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Seth Koven. Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2004. ISBN: 978-0691128009. Price: US$19.95.

  • James Buzard

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  • James Buzard

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This book’s title bears thinking about. Under the heading of “slumming,” one might have expected to encounter anecdotes and analysis about men and women of privilege venturing into lower-class areas for the guilty pleasures of a frisson-laden leisure activity; but Koven is not much interested in slumming as a pastime (with a long tradition). Most of the people he writes about in his massively researched (80-plus pages of endnotes), painstakingly argued, and very insightful study descended the social ladder for vocational purposes – either as journalists (as in the subjects of chapters 1 and 3) or as social reformers, charity workers, and other sorts of do-gooding toilers in the gritty vineyard of the Victorian underclass (chapters 2, 4, and 5). These are, to be sure, appropriate subjects for a book of this title, but it is worth noting what’s not included and where Koven has chosen to place emphasis. The sort of disreputable motives that led, for example, the Queen and two duchess accomplices to “disguise[] themselves as ‘country lasses’ at Bartholomew Fair” in 1670 are not, for the most part, Koven’s subject (5).

And this brings me to the subtitle, for the ordering of words we find there accurately expresses the priorities that drive Koven’s inquiry and that are eventually asserted to be one of his work’s original contributions to historiography. To the extent that they can be separated, the sexual tops the social pretty consistently throughout this book. The result is a study in which a subset of the apparent topic gets the lion’s share of attention. “As I immersed myself deeply in the sources,” Koven writes, “I found it impossible to keep sex, sexual desire, and sexuality out of their story” (4). One notes here the recursivity that characterizes much critical work, as the trope of “immersion” so commonly found in accounts of “descent” into the London underworld is picked up and applied to the scholar’s labor among those accounts. A similar thing could be said about the “insistent eroticization of poverty” that Koven finds in middle-class slumming experience (4). So determined does the author appear to find transgressive sex everywhere, so readily does he tip the category of the homosocial over into the zone of not-yet-emerged-but-everywhere-emergent dissident sexualities (as Sedgwick herself tends to do in The Epistemology of the Closet), that one can begin to worry about the self-fulfilling prophetic nature of his enterprise. In the book’s best chapter, Chapter One, “Workhouse Nights: Homelessness, Homosexuality, and Cross-Class Masquerades,” Koven sensitively reads James Greenwood’s notorious exposé “A Night in a Workhouse” (from 1866) for the “sodomitical subtext” (57) that hinted that the authorities charged with poor relief had, in setting up the sordid, sex-segregated “casual” wards, used “public money to create the conditions that encouraged the most vicious male members of the metropolitan underclass to engage in sodomy” (27). Koven’s treatment of Greenwood’s article and his situation of it in an ever-expanding circle of fretful representations (by Jack London, Orwell, Doré and Jerrold, Matthew Arnold, J. A. Symonds, Edwin Chadwick, and many others) are masterful and nuanced. By Chapter Four, though – “The Politics and Erotics of Dirt: Cross-Class Sisterhood in the Slums” – Greenwood’s reticient, slyly hinting text has become referable-back-to as containing a “revelation of sodomitical orgies” (187). The painstaking labor of delineating Greenwood’s possible meanings seems negated by such an unambiguous characterization. When the category of the homosocial, so rich with ambivalences, starts to function exclusively as the way station on our inevitable path toward that of the homosexual, a blunting of the instruments of criticism has occurred.

Elsewhere (in Chapter Four), in writing of the “alternative, non-kin model of passionate sisterhood” that grew up among many female slum reformers, Koven ponders:

But what was the nature of these non-kin sisterly loves? Where along a continuum of romantic friendship and sexual love should we place them? Historians of cross-class brotherhood and slumming have a range of sexually explicit sources (diaries, letters, transcripts and newspaper accounts of sex trials) that make clear that some elite men translated love for their working-class brothers into physical sex as well as into spiritual and cultural elevation. But, with their female counterparts, we simply do not have comparable historical sources by which to assess the intimate workings of their relationships. What are we to make of this absence in the archive? It is partly the product of the systematic destruction of sources. … But it may also be a simpler matter. It seems very likely that most elite women’s physical relationships conformed to their own rigorous standards of sexual purity. Sex acts that never happened, like sources that never existed, cannot be recovered, no matter how diligently historians may search.


This passage forms part of a longer one that has much to say about the boundary between the disciplines of history and literary studies – a boundary Koven crosses for strategic purposes throughout this work – and that exemplifies (to adapt Amanda Anderson’s phrase) one of the most recognizable ways we argue now. Koven continues:

The nature of surviving sources suggests that we can gain deeper insights by examining what role, if any, same-sex desire – not same-sex acts – may have played in structuring the moral imaginations of elite women engaged in slum philanthropy. We also need to begin to see that the apparent eschewal of sex (however we may construe “sex” as physical acts) cannot be equated with the absence of sexuality. For many unmarried philanthropic women … celibacy constituted a reasoned and deliberate choice about how to express their sexuality ….


Having brought a celibate lifestyle under the hospitable heading of sexuality, Koven then turns to novels to supply what the historical record lacks. He is scrupulous in noting that novels do not “transparently represent social reality” (204); rather, they “register not just what can be said, but also what cannot be said, and sometimes, what cannot be fully understood by contemporaries. Novels can give us access to cultural attitudes – and fantasies – about urban dirt and female sexual desire, which may allow us to reread and put greater pressure on our traditional historical sources” (204-205). Perhaps I overestimate the ingenuity of critics and historians to find what they like in their sources – or in the gaps in their sources – but to me there is something worrisome, and yet rather familiar in recent scholarship, about the idea of using literary texts to “put greater pressure” on a reticent historical record. Only part of my discomfort arises from the unfortunate resonances that an interpretive practice conceived of in terms of a pressurizing interrogation must produce in the era of rationalized waterboarding. Stereotypically “sexier” than the stereotypical drab empiricist historical record, the literary text lends itself with promiscuous readiness to “solving” the dilemma Koven faces by introducing an entirely different and notably looser evidentiary protocol just when he needs it. My point here has less to do with Koven’s particular reading of the fictional works he brings into his discussion than it does with Slumming’s exemplification of this not uncommon mode of reasoning in advocacy scholarship.

And sometimes one can feel that Koven’s commitment to finding sex everywhere leads him to invert – yes, an awkward word, in the context – our customary sense of what is being said. Koven writes, for example, that the Rev. Samuel Barnett, one of the founders of the movement to establish charitable “settlement houses” in the East End, “had famously enjoined settlers to express their fraternal love for the poor through what he called the ‘personal touch.’ Despite its apparent endorsement of tactile intimacy, Barnett’s idea of touch was emphatically not sexual. For him, the personal touch was merely a figure of speech …” (264). But of course it is merely a figure of speech, and as such it makes no “apparent endorsement of tactile intimacy.” That introductory phrase (“Despite …”) does the work required of it: even in admitting the absence of his subject, Koven literalizes the figurative in a way none but those determined to find that subject would do; and in any case he quickly shifts attention onto the more definitely homoerotic tendencies of C. R. Ashbee. A similarly functioning introductory phrase appears in Chapter Two, “Dr. Barnardo’s Artistic Fictions: Photography, Sexuality, and the Ragged Child,” where we may read: “Without anachronistically imposing contemporary ideas about dreams and sexuality on the past, we can say that Barnardo’s carefully crafted narrative [about a night spent in a poor lodging house] reveals his keen appreciation for the bodily and psychological excitations of slumming …” (111). Koven’s reading of a dream recorded by the founder of Barnardo’s Boys’ Home and other institutions (110-111) does, to me, seem forced in the direction of an eroticized reading.

I have dwelt upon these elements because they raise important questions about the handling of evidence and the ways we have grown accustomed to arguing. Koven’s book is hardly alone in exhibiting the habits of argumentation I have highlighted here, and it is a very fine book when all is said and done. The first two chapters, focused on Greenwood and Barnardo, assemble compelling constellations of other pertinent people and texts around their central figures. Chapter Three, “The American Girl in London: Gender, Journalism, and Social Investigation in the Late Victorian Metropolis,” affords the least scope for eroticized readings, for its subject, Elizabeth Banks, avoided questions of “[m]en, sex, and titillation” like the plague, even in her articles about impersonating a housemaid (158). Banks also disavowed ameliorist motives, unashamedly calling her own ventures among the lower classes “slumming” and insisting they were undertaken only for the sake of producing copy. It’s in this chapter that the biographical framing of the first three chapters seems to draw us away from the subject of slumming most frequently. The final two chapters form a diptych devoted to the exploration of alternative femininities (Ch. 4) and masculinities (Ch. 5) carried on by elite men and women in the “sexed spaces” which the slums became “in the Victorian cultural imagination” (273). As these privileged men and women took up charitable work and often residence in the slums, seeing them as metropolitan outposts of empire, they found there not only the challenges of crossing class boundaries in their attempts to bring enlightenment, but also the challenges and opportunities to imagine and construct different ways of living as, and with, men and women. In his fifth chapter, Koven writes that previous scholars, “[i]ntent on explaining the men’s settlement movement as a paradigmatic response to the crises between labor and capital of the 1880s, … have failed to notice that settlements were not only apt sites for reckoning with class alienation and segregation, but also for experimenting with new conceptions of masculine subjectivity” (273). Without pausing to consider what gets lost when questions of “class alienation and segregation” take a back seat in critical analysis, one can certainly say that this immensely learned study has definitively redressed the imbalance.