Embellishing poverty itself

From The Angel Out of the House, discussing Sarah Scott’s 1762 novel Millenium Hall, about a charity-working proto-commune for unmarried gentlewomen:

“What the narrator first notices about the ladies’ schools is that the pupils are ‘perfectly clean’ and always busy. The narrator uses the word ‘clean’ every time he brings up the subject of the poor who are served by Millenium Hall. This preoccupation with cleanliness–an ‘article of unspeakable Moment,’ as one charity sermon put it–is a key element in the philanthropic goals of restoring both the health and morals of the nation’s working population. If the poor are clean, they are understood to be deserving, and the charity bestowed on them can be expected to achieve its desired goal.”

A bunch of rich guys conduct a committee meetings with to-do lists while eating rich food (one visibly suffers from gout) and drinking. When the poor clamor to be let in at the door, they are forcibly ejected.
“A Select Vestry” by Thomas Rowlandson, 1806. The parish collected taxes called “poor rates” and administered parish relief (i.e. welfare). The vestry was the administrative body of the parish, sometimes it included most or all of the congregation, but a “select vestry” was when a parish had a smaller committee that made some/most/all of the decisions. Image from Yale University’s Lewis Walpole Library, call number 806.00.00.49.

Reading this book and its descriptions of women’s charitable work was pretty upsetting. Charity work and activism was one of the few socially acceptable substantive outlets for women’s energy (I’d say profession, except that these women usually didn’t get paid). This was important work that needed to be done, and no one else was doing it. And yet (this is so painfully familiar) it’s often really a way of getting power for upper- and middle-class women at the expense of poor people (and that’s not even getting into all the messed-up stuff in the Abolitionist movement). Look at this:

“Along with the implied power that philanthropy gives to the benefactor in [Hannah] More’s vision of an ideally functioning society comes the right and responsibility of the philanthropic woman to superintend those she relieves. Philanthropy creates an unrepayable obligation; it also affords the upper-class woman the right to supervise the household of the poor. One of Lucilla’s [from Coelebs in Search of a Wife] philanthropic projects, for example, involves her orchard and garden. When one of the servants or a girl from the charity school marries–‘provided they have conducted themselves well, and made a prudent choice’–Lucilla ‘presents their little empty garden with a dozen young apple trees, and few trees of other sorts, never forgetting to embellish their little court with roses and honeysuckles.’ This, recollects Charles, explains the ‘many young orchards and flourishing cottage gardens’ in the village that ’embellish poverty itself,’ rendering it pleasing to the eye of the tasteful rich. Besides nourishing their aesthetic sense, these flowers, although transplanted to the gardens of the poor, still evidently belong to the rich–another characteristic of a gift exchange economy. Charles cuts a bouquet of roses for Lucilla from the bush outside the cottage of one of ‘her poor’ without even mentioning it to the inhabitants of the cottage present in the room.”

Something about that moment of cutting the roses without asking is just so chilling, it turns my stomach. One of the ongoing struggles of writing historical romance is the politics of accuracy (which is not to say that classism is a thing that only existed in the past, or anything!). On the one hand, writing a heroine who behaves like Lucilla is gross and offensive. On the other hand, writing an upper-class heroine who is so amazing she does charity in a way miraculously free of problematic attitudes that were completely entrenched in the British society of her time has the potential to be equally gross and offensive, by erasing the experiences of Regency poor people. And my Lydia is from a staunchly Tory family which makes her not only conservative for our time, but conservative for hers.

My current strategy seems to be to greatly soften what I would consider “period-accurate” behavior–since I know I wouldn’t want to be reading a fun love story and suddenly have my stomach turned by classism (I can always go to Georgette Heyer for that…look, I love her, but every so often there’s just that worm in the apple, you know?)–while still giving Lydia hints of prejudice that are either questioned by Lydia herself, or undercut by the narration.

6 thoughts on “Embellishing poverty itself”

  1. It does seem like a difficult line to walk. Finding a way to make sure it’s not just importing the costumes of the time, but without getting tied up in something that would throw someone out of the story. I’m always impressed by historical books that do this well and I consider yours among those. 🙂 I know a great deal of work goes into it.

    1. Thank you!! I am always really happy to hear that that aspect worked for someone in my books because I do work at it, and it’s so hard to judge myself how I’m doing.

  2. This seems to echo the conversation I’ve had numerous times about how our characters do and ought to relate to their servants. Personally, I find myself annoyed with what I see as the ahistorical bent in the genre for mistresses and maids who are BFFs. That’s not the reality I see at all in the journals and letters and other period accounts I read.
    On twitter yesterday or the day before we had a discussion about representations of minorities in historicals. Some held that if you make a servant or other subservient character a minority, you need to flesh them out. I’m not sure I agree. I have numerous black servants in my books, but I only flesh them out as is required by the story (as with all minor characters). But I include minorities because they would have been a normal part of life and I don’t want to whitewash them away.

    1. I agree, and I don’t necessarily think it’s “more progressive” to show a heroine who’s close friends with a maid. I’m sure it happened occasionally but it would be like being close friends with my boss–I like my boss very much but having a friendship is fraught with tension and difficulties because of the inherent power imbalances. And a boss who expects and/or demands a personal relationship is a huge workplace problem. And at the end of the day, most people are NOT close friends with their bosses.
      There’s a wonderful moment in one of my favorite Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes episodes, “The Devil’s Foot,” where a woman has been brutally murdered and her housekeeper announces she is quitting her job to go back to her hometown. The woman’s brother, the housekeeper’s new boss, says something like “But you can’t leave me!” She says she’s had a shock and she wants to be with her family. “But Mrs. So-and-So, I’m your family!” There’s an awkward silence as the patent untruth of that sinks in with everyone except the clueless employer. Rich people viewing their servants as “family” seems like it just opens the servants up to emotional blackmail, without much in the way of attendant practical benefits.
      The characters of color thing is a complicated one…it’s not that I disagree with what you’re saying, but it’s so hard to debate in the abstract, because it’s so case-by-case, you know? Any level of representation (that’s greater than zero anyway) can be good if it’s done well, or problematic if it’s done badly. It was really distracting for me in Baz Luhrman’s Great Gatsby for example, there were tons and tons of black people onscreen and they had about four lines between them, all along the lines of “Dinner is served.” And of course they appeared on the soundtrack! Maybe it was supposed to be a commentary of some kind but at that point it does feel like using people of color as wallpaper. Sometimes I think too when roles are small enough, stereotypes can happen more easily. I think it’s NOT just like any other minor character in that there is this huge cultural context that an author can’t expect people to suddenly ignore for her book. But of course, having a string of characters of color with purposely inflated supporting roles can call painful attention to the glass ceiling, too: you can be a best friend or a plucky maid but forget about protagonist status! I don’t pretend to have any answers, I think it’s one of those things that has to be an ongoing effort to do the best I can and listen to feedback with an open mind.

    2. That said, I do like a heroine who is a good boss, and I love maids with personality! I can enjoy some improbable intimacy so long as the maid doesn’t feel pushed into a “devoted family retainer who speaks in dialect” mold or similar.

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