- Charity and Condescension: Victorian Literature and the Dilemmas of Philanthropy by Daniel Siegel
The figure of the charitable lady-visitor, memorably embodied in Dickens's Mrs. Pardiggle, makes the starting point for Daniel Siegel's nicely-conceived exploration of Victorian philanthropy. "Condescension," in the eighteenth and early-nineteenth century "a means of validating and negotiating social authority" (4), takes on increasingly negative and patronizing connotations. Siegel maps this change within a nineteenth-century liberal framework in which self-determination is valorized and paternalism challenged. Drawing on the work of George Simmel and Stuart Hall, he develops a model of condescension as a "transactional protocol," "a social and literary convention with a particular and autonomous logic" (17). This opens up fresh ways of reading characteristic scenes of philanthropic exchange across a broad range of Victorian writing, and provides a new vocabulary for discussing them. Three substantial chapters focus on Dickens, George Eliot and Tennyson's Idylls of the King. Close textual study of the interpersonal dynamics of this exchange engages with current discussion of gender and class relations, and with recent studies of the role of sympathy, specularity, temporality and narrative authority in the Victorian period. Useful contextualization is provided by the writings and activities of such pioneering social workers as Octavia Hill, Samuel Barnett, the Charitable Organization Society and the Salvation Army.
Dickens is a key figure in Siegel's argument for the "unravelling" of the condescension scene. Beginning as a champion of "personal charity" (a benevolence viewed, especially by some though not all Marxist critics, as an ineffectual response to systemic inequities), Dickens, Siegel suggests, comes [End Page 268] to see all acts of charity as "abusive." In a discussion of "patrons" as diverse as Redlaw, Harriet Carker, Esther Summerson, John Jarndyce, Rigaud, Mr. Meagles, William and Frederick Dorrit, Mrs. Gowan, Mrs. General and Arthur Clennam, he arrives at the much-contested figure of Little Dorrit, and asks "to what degree does Amy Dorrit support a philanthropic ideal" (66)? While it is indisputable that Amy "never enters into the negotiations of power" Siegel finds inherent in the condescension act, there is a significant alternative to Marcel Mauss's anthropological study of the gift exchange, on which Siegel substantially relies. Paul Ricoeur's "Ethical and Theological Considerations of the Golden Rule" is a notable omission from Siegel's otherwise theoretically well-informed argument. The scope of the issue at the heart of Siegel's discussion ("who-I-am-to-you") might be enlarged, as well, by the theological thinking within a Christian framework of Mikhail Bahktin's early essays, and by concerns to which he later returned. Bakhtin's discussion of the theological trope of Christ as ideal other, for example, would bring a further dimension to Siegel's analysis of the scene with Mrs. Clennam in which Amy "is cast in the image of Christ" (66–7).
As exhortatory narrative presence, consummate dramatist, and investigative journalist, Dickens continually negotiates the chasm between middle-class perspectives and the conditions of working-class life. Esther Summerson somewhat tendentiously speaks for the author in underlining the obtuseness of Mrs. Pardiggle's intrusion into the brickmaker's domestic space. Notwithstanding the rich resources provided by the condescension narrative for Dickens the satirist, the tensions inherent in his roles as social observer and reformer, and commercially successful writer, are sometimes apparent (chapter 47 of Dombey and Son comes to mind), tensions that support Siegel's thesis of "unravelling." Suggesting itself for further consideration in this regard is Dickens's attitude to Benthamite Utilitarianism–his hostility to its role in shaping the New Poor Law, on the one hand, and his alliance with the Benthamite sanitary reformers in the 1840s (David Trotter's "medical police"), on the other.
The premise that condescension in Dickens drew its power from "the discourse of spontaneity" makes a neat link to the early work of George Eliot, bringing into play her preoccupation with time, most notably in Adam Bede. To what extent the "moment of charity" can be seen as a "moment apart" or...