Novel Possibilities: Fiction and the Formation of Early Victorian Culture

By Joseph W. Childers | Go to book overview

5
Mr. Chadwick Writes the Poor

At one point in the Report, Chadwick quotes one of his informants, a Dr. J. F. Handley, to express the extremity of the filth many of the Victorian poor lived in:

When the small-pox was prevalent in this district, I attended a man, woman, and five children, all lying ill with the confluent species of that disorder, in one bed-room, and having only two beds amongst them. The walls of the cottage were black, the sheets were black, and the patients themselves were blacker still; two of the children were absolutely sticking together. I have relished many a biscuit and glass of wine in Mr. Grainger's dissecting-room when ten dead bodies were lying on the tables under dissection, but was entirely deprived of appetite during my attendance upon these cases. The smell on entering the apartments was exceedingly nauseous, and the room would not admit of free ventilation. (316)

Both the description and the commentary in this passage are characteristic of the Sanitary Condition Report, and they typify the problem of representation that faced Chadwick as he gathered his evidence. His data indicated that there was a large and almost completely alien world that lay just out of sight for many Victorians. His project was to overcome the observational barriers that shielded this world from view and to offer it to the consumers of novels and bluebooks: a predominantly middle-class readership that was often quite ignorant of the particular hardships of working-class life. But as Handley's description of the family suffering from smallpox indicates, even among Chadwick's associates few were steeled for what he and his investigators found. Handley was a well-trained doctor, a medical officer of the Chipping Norton union. And although the smell in that close room was no doubt difficult for Handley to bear, his perception of the entire scene -- of which the odor of the room is a part and for which he was totally unprepared -- also must have contributed significantly to his revulsion. In any case, the unfavorable comparison of the physical condition of

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