfictional, canonical and noncanonical texts, it pursues this thesis in works that span the second half of the nineteenth century: the groundbreaking urban “discoveries” of Dickens, Mayhew, James Greenwood, and Andrew Mearns in chapter one; the later, more knowledge-based, sociological approach of Beatrice Potter Webb, the settlement house movement, and novelist Margaret Harkness in chapter two; the allegedly naturalistic depictions of Arthur Morrison’s infamous novel Child of the Jago and George Gissing’s The Nether World in chapter three; and the nihilism of H. G. Wells, Jack London, and C. F. G. Masterman in chapter four. While the book risks a certain theoretical overload, introducing chunks of abstract material on abjection, interpellation, the suture, affect, and mimicry, it also maintains a steady, persuasive conviction that Victorian poverty profoundly disturbed middle-class observers, who were driven to narrate and renarrate the lives of the poor in order to preserve their own sense of stability and ethical cogency.
First, a word on the book’s history. It was begun by Roger Henkle but left undone at the time of his death in 1991, and has since been completed by Dan Bivona. Inevitably, this double authorship and the historical gap between the two periods of composition have left their mark. The most important effect can be seen in the change of subtitle from the original “A Study of the Middle Class Victorian Representation of the Urban Poor” to the current “Masculinity and the Victorian Urban Poor.” In spite of this change and the obvious rewriting that accompanied it, the book does not focus exclusively on masculinity, or even on men. (See, for example, the section on Beatrice Potter Webb; the assertion that “the issue of gender is more complicated than a simple biological model” does not go far enough to explain why Potter should be [End Page 337] treated as “emblematic” of male professionals, especially since she so often voiced a gender-specific conflict between work and marriage [180, 67].) At other times, the category “masculinity” is rather strenuously introduced into the argument without sufficient definition and detail. The passage I quoted with an elision actually reads “tell us at least as much about what it meant to be male and middle class,” which gives a more accurate picture of the book. Read without the expectation that it will develop a theory of masculinity, this is a more coherent project.
The Imagination of Class addresses the ways in which representations of poverty respond to the needs of their middle-class authors, who attempt to consolidate new, professional identities in their textual encounters with the poor. Bivona and Henkle first define this relationship through Kristeva’s theory of the abjection, in which the abject is always perceived, consciously or unconsciously, as an aspect of the self. While subsequent discussions do not always explicitly develop within this framework, Bivona and Henkle maintain its emphasis on a relational complexity that goes beyond objective observation or simple othering. The book begins at midcentury, but its most notable contribution is its exploration of turn-of-the-century texts, in which the East End, the country of the poor, becomes increasingly, dismayingly incomprehensible. Overall, this book tells a story of growing alienation, in which ameliorating impulses, however ill-conceived, give way to despair over the ineffectuality, even irrelevance, of bourgeois values.
This story begins with the statistical/sociological approach of Webb and Charles Booth and its link to...