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Narrative 12.2 (2004) 151-166
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Generosity and the Ghosts of Poor Laws Passed
Nothing in nature can be more disgusting than a parish pay-table . . . nor in nature can anything be more beautiful than the mild complacency of benevolence, hastening to the humble cottage to relieve the wants of industry and virtue, to feed the hungry, to cloath the naked, and to sooth the sorrows of the widow with her tender orphans; nothing can be more pleasing unless it be their sparkling eyes, their bursting tears, and their uplifted hands, the artless expressions of unfeigned gratitude for unexpected favours.
—Joseph Townsend, A Dissertation on the Poor Laws, by a well-wisher to mankind
She came among them like the spirit of all goodness, affection, gentle consideration, love, and domesticity.
—Charles Dickens, The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain
The most common narratives of a culture usually go unrecorded. We have been left virtually nothing of direct, verbatim exchanges between the poor and property owners performed in England for almost two hundred and fifty years after Elizabeth I formalized poor law legislation in 1601. When the English poor needed state aid, they applied physically before local authorities at the parish pay-table, typically at monthly gatherings held at church after Sunday service. This scene of giving and receiving was a staple of local life, a public site of class and gender interaction, exchange, and performance. Magistrates and overseers played their parts in this "tedious work" as we might imagine: with indifference, compassion, boredom, suspicion, impatience, condescension (Lees 25).1 Supplicants had to be more discriminating, [End Page 151] but they acted from a position not wholly without agency: both paternalistic tradition and the legal framework provided by the Old Poor Laws supported the petitioners' claim on state generosity.
Animated by the spirit of modern capitalism, the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 folded up the parish pay-table by introducing policies designed to eliminate the need for public face-to-face give-and-take between representatives of the state and the indigent. Next to the central issue of rising rates, many reformers objected to the inefficiency and unreliability of poor people's stories—starting in the mid-eighteenth century, propertied rate payers increasingly complained that the performance of the applicants in seeking help exceeded the proper boundaries of their beneficiary status. Reformers of the poor laws protested that the poor pretended to be needier than the facts warranted—they told stories of (lied about) hardship—and that the Elizabethan poor laws encouraged deceit by guaranteeing state relief.2 Sorting the deserving from the undeserving, the truth from the lies, took time and resources, and ultimately compromised the emergent zeitgeist of giving that would dominate the new industrial world. In this world, as Joseph Townsend describes it, not the tongue but "sparkling eyes . . . bursting tears and . . . uplifted hands" speak fluent generosity. The tongues of the lazy and immoral (the undeserving poor) form only artful words, smoke screens concealing the enemies of work, industry, and duty.
Reformers sought to eliminate the "disgusting" lower-class narrative altogether, and with it the need for the state to sort truth from lies. Responsibility for the majority of the poor was to fall on volunteerism, the work of charities.3 This shift from public obligation to private choice was supported by an ideology of giving taking shape in the context of a growing industrial nation that required altered definitions of class and virtue for its expanded commodity-based economy, definitions that would reorganize social groups, free up labor pools, and support laissez-faire economics.4 One of these definitions worked to remove generosity from political and commercial economies by feminizing and domesticating it, a process in collusion with other stratagems the individual property owner used to gradually free himself from the communal customs and relationships that fettered capitalistic movement. Just as important, the exchange between the propertied and the lower classes was experienced increasingly in the pages of fiction rather than in a public space, and therefore as primarily an individual, private, middle-class experience in...