- Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London by Seth Koven
Princeton, 399 pp, £19.95, September 2004, ISBN 0 691 11592 3
In January 1866, on a bitterly cold night, a man dressed in ragged clothes begged for a night’s lodging in the male casual ward of Lambeth workhouse. On entering, he was made to strip and plunge into bathwater so polluted with use that it looked ‘disgustingly like weak mutton broth’; he was then issued with a towel and a regulation striped cotton shirt, and shown into a freezing, cavernous shed where some forty semi-naked paupers shared a smaller number of straw-tick mattresses laid on the stone floor. In the morning, after a breakfast of bread and oatmeal gruel, and a mandatory stint of labour (turning the crank for a miller’s wheel), he was allowed on his way. This ‘Amateur Casual’, who was in reality the journalist James Greenwood, then went home for a second, more restorative, hot bath. On 12 January, the first of three articles detailing his experience appeared in the Pall Mall Gazette under the title ‘A Night in a Workhouse’.
Seth Koven opens his rich and absorbing study of Victorian ‘slumming’ – middle-class men and women’s intrusions into the spaces and lives of the poor – with a virtuosic analysis of Greenwood’s classic articles. The winter of 1865-66, we learn, was a tense time for class relations: revelations about workhouse deaths already had metropolitan authorities answering charges of callousness. Public interest in such matters ran high: Dickens and Mayhew had whetted an appetite for accounts of nocturnal rambles among the poor, and cheap papers scrambling for readers assured a ready market for sensationalism. Perhaps it was not so surprising, then, that Greenwood’s clever brother Frederick, the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, would come up with the idea of a workhouse masquerade and dare his brother to undertake it. As it happens, a stockbroker – one ‘Bittlestone’ – accompanied James Greenwood on his adventure, but Greenwood, with a canny sense of how to heighten a reader’s interest and trepidation, erased his presence from the text.
‘A Night in a Workhouse’ was contrived to make money and a stir, and did both exceptionally well. As the Pall Mall’s circulation climbed and provincial newspapers reprinted Greenwood’s articles, rival journalists and social reformers donned disguises with a view to challenging his account. Poor Law officials and charitable workers delivered themselves of self-justification and soul-searching in equal measure, while their clients in turn argued about Greenwood’s claims. A few of his characters – the old inmate known as ‘Daddy’ who monitored the baths and assigned sleeping places, and the young and depraved pauper ‘Kay’ – even found themselves propelled onto the music hall stage or living a ghostly afterlife in fiction and verse. Traces of Greenwood’s prose and characters can still be heard in Orwell’s ‘down and out’ accounts, written more than fifty years later.
What gave ‘A Night in a Workhouse’ this power? What made it at once so riveting and so seminal? It was, Koven insists, the text’s ‘striptease’ narrative structure and veiled hints of sodomy that kept readers coming back for more. From the spectacle of Greenwood’s carefully tended white body forced to bathe in other men’s filth, to the pen-portrait of the ‘remarkable-looking’ Kay calling in a voice ‘as soft and sweet as any woman’s’ for a companion to share his bed, ‘A Night in a Workhouse’ depicted poverty and sexual transgression marching hand in hand. Of course, Greenwood’s prose was pitched at the level of titillation: we are never quite told what the half-naked men ‘clubbing together’ under inadequate rugs are up to. True to the laws of prurience, Greenwood closed his third instalment by implying that he could easily reveal ‘horrors . . . infinitely more revolting than anything that appears in these pages’.