In the 1880s, fashionable Londoners left their elegant homes and clubs in Mayfair and Belgravia and crowded into omnibuses bound for midnight tours of the slums of East London. A new word burst into popular usage to describe these descents into the precincts of poverty to see how the poor lived: slumming. In this captivating book, Seth Koven paints a vivid portrait of the practitioners of slumming and their world: who they were, why they went, what they claimed to have found, how it changed them, and how slumming, in turn, powerfully shaped both Victorian and twentieth-century understandings of poverty and social welfare, gender relations, and sexuality.
The slums of late-Victorian London became synonymous with all that was wrong with industrial capitalist society. But for philanthropic men and women eager to free themselves from the starched conventions of bourgeois respectability and domesticity, slums were also places of personal liberation and experimentation. Slumming allowed them to act on their irresistible "attraction of repulsion" for the poor and permitted them, with society's approval, to get dirty and express their own "dirty" desires for intimacy with slum dwellers and, sometimes, with one another.
Slumming elucidates the histories of a wide range of preoccupations about poverty and urban life, altruism and sexuality that remain central in Anglo-American culture, including the ethics of undercover investigative reporting, the connections between cross-class sympathy and same-sex desire, and the intermingling of the wish to rescue the poor with the impulse to eroticize and sexually exploit them.
By revealing the extent to which politics and erotics, social and sexual categories overflowed their boundaries and transformed one another, Koven recaptures the ethical dilemmas that men and women confronted--and continue to confront--in trying to "love thy neighbor as thyself."
"A bountiful, provocative, and piquant 'genealogy of benevolence and social welfare,' with more than enough sex to frighten the horses."--John Leonard, Harper's Magazine
"Koven's study is undoubtedly one of the most important new contributions to the study of the Victorian city. . . . It is, after all, a testimony to the provocactive brilliance of this book that the reader is left with not just answers to class and gender relations in Victorian London, but with new questions."--Lynda Nead, American Historical Review
"A significant study . . . that illuminates the complicated relationships between London's rich and poor from the mid-1800s to the start of World War I. . . . [A] thoughtful, cogent, and copiously referenced work."--Library Journal
"Given the constant stream of works on Victorian Britain, one sometimes feels that a moratorium is due. But occasionally a book comes along that makes one realize the exciting work that can still be done on that era. Seth Koven's Slumming is such a book, combining empirical richness with stimulating theoretical analysis and opening up questions for further research."--Lesley Hall, Times Higher Education Supplement
"We tend to think of Victorian haves regarding the have-nots--when they thought of them at all--as another species whose sinful idleness accounted for their place below the bottom rung of the ladder. Slumming shows us how infinitely more complex and varied the response actually was. . . . [T]he world [Koven] uncovers and its astonishing gallery of characters deserve the attention of a wider readership. . . . How the rich nations treat both the third world and the claims of their own poor is an issue that is very much with us. Koven has done a great service to this continuing debate by charting how the Victorians met--and didn't meet--the challenge to their conscience."--Desmond Ryan, The Philadelphia Inquirerer
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