David Cannadine thinks about the thoughtful rich

David Cannadine

  • The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age by Gertrude Himmelfarb
    Faber, 595 pp, £20.00, March 1984, ISBN 0 571 13177 8

Divine authority and empirical observation are, by definition, rarely in accord, but they do at least agree on this: that the poor are always with us. Chastity may have gone the way of all flesh, and obedience may have been banished from the marriage service, but poverty – grinding, inexorable, ineradicable – remains: not a state voluntarily embraced on the road to salvation, but a condition unavoidably endured with little prospect of relief. It may well be, as George Bernard Shaw once put it, that ‘the greatest of evils and the worst of crimes is poverty,’ but it is easier to express outrage at its existence than to raise hopes as to its eradication. The history of the world is the history of many things, but in most places, at most times, and for most people, it was and is as Thomas Gray described it in 1750: ‘the short and simple annals of the poor’.

So far so good. But if poverty is promoted from a platitude to a problem, things become much more difficult. For the problems of poverty are simple yet complex: what is poverty? And what is the problem? Is poverty, like beauty, in the guilty eye of the beholder, or in the empty belly of the sufferer? How are poverty levels compared, across centuries and cultures, continents and countries? Is there an absolute standard of poverty, and if so, what is it? Or is it all relative, since the poor man only feels deprived when at the gate of the rich man’s castle? What is the difference between the deserving and the undeserving poor, between those who labour but earn insufficient reward, and those who are impoverished because they cannot work? And how is poverty to be treated: by realistically diminishing desires, or by seeking to satisfy demands? And if the latter, then again, how: by indiscriminate giving, by systematic aid or by the promotion of economic development? As the questions multiply, the answers dissolve. Defining poverty has always been difficult, and eradicating it has thus far proved impossible.

For the policy-makers and the pundits, these are the central issues. But for historians, the crucial question is rather different: not ‘what is the problem of poverty?’ but ‘when did poverty become a problem?’ Since the poor are, indeed, always with us, why is their presence accepted in some societies and at some times, yet deemed to be intolerable in other places and at other times? For most of recorded history (and in many places still, alas, today) poverty was not a problem at all: it was a fact of life, an inescapable condition which was, accordingly, either ignored or ennobled, fatalistically accepted or randomly relieved. Only in the Western world, during the last two hundred years, has it been upgraded from an insuperable and ‘natural’ condition into an intolerable but solvable problem, as the Industrial Revolution has held out, for the first time, the prospect of a more abundant life, not only for the élite, but for humanity as a whole. Only when its eradication became possible did poverty become a problem. We may not have gone far towards solving it in practice (vide Ethiopia), but in theory, at least, the West has the power to abolish all forms of human poverty, just as it has the power to abolish all forms of human life.

The years from the 1780s to the 1850s saw, not only the first great phase of self-sustained economic growth, but also the first great phase of self-sustained discussion about poverty. Throughout this period, the poor, the tired and the huddled masses forced themselves on public attention in greater numbers and with greater urgency than ever before. And historians have been equally anxious to give them their due, even if they have disagreed as to how to do it. Of course, there was a great deal of poverty. But, as the standard of living controversy has shown, it may have been getting less (or it may not). Undeniably, the condition of the people was bad. But, as the debate on government growth has suggested, the state may have been becoming more interventionist (or it may not). Much less studied, however, has been the contemporary and conventional wisdom about the poor people of the proletariat. Who, exactly, thought about the poor, and what, precisely, did they think? When was poverty first perceived as a problem? And what influence did those who thought about the subject exert on those who tried to do something about it? It is to the answering of these fundamental questions that Gertrude Himmelfarb has devoted her most ambitious book.

In terms of its subject and its approach, this is a quintessentially Himmelfarbian performance. In this book, as in her others, she is primarily concerned with the study of minds – a key word in her historical vocabulary, and the prime constituent of her historical universe. Her first book, on Lord Acton, was a history of his mind rather than the story of his life. Her study of Darwin was primarily an account of his thoughts and his theories: it was the mind not the man who mattered. Her collected essays, revealingly published under the title Victorian Minds, presented a throng of thinkers, in a celebration of cerebration. And her study of John Stuart Mill suggested that different states of mind might dwell within the same body. The result of this approach is a rich and unusual brand of intellectual history: more interested in the typical and representative second-rate figure than the transcendent philosopher out of sympathy with his time; strong on individual minds but sceptical of free-floating ideas.

But there are difficulties with this approach, in part deriving from her wholly admirable desire to see the mind as the link between those who think and those who do. To the purist historians of political thought, she is too eclectic and inconsistent in her methodology (as suggested by the savaging Alan Ryan gave her book on Mill); while to hard-nosed historians of political action, she seems altogether too preoccupied with ideology (as shown by the severe criticisms of her attempt to analyse the passing of the Second Reform Bill in these terms). For the first group, her head is insufficiently in the clouds; for the second, her feet are insufficiently on the ground. What is more, almost all her writings are pervaded by strong neo-conservative convictions. Her study of Acton showed not only that he was a liberal, but also that he was a pessimist. Her account of Darwin presented him as an inadvertent consolidator of a conservative revolution – a phrase which she also used in Victorian Minds to describe Victorian England. Her essay on the passing of the Second Reform Act implied that the Tories beat the Liberals because their ideology was somehow better. And her analysis of Mill concluded with a swingeing attack on the evils of contemporary liberal society.

Not surprisingly, then, this latest book offers a biographical treatment of those who thought about poverty, not an impassioned evocation of those who experienced it. Her first concern is to trace the late 18th-century shift from moral to political economy. On her reading, Adam Smith appears under the first rather than the second of these banners: The Wealth of Nations was as much about the poor as about the rich; although a proponent of laissez-faire, Smith favoured state education and the retention of the Poor Law; and he optimistically saw in contemporary economic changes the prospect of progress and improvement for the labouring masses as a whole. His disciples were illustrious, eccentric and divergent in their views: Burke, Pitt, Eden, Bentham and Paine each claimed Smith as their authority and inspiration, yet they disagreed violently as to the causes, nature and treatment of poverty. Then came Malthus, who, according to Himmelfarb, did not perfect Adam Smith but did away with him, by undermining his optimistic view of the future, by de-moralising political economy, and by arguing that the laws of population meant that for most people life would always be nasty, mean, brutish, short, and poor. Only in the second edition of his Essay on Population did Malthus soften his tone somewhat, and tentatively admit that Smith may have been right. But by then he had already set the bounds of the debate on poverty for the next half-century.

In her second section, Himmelfarb takes up the story in the 1830s, and examines the making and provisions of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, which introduced the fundamental (if flawed) distinction between the able-bodied and working poor, who did not deserve relief, and the indigent paupers, who did; and which propounded the principle of ‘less eligibility’, whereby relief in the work-house should be so meagre and unattractive that only the indigent would seek it. Almost everything written about poverty in the next decade or so was in one way or another a response to this measure. The Tory opposition (such as it was) saw this as the negation of paternalism and humanitarianism; the Tory radical, Carlyle, could not make up his mind one way or the other; the radical populist, William Cobbett, was unequivocally opposed, on the grounds that the new law took away the last property rights of its intended beneficiaries; the Poor Man’s Guardian and the Chartists subsumed poverty in more general considerations about the political and economic conditions of the working class; while Engels concluded that poverty as endured by the new urban proletariat was both quantitatively and qualitatively worse than that suffered by the pre-industrial poor.

From Engels’s Manchester, Himmelfarb shifts her focus to Mayhew’s London, the world metropolis of pauperism, with its unique amalgam of very rich and very poor. As she persuasively shows, Mayhew’s notion of poverty was cultural rather than economic, and was derived from his almost Hogarthian picture of London street life, about which he began to write from the late 1840s. Although ostensibly investigating the poor as a whole, his mélange of facts and figures, images and impressions, anecdotes and interviews, was neither systematic nor consistent. It was undeniably vivid in imagery and well-disposed in intention. But by concentrating on the street life of mid-19th-century London to the virtual exclusion of all else, Mayhew not only failed to treat the new urban and industrial poor, but also depicted the people he did investigate with such repellent verisimilitude as to evoke feelings of revulsion rather than of compassion. Although he began writing at almost the same time that the Public Health Act was passed, he had no real influence on government policy; and his stress on the street life of London ultimately led him down a blind alley.

In her last section, Himmelfarb changes tack once more, and takes us on a tour through the fiction of the 1840s – but with a difference. For she is, quite rightly, as much concerned with low and bad fiction as with those great works subsequently deemed to be high and good. Her analysis of W.H. Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard and of G.W.M. Reynolds’s The Mysteries of London brilliantly demonstrates both the horrific picture painted of the poor in popular literature and its close relationship to such serious writers as Dickens and Thackeray. Dickens himself is honoured with an entire chapter, as the incomparable creator of a multitude of poor people so diverse as to defy simple categorisation. Disraeli makes an obligatory appearance for his two nations, but it is instructive to learn that his poor were as much agricultural as industrial, and that the former were much worse-off than the latter. And Mrs Gaskell brings the book to a symmetrical conclusion, as the first real optimist since Adam Smith, whose novels were full of hope for reconciliation between North and South, capital and labour.

No summary could do adequate justice to the range and riches of this book, which bears all the hallmarks of Himmelfarb’s work at its best and most vigorous. It is, again, a piece of rightish writing, although she grinds fewer contemporary axes than in her book on Mill. She vigorously reasserts the merits of studying the history of those below from the perspective of those above; she is sceptical of such modish notions as ‘social control’; she is noticeably less reverential towards historians of the left, from R.H. Tawney to E.P. Thompson, than of the right, and she tartly rebukes radical literary critics from George Orwell to Raymond Williams for their limited vision and sympathies. More positively, this leads to some important re-evaluations of major figures: Adam Smith and even Malthus are presented in a more attractive and humane light than is customary; Mayhew gets fewer marks than usual as a social observer; Disraeli is taken rather seriously as a theoretician of aristocratic paternalism; and the tight-lipped Mrs Gaskell is reborn as a ray of sunshine.

But Himmelfarb is far too accomplished a historian, and far too well aware of the complexities of her chosen problem, to be merely polemical. To begin with, she writes, once again, with remarkable finesse, so that, even while transforming the annals of the poor from being short and simple into being long and complex, she never loses the reader’s interest. She has read astonishingly widely on the subject, from the great thinkers and established authorities to penny dreadfuls and unstamped and illegal newspapers; the ease with which she moves from economic to political to sociological to literary material is admirable; her reappraisal of such major figures as Adam Smith is compelling and provocative; and her analysis of the writers and writings of the 1840s ranks among the best things she has written. Just as Victorian Minds showed how many Victorians had minds, so The Idea of Poverty shows how many of their immediate forebears had ideas about poverty.

Whether, as the publisher claims, this also amounts to a ‘fundamental redefinition of the subject’ is, however, rather less clear, since even after five hundred pages of gripping prose, the subject has not really been convincingly delineated, let alone re-defined. The Idea of Poverty is an arresting title, but an amorphous notion, neither strong nor sharp enough to unify what is, essentially, another collection of Himmelfarbian lives of the mind. We are told, for example, that the book’s concern is thought about poverty in England from the 1750s to the 1850s. But why, in that case, are the works of Tocqueville, Engels and Marx given such extended treatment, when they only became available in translation much later? Why do Paine, Carlyle and Cobbett merit so much discussion when, on the author’s own admission, they were not very interested in poverty? Why devote chapters to the Poor Man’s Guardian and the Chartists when most of what is said about them is, understandably, hardly relevant to the subject? Why lavish an entire section on Mayhew, when he was only concerned with the marginal, atavistic street-folk of London, and not with the contemporary, industrial proletariat? And why give so much space to fiction, when most creative writers – even Dickens – were not primarily concerned with the poor?

All this is merely to say that many historians of ideas will have as much difficulty with this book as with Himmelfarb’s previous works. And so, for rather different reasons, will the historians of political behaviour. For it still remains unclear just what influence those who thought about poverty actually had on those who tried to do something about it. Of course, in a general sense, the problem of poverty, like the practice of politics, is essentially the art of the possible. And in both cases what is possible is in part determined by what is thinkable. But only in part; and, in the case of poverty in Britain between 1750 and 1850, it seems only to have been a very small part. As Himmelfarb herself admits, Smith had little influence on Malthus, and Malthus in turn had little influence on the New Poor Law. Insofar as the 1834 Act owed anything to ideology, it was to those ‘countless pamphlets, tracts, sermons, articles, speeches and reports’ which Himmelfarb mentions but does not discuss. And, in the same way, it is not at all clear that Carlyle or Mayhew, the Chartists or the novelists, had very much influence on the government reports or Parliamentary legislation.

Of course, poverty is by definition a protean problem, and any work on the subject is bound to result in rather a protean book. But this is especially so if the book is concerned with the idea of poverty rather than the actuality. Undeniably, part of the essential reality of any historical subject is, as Himmelfarb claims in self-justification, what well-informed people thought about it at the time. But there is much more which must also be considered and which, in her rather tangential approach, Himmelfarb regrettably ignores. The social and political changes of the period are only lightly sketched in. The poor themselves receive rather less explicit discussion than they should. Although the thinkers on poverty get their due, the complementary subject of wealth gets no treatment at all. Yet, as Tawney once put it, ‘what thoughtful rich people call the problems of poverty, thoughtful poor people call the problems of riches.’ Above all, there is little sense of how truly bizarre, unprecedented and incomprehensible contemporaries found that group of astonishing changes we retrospectively but inadequately call the Industrial Revolution.

The real problem for Himmelfarb is that, if her pundits and ideologues were placed in this broader historical context, they would be so much diminished in importance as to undermine the whole enterprise. For most of them either did not understand what was going on, or did not influence what was going on, or both. There may, indeed, have been links between those who thought and those who did something about poverty, but it is quite astonishingly difficult to show how, exactly, this happened, or, if it did, whether it mattered. And even if there were such connections, it is equally unclear whether those in government who tried to deal with poverty had much – or the major – impact on it. On the contrary, insofar as the problem of poverty was both recognised and resolved in this period, it was not because the politicians had read Malthus, nor because of the provisions of the 1834 Poor Law, but because the Industrial Revolution increased aggregate prosperity and individual wealth even as the population exploded. Never mind the minds: it was the matter that ultimately mattered. For all its very real insights and interest, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that The Idea of Poverty is neither the best way into the history of ideas nor the best way into the history of poverty.