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Carolyn Betensky. Feeling for the Poor: Bourgeois Compassion, Social Action and the Victorian Novel. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-8139-3061-9. Price: US$39.50

  • Carolyn Vellenga Berman

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  • Carolyn Vellenga Berman
    The New School

Corps de l’article

In Feeling for the Poor, Carolyn Betensky argues that, despite its altruistic pose, Victorian “social-problem fiction” is not primarily concerned with the conditions of the working poor but rather with the emotions of the misunderstood bourgeoisie. The implications of this argument extend beyond nineteenth-century fiction, as she maintains, since such “novels are largely responsible for the idea that it matters how I feel about poverty, whether or not I do anything more than care about it” (1). This tendency to stop at the fact (or fiction) of feeling is crystallized in an apt epigraph from Benjamin Disraeli’s Sybil; or, The Two Nations: “Enough that their sympathies are awakened; time and thought will bring the rest” (qtd. 1).

It is hardly breaking news that Victorian novels tend to address middle-class concerns. Yet the ideological critique of middle-class fiction is newly persuasive here. This is due to the cumulative effect of a series of close (yet deep structural) readings of individual novels, which illustrate Betensky’s thesis to stunning effect. Her readings of Michael Armstrong (1839-40), Oliver Twist (1837-39), Sybil (1845), Mary Barton (1848), North and South (1854-55), Felix Holt (1866), and The Princess Casamassima (1885-86) reveal a striking pattern in which the caring of “misunderstood dominant” characters actively displaces the (actual) concerns of the workers in each plot. Again and again, the narrative energy unleashed by a class divide is resolved by the conversion of dominant individuals to right feeling. Even more crucial than this conversion narrative, however, is the revelation to a “spectral working-class reader” that these individuals really do care. Betensky’s argument is swashbuckling and damning, rather than subtle and ambivalent. As she notes in an afterword, it offers a rebuke to the assumption that “texts could be ‘subversive’ without actually subverting anything” (188).

The book’s structure is roughly chronological; it begins with the discovery of the gap between the rich and the (manufacturing) poor as “two nations” in the 1830s and 1840s, and it ends with a society bent on befriending the poor in the 1880s. Yet the narrative arc trumps chronology in refreshing ways. The first chapter, for example, opens with a reading of Frances Trollope’s The Life and Adventures of Michael Armstrong, the Factory Boy, before moving on to Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist. This allows Betensky to introduce the ideological accomplishments of the genre in this period before honing in on an emergent discourse. With its special care for the “ignorance, innocence, or knowing indifference of its bourgeois characters in relation to the travails of the poor,” Michael Armstrong reveals with unusual clarity how “attention to the question of who among the bourgeoisie knows – and who doesn’t” becomes a “constitutive feature of the social-problem novel genre” (24). This emphasis on knowledge illuminates the odd doubling of middle-class rescuers in Oliver Twist. As Betensky notes, “Oliver doesn’t need two middle-class homes; he doesn’t need the kindness of two sets of warmhearted, generous people who are not only willing but moreover extremely eager to take him in” (48). Yet the fact that he is rescued not once but twice allows for the comparison of “two alternative modes of action”: the “act-now model” and the “seek-more-knowledge model” (52). It is the “new approach to knowledge” that carries the day (52).

Feeling for the Poor excels in the expert distillation of an ideological bottom line. Taking up the torch of Fredric Jameson and Nancy Armstrong, Betensky’s schematic readings unpack what literary texts deem to be (and render) most self-evident. In the process, banal phrases become key concepts and chapter titles, as in “Feeling and Complaining” or “Knowing Who Cares and Caring Who Knows.” Such an approach to the simplified surface tends to reveal deep textual effects. Oliver Twist, for instance, is not merely a “narrative about narrative,” but rather “a narrative about how narratives get things done” (56-57). The novelist’s emphasis on middle-class reading habits, criminals’ reading habits, and the reception of Oliver’s tale asserts that “stories are formidably powerful when put into the right hands” (57). Dickens thus places “reading and narrative at the center of social management,” inaugurating the terms that will dominate the subgenre (58).

Betensky’s reading of Sybil in chapter two is similarly incisive. She diagnoses “the ‘two-nations’ trope” as “a recurring fantasy of radical class otherness and of symmetry between the classes despite that otherness, a fantasy that structures and encodes much bourgeois reformist discourse of the 1840s (and beyond)” (60). This trope is pernicious due to its assumption of balance, which implicitly renders both “nations” (the rich and the poor) equally responsible – and not-responsible – for the chasm between them. The nineteenth-century novel’s method of cross-cutting between rich and poor, long considered a progressive technique, thus functions to obscure through even-handed comparison the real relationships between them.

George Eliot’s Felix Holt, the Radical comes off no better than Sybil, in this account. Not (just) a radical after all, Felix represents a middle-class fantasy, since “his choice to be a workingman confers a distinction upon him that he could not acquire were he to do merely what was expected of him. Felix only makes sense as a middle-class working-class character, not because he is more educated or respectful of the dominant-class cultural patrimony than the working-class men he attempts to reach, but because he cannot be what he ‘is’ without choosing it from the outside” (135). While he may be the son of a “former weaver,” Felix thus joins a long line of “bourgeois writers, dreamers, activists, and adventurers,” extending through George Orwell and Barbara Ehrenreich, “who have ‘chosen’ to live as the kind of subjects they care about in order, somehow, to combat the oppression performed against them” (137). Due to this hybrid position, he serves as a “cultural intermediary between two opposing class claim sets” as the two nations move inside his character (136, 162). As Betensky argues, ultimately, “Felix Holt produces a character who is both misunderstood bourgeois and misunderstood worker – a victim of bad readers twice over who may reap the ensuing moral rewards in two directions” (162).

As this example illustrates, Betensky’s special strength lies in teasing out the class positions allotted to narrators, characters, and (implied) readers. This tripartite structure is dynamic, as she explains, since the “working-class characters who come to learn, within the pages of social-problem novels, that people of means really do care about their suffering analogize a fantasized, spectral working-class presence outside of the text, a ‘reader’ who reads the novels in real time alongside their dominant-class readers” (85). In Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, for example, the novel (like its heroine, Margaret) “speaks to the dominant classes of the feelings of the dominated, while it speaks at the same time of the feelings of the dominant classes to an imaginary working-class reader. Each reads over the shoulder of the other: the spectral, lurking, working-class reader over the shoulder of the explicit address of the text, the actual reader over the shoulder of the virtual reader, watching as that reader reads about his feelings” (131). This virtual reader becomes a virtual writer in the strange case of the “Address to Working Men” (1868) published in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine under the authorial name of George Eliot’s character, Felix Holt (139).

It is customary to end an academic book review by noting what has been omitted, due to the author’s presumed ignorance, innocence, or knowing indifference. I am happy to oblige my readers with a few critical remarks. Betensky, for example, tells a good story, but she seems to begin in the middle of things. There is no sense of the vast critical literature on transnational sentimentalism, particularly in the eighteenth century – or, for that matter, its relation to the histories and practices of empire. Is this book perhaps as near-sighted as its objects? Does it merely add to the standard monologue of English literature (as a field) talking to itself? On the other hand, such a critique itself stands accused by Betensky’s powerful indictment of (liberal) ideology. (I am amused to find that I, like the characters she examines, have taken a public stand against “not wanting to know” [ 36].) In the end, the interrogation of (liberal) ideology in this book is thoughtful, thorough, and sustained, and it has serious implications not just for Victorian studies but also for academia today – especially the hand-wringing over the adjunctification of the labor force to which we (unequally) belong. It also bears upon democratic politics generally, from the caring President Clinton to the Bushes’ attempts to show they cared and the castigation of President Obama for failing to reveal his emotions. The effectiveness of this book may not, in the end, be constrained by its apparent (lack of) knowledge. It is perhaps enough that feeling has been indicted; time and thought will bring the rest.

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