Review: The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age by Gertrude Himmelfarb

Fraser, Derek. Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies 17, no. 2. 1985.


On the face of it there is much that is familiar in Professor Himmelfarb’s thoughtful
and ambitious book. Seeking to elucidate the idea of poverty in early industrial England, she draws on the writings of well-known authors and their well-researched
books. However this is not merely regurgitating tired conventionality, for the author
attempts an exciting and systematic analysis of the collective psyche of the age. There
is a clear structure and purpose to the book. Writers are grouped in four sections.
Economists (Smith, Bentham, Malthus, et al) come first for they redefined the
nature of poverty with the coming of industrial capitalism. Political activists interpreted poverty and its relief according to their ideology-Whig political economy,
Tory paternalism, Tory radicalism, populism, proletarian radicalism. The third section, an extended reworking of the author’s perceptive essay in The Victorian City
(Dyos and Wolff), explores the culture of poverty largely through the work of
Mayhew. Finally there are the fictional poor as seen through the novels of Disraeli,
Dickens, Gaskell, and others. If the book comprises discrete sections and even
discrete chapters, it is informed by a purposeful pursuit of the contemporary mind.
Professor Himmelfarb stakes her colors clearly to the mast. The reconstruction of
historical reality must rest on contemporaries’ perceptions: the historian is obliged
“to take his stand with contemporaries, to look at history from their point of view. . .
the ‘received opinion’ of contemporaries is a vital part of the historical reality” (pp.

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