Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Representing the Poor: Charles Lamb and the Vagabondiana

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Representing the Poor: Charles Lamb and the Vagabondiana

Article excerpt

RECENT CRITICISM HAS OFTEN PAIRED CHARLES LAMB'S "a complaint of the Decay of Beggars in the Metropolis," published in the character of Elia in the May 1822 issue of the London Magazine, with John Smith and Francis Douce's Vagabondiana. Yet while Simon P. Hull and Gregory Dart only briefly evoke how Lamb's essay "seems to owe something" to the earlier work, a comparison between the two publications merits a more sustained attention than hitherto available. (1) Under close analysis, the sophistication of both works' engagement with the pressing contemporary problem of how to represent--both politically and aesthetically--the urban poor, and beggars in particular, soon becomes apparent. While Vagabondiana mobilizes parliamentary rhetoric, the techniques of both antiquarian and catalogue literature, and the picturesque mode in an effort to reassure its readers, Lamb takes the same approaches and pushes them to their extreme, revealing both their limits and, most disturbingly of all, those of his readership as well.

Vagabondiana; or Anecdotes of Mendicant Wanderers through the Streets of London; with Portraits of the most Remarkable, Drawn from the Life by John Thomas Smith, Keeper of the Prints in the British Museum was published in 1817. Its title begins the work's careful engagement with its subject matter. The offer of "Anecdotes of Mendicant Wanderers ... with Portraits of the most Remarkable" announces deliberate control over selected material, even as it scrupulously refrains from using the term "beggar." The choice of "wanderer" over a word that makes a profession out of importunity, not to mention the emphasis on the book containing only selected material, helps Smith and his collaborator, the antiquarian Francis Douce, give a particularly charming turn to a normally grim aspect of contemporary life in the capital. In 1817, two years after the end of the Napoleonic Wars and right in the center of a post-war economic depression, government expenditure on poor relief was close to eight million pounds, (2) while the streets of London were filled with the destitute, (3) with as much as twenty percent of all the outdoor poor in England to be found in the capital. (4) The Vagabondiana responds to this context, and the attendant interest in the urban poor, yet this luxuriously presented book, as is clear from its full title, also aims to insulate its readership from the harsher realities of the situation. It seems to be a forerunner of a phenomenon Celina Fox finds in late nineteenth-century fiction, in which "it was as if scenes of social distress could not be tackled without allowing the audience to feel a glow of reassuring emotions: of pathos, sympathy or charity, which left them feeling munificent rather than guilty." (5) The text of the Vagabondiana concludes with a homily on charity, and its reassuring "glow" is all the stronger for the conceit with which the work opens, one that might seem surprising in the economic downturn of the early nineteenth century: an announcement of the imminent disappearance of its mendicant subject matter:

   Concluding, therefore, from the reaction of the metropolitan
   beggars, that several curious characters would disappear by being
   either compelled to industry, or to partake in the liberal
   parochial rates, provided for them in their respective work-houses,
   it occurred to the author of the present publication, that
   likenesses of the most remarkable of them, with a few particulars
   of their habits, would not be unamusing to those to whom they have
   been pests for several years. (6)

Amidst the reassuring talk of "liberal parochial rates" available in the workhouses, the crucial phrase here is the double negative, "not be unamusing," which recognizes the potential for displeasure even as it negates it. This phrase also defines the reasoning behind the title's insistence on only "the most Remarkable" subjects being included in the work. The imminent vanishing of the "metropolitan beggars," repeated by Douce and Smith elsewhere, is part of the same pattern: it does not deny the existence of the problem, but rather--through the suggestion of their fast-approaching absence--opens up the possibility of a change in attitudes from that which would consider them "pests" to something more benign, manifested in the desire for artistic reproduction and preservation. …

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