Printer Friendly

Representing the poor: Charles Lamb and the Vagabondiana.

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.

Something similar can be found in Charles Lamb's "A Complaint of the Decay of Beggars in the Metropolis." Published as a critique, in part, of the activities of the Mendicity Society and others like it, this essay opens in a similar vein to the Vagabondiana with a vision of the forthcoming disappearance of the poor from London's streets: (7)
   The all-sweeping besom of societarian reformation--your only modern
   Alcides' club to rid the time of its abuses--is uplift with
   many-handed sway to extirpate the last fluttering tatters of the
   bugbear Mendicity from the metropolis. Scrips, wallets,
   bags--staves, dogs, and crutches--the whole mendicant fraternity
   with all their baggage are fast posting out of the purlieus of this
   eleventh persecution. From the crowded crossing, from the corners
   of streets and turnings of allies [sic], the parting Genius of
   Beggary is 'with sighing sent.' (8)

This is a much richer prose than Smith's, with references to Hercules and quotation from Milton's "Ode on the Morning of Christ's Nativity." Although it shares the same conceit, the scene it sets is very different: instead of Smith's discerning selection of "the most remarkable," a metonymy is set up whereby "scrips, wallets, bags" stand for the crowd of beggars, whose identity is then further abstracted into the Miltonic "Genius." Lamb's style seems expansive, excessive, whilst Smith's is polite and restrained. Different though their styles may be, however, their shared conceit and historical context still bring them together. Both to a certain degree are responding to a contemporary debate whose energy is epitomized by a third, very different opening.

The first paragraph of the 1816 Report from the Select Committee on the State of Mendicity in the Metropolis states:
   The Report made at the close of the last Session of Parliament, on
   the state of Mendicity and Vagrancy in the Metropolis was
   accompanied by such a body of Evidence, as to ascertain beyond all
   possible doubt, the gross and monstrous frauds practised by
   Mendicants in the Capital, and in its neighbourhood; the success of
   which affords a direct encouragement to vice, idleness, and
   profligacy. (9)

Here mendicants are not vanishing, but rather burdening the British economy. This opening paragraph sets the tone for a report that selects the most shocking stories of undeserving beggars from testimonies collected for the 1815 Select Committee on Mendicity. It is not until a subparagraph some way into the Committee's report that we learn that "the situation of the paupers in [workhouses] appears to be very wretched" (6). Such organization of data serves a clear purpose: this document aims at galvanizing parliament into urgent action, and especially reiterates the need for "immediate provision" (18) to save pauper children by separating them from their own families. Its condemnation of "gross and monstrous frauds" is part of this urgency, and also represents the hardening of official attitudes to the poor that Vic Gatrell summarizes in his City of Laughter. (10) This hardening of attitudes is a crucial aspect of the context in which Smith and Lamb are writing, and this report serves as a useful reference point for discussion of each work's representation of beggars.

Both Smith and Lamb seem very far indeed from the condemning tone of the report, each using the conceit of the poor's disappearance from the streets to transform what the Select Committee presents as the "success" of mendicant activity in the capital. Such a contrast fits with an established way of reading Charles Lamb's work. Mark Parker, for example, in an article on the political context of the Elia essays, argues that they constitute "soothing displacements" and help to take "the reader from the unacceptable present to an idealized past." (11) At first sight, this political stance appears to apply to "A Complaint of the Decay of Beggars" as well, since the very opening of the essay, rich in reference to Greek myth and Miltonic ode, seems to retreat from the information harshly related by the 1816 Select Committee report. However, it would be more accurate to say that Lamb's Elia essay is not in fact a retreat from reality, but rather a knowing articulation of the principal difficulty of the urban poor in the early decades of the nineteenth century: the question, at once aesthetic and socio-political, of how to represent them. After all, such excessive language, combining Milton and Greek myth, draws attention to itself as a strategy of (mis-)representation and so leads us to question what is really at stake in portrayals of the poor, whether they are those of social reformers or antiquarians. To demonstrate Lamb's knowing and disturbing articulation of the problems of representation, his essay will be compared to the Vagahondiana, which it self grapples with the same difficulties, albeit with the aim of offering a coherent and "not unamusing" version of contemporary conditions. In this light, it is the approach of the Vagabondiana that is in fact a retreat from reality, and the suggestiveness of Lamb that captures most of a situation defined by limited knowledge.

Data about the poor, and especially the urban poor, in the early nineteenth century was far from comprehensive. J. R. Poynter notes that the fact-finding efforts of Commons Committees in the 1810s were "desultory" and that various reports on the poor in the immediate post-war period were "supported only by examples ... and moreover by examples which could be thought representative only by those with abolitionist [i.e. abolition of existing Poor Laws] preconceptions." (12) Mary Poovey's investigation into "fact-gathering" in the period confirms this, stating that it was only towards 1830 that the weight of available data began to neutralize political tensions. (13) Given the limited information available, the question of what was to be done with the poor became a question that was decided by argument and rhetoric. Boyd Hilton comments on the increasingly theatrical nature of parliamentary debates and committee reports in this period, describing how the latter "deliberately sought to convey poetic rather than literal truths." (14) It is this environment that makes analysis of "poetic truths" in Select Committee reports a useful way to distinguish between Smith and Lamb's means of representing the poor. When Poynter speaks of "examples," he is describing a parliamentary reliance on representative anecdote, a style that is superficially neither dissimilar to the Vagabondiana's "Anecdotes of Mendicant Wanderers," nor to the brief portraits of various beggars scattered through Lamb's essay.

Peter Ackroyd, taking the Vagabondiana as an example, describes a striking shift in representation of the urban poor from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, he argues, beggars were most often portrayed "forming crowds, or groups, or settlements"; whilst nineteenth-century representations of the mendicants tended to focus on "the solitary or individual beggar." (15) It is true that the Vagabondiana portrays, for the most part, solitary figures, but Ackroyd's argument fails to take account of the anecdotal method by which a solitary figure may in fact stand for a whole group. The phenomenon of "examples" Poynter discerns in the official discourse of the period is just such a process of representation. (16) The opening paragraph of the 1816 Select Committee report, announcing "the gross and monstrous frauds practised by Mendicants," argues that "much more is gained by importunate solicitations in the street" than by honest work, and supports itself with a single reference to the testimony of "A highly respectable Manufacturer in Spitalfields" (3). The integrity of the "respected" witness indicates that this example should be taken as representative. The use of such examples throughout the report instead of, for example, Matthew Martin's interviews with the poor, suggests the rhetorical effectiveness of such an approach. (17) Indeed, the force of such testimony from respectable witnesses about single beggars is best shown with an extract from an anonymous article published in the Quarterly Review in 1815, which, like the 1816 report, is based, with page references, on anecdotal evidence gathered by the 1815 Select Committee on Mendicity:
   There is a man cleanly dressed like a sailor, who infests St Paul's
   churchyard, led by a dog with a string, carrying a hat in his
   mouth.... One Granne Manoo, a stout, athletic man, goes about
   almost naked, so as to be an object of disgust. This man makes
   large sums of money by collecting shoes and old clothes; but he is
   so vile a character, and so abusive, that he is scarcely out of
   gaol three months in the year--p. 77 ... A fellow of
   Russell-street, Russell-square, never takes less than a quartern of
   gin at a draft, and may be found daily in the kennels by three or
   four o'clock--p. 101. (18)

These three powerful examples, along with many others in the article, unite the precision of a particular case with the implication that these figures are representative of a much wider phenomenon. The paragraph insists on well-known places in which the beggars are to be found and details of their name and dress; yet by lumping all these individual examples together, it also implies the presence of so many beggars that this rushed catalogue can hardly keep up. If there is one person who drinks large quantities of "gin," there must be--one should presume--many more. Here we have neither the sixteenth-century faceless crowd nor the nineteenth-century solitary beggar described by Ackroyd: each figure in this list is rather the representative of many mendicants of the same type. (19) In this way, an individual man "cleanly dressed like a sailor" can be described as acting more like a crowd of disreputable faux-sailors when he single-handedly "infests" St. Paul's churchyard. In these descriptions, the reader is meant to extrapolate outward from the representative figure to a wider urban phenomenon, using the details of individual cases to validate a preconceived vision of the whole cityscape. This extrapolation is a kind of synecdoche, one which Lamb may well have had in mind when writing of all the "Scrips, wallets, bags" being driven out of London: after all, if one beggar can, in the press and government literature, stand for many, cannot a beggar's accouterments replace the human beings who carry them? Or, to draw another example from one of the anecdotes in Lamb's essay, should we not all give a penny to a beggar in the hope that we, like the distinctly Elian "bank clerk" he writes of, have "unawares ... entertained angels" (2:120)?

There is no little persuasive force in the methods of the Select Committee, even if Lamb is able to parody their distortions. Even Mayhew, writing in 1861, uncritically summarized such reports when describing "Street Beggars" in his London Labour and the London Poor. (20) As for the Vagabondiana, constructed around remarkable figures who are nevertheless representative of such categories as "sledge-beggars" (36), "industrious beggars" (31), and "Scottish, Welsh and Irish mendicants" (45), it too connects the single figure to the many, even paralleling the Quarterly with mention of a "Grannee Manoo" as typical of those who "beg old shoes" and "make as much as six or seven shillings a day" (43). In this, it functions in a similar way to the 1816 Select Committee report and the 1815 Quarterly Review article. However, Smith's work aims to be "not ... unamusing," and so must resist the conclusions to which the Select Committee's anecdotes and single cases lead their readers. To grasp how the Vagabondiana achieves this, it is necessary to take account of the influence on the work of both popular antiquarianism and a kind of literature best described as "catalogue," epitomized by William Pyne's Microcosm (1806), which aimed to portray all the "variety of labour" in England at the turn of the century.

The antiquarian influence on Vagabondiana is unsurprising: Francis Douce was a notable antiquarian, as was Smith, who made his name engraving a volume entitled The Antiquities of Westminster (1807), produced as a record of medieval remains recently discovered at Westminster Abbey. In a more extreme version of the imminently disappearing vagabonds, Smith's preface to this work describes his efforts at preservation when "the workmen ... followed him so close in their operations, as to remove in the course of the same day ... the painting he had been employed in copying that very morning." Smith justifies these "Antiquities" with his hope that his images may "introduce new or correct fonner opinions," (21) a sentiment echoed by Douce when he describes a clasp found at Selbourne as affording "an opportunity of placing the subject in a new point of view." (22) This antiquarian emphasis on preservation generating an alternative and novel view of the subject in hand (be it clasps, wall-painting, or blind beggars) distances the Vagabondiana from the logic of the Quarterly Review. Whilst Smith describes how one John Johnson was induced to place a model ship on his head in order to benefit from "novelty, the grand secret of all exhibitions" (33), the Quarterly Review relies on entrenched preconceptions for its presentation to be taken as representative. In addition to this, the antiquarian focus on objects from the distant past is felt in the Vagabondiana's opening conceit of the vanishing mendicant, which, as already discussed, opens the door to the kind of retreat from reality that Parker finds in the Elia essay's movement from an "unacceptable present to an idealised past." (23) Third and finally, one should note the influence of the way in which antiquarian literature concentrates on one object to the exclusion of all else: Douce devotes an entire article to the fragment of a clasp, and Smith, when sketching the streets around Westminster Abbey, is so intent on the past significance of "Thieving Lane" that the present "inhabitants of the lowest order" and "the filthiness of their persons," although described in the caption do not appear in the image. (24) Such concentration, to the exclusion of all else, is the third aspect of antiquarianism to distance the Vagabondiana from the representative rhetoric of the poor law debates. It is also an attribute of "catalogue" literature.

John Barrell analyzes Pyne's Microcosm at some length, and notes a kind of epistemological limitation inherent in the "catalogue" genre. Pyne claims to offer knowledge of the "variety of labour" to his readers; Barrell points out that there are in fact two kinds of knowledge in question here:
   It is predicated on the assumption that the knowledge necessary to
   produce the book, and the knowledge it seeks to impart, are very
   different: the authors are able to initiate a knowledge of how the
   body politic is organised; the young people who read it, will be
   able to do no more than recognise that organisation when it is
   presented to them, and to understand, perhaps, where they belong
   within it. (25)

The same phenomenon is true of the Vagabondiana. Each mendicant that the title announces as "Remarkable" is nevertheless grouped with beggars of a similar ilk in Smith's prose guide to the plates. The knowledge that the Vagabondiana as "catalogue" offers about beggars is--unlike the Select Committee reports--not one on which any action is meant to be taken. Rather, like Pyne's Microcosm, it is organized to display its curious subjects in a methodical, "not ... unamusing" way. Thus the descriptions of "industrious beggars" (30) are followed by "sturdy imposters," with whom "industrious beggars are sometimes confounded" (31); similarly, "Black people" and the blind are discussed together because both "seldom fail to excite compassion" (34). What the Vagabondiana offers us is a closed system, further reinforced by the fact that many of its categories, such as "freshwater sailors" (25), are shown by Douce to have been in use since the sixteenth century (20). The work's figures are both representative and remarkable; they can, in short, be safely categorized, a process leading to an impression of control. The reader extrapolates from each beggar only as far as is necessary to establish the beggar's position in a constellation of other remarkable mendicants, all on the point of disappearing and therefore prime targets for pleasing, antiquarian focus. This is very far indeed from the wide-ranging aims of the Select Committee and Quarterly Review's anxious use of representative figures and anecdotes.

Despite the differences between the Vagabondiana's reassuring and the 1816 Select Committee's or Quarterly Review's menacingly representative objects, all three texts are nevertheless strikingly uncritical about their own methods and their consequences. It is, for instance, in a rare moment of methodological exposition that Smith explains his choice of one beggar by writing that "Dyball was remarkable for his leader, Nelson, whose tricks displayed in an extraordinary degree the sagacity and docility of the canine race" (26). Yet even this explanation suggests that it is the dog rather than the vagabond who merits our attention, and that only for merely displaying the qualities of "the canine race." Further to this, the plate of Dyball and his dog is rather static, and displays nothing that marks him out as a remarkable beggar, (26) especially in a whole series of plates of urban mendicants. The Quarterly Review also betrays an uncritical attitude to its methods: it admits at one point that "a great part of the evidence" that it uses as representative is "vague and desultory," only to claim immediately that "there is no reason whatever to call in question its veracity" (120). What distinguishes Lamb from Smith, on the one hand, and from the Quarterly Review or 1816 Select Committee, on the other, is Lamb's consciousness of the methods used for representing the poor, and a consciousness manifested through the language taken as a nostalgic, radical retreat by Parker, but which is in fact a more direct confrontation with the issue at hand than either Smith's or the Quarterly Review's.

As discussed earlier in relation to Lamb's opening paragraph and its references to "Alcides' club" and "the parting Genius of Beggary ... 'with sighing sent'" (2:126), the language of "A Complaint" is excessive, and provocatively so. In Simon Hull's words, this is an "aesthetic of aestheticism." (27) Nothing is represented once, but rather reiterated and relished: "societarian reformation" is an "Alcides' club"; "the bugbear mendicity" is represented by "Scrips, wallets, bags" by "the mendicant fraternity" and by the Miltonic "Genius." The next paragraph opens in the same fashion, with a chain of synonyms for the removal of mendicity: "I do not approve of this wholesale going to work, this impertinent crusado, or helium ad exterminationem" (2:126). All this rephrasing not only draws attention to Lamb's language, but also suggests the way in which writing about the poor, a group without a voice themselves--never directly interviewed by the Select Committees of 1815 or 1816--is often more concerned with the presentation of the evidence than the evidence itself. The apparent quantity of material in Lamb's first paragraph is only an illusory mass of pleonasm; when Lamb announces "Much good may be sucked from these Beggars" (2:126), such quantity of "good" is only what may be generated subjectively, just as the essay generates its own copia. Every reiteration of the essay's argument, a process redolent of what Richard Cronin has described as "magazine callousness," (28) drives home the point that the voiceless beggar is extremely vulnerable to representation, to subjective transformation, be it the triple illustration of how the beggar "is ever the just antipode to your king" (127) or the sextuple comparison of an amputated beggar to an antiquarian's "grand fragment," an "Antaeus," an "Elgin Marble," "Hercules," a "Centaur," and a "mandrake" (2:131). The fact that such reiteration is so excessive suggests that it should be taken as mock, with both antiquarian and "catalogue" approaches undermined by such emphasis on the ascription of uncontrollably protean qualities to the poor.

When a beggar may be called a "Hercules" one moment and a "mandrake" the next, such representation leads to a strong sense that any description of a beggar is profoundly unstable. It is therefore with considerable irony, unobserved in Deborah Epstein Nord's claim that "[t]he people of the street are signs to be read only for the moral edification of the spectator,"29 that Lamb uses the legible and monumental qualities of beggars to praise them:
   No corner of a street is complete without them. They are as
   indispensable as the ballad singer, and in their picturesque attire
   as ornamental as the signs of old London. They were the standing
   morals, emblems, mementos, dial mottos, the spital sermons, the
   books for children, the salutary checks and pauses to the high and
   rushing tide of greasy citizenry ... (2:128)

With its insistent nostalgia, this passage lists those things that the beggars, like the "signs of Old London," once represented. Gregory Dart reads the unsteady mix of protean and legible qualities in these lines as further proof of the mendicants' decay, while Judith Fish hears in Lamb's pairing of "ornamental" and "picturesque" a parody of William Gilpin's Observations, relating chiefly to Picturesque Beauty (1786), specifically its desire for a harmony between place and inhabitant:
   The characters which are most suited to these scenes of grandeur,
   are such as impress us with some idea of greatness, wildness, or
   ferocity; all which touch the sublime. Figures in long, folding
   draperies; gypsies; banditti; and soldiers ... (30)

The point here is that whereas the picturesque gypsies, soldiers, and banditti impress us with the sublime of their natural environment, each urban mendicant instead recalls the cityscape that Lamb, in letters to Wordsworth, praised over the Lake District. (31) There is, however, something further here, a moral issue that sits uncomfortably with other aspects of the picturesque and is hinted at when Elia describes the beggars as "standing morals," "spital sermons," and "salutary checks." In fact, an approach sensitive to this ethical dimension provides a wider insight into both the disquieting aspects of the Elia essay and the effects of the Vagabondiana's wholehearted embracing of the picturesque.

In his Observations, Relating Chiefly to Poetic Beauty (1786), Gilpin describes how the picturesque reverses standard ethical values:
   In a moral view, the industrious mechanic is a more pleasing
   object, than the loitering peasant. But in a picturesque light, it
   is otherwise. The arts of industry are rejected; and even idleness,
   if I may so speak, adds dignity to a character. (32)

The morality of industry is a well-established trope in discussions of the poor, so much so that Jeremy Bentham, with emphasis on labor, classed types of "hands" in his Table of Causes Callingfor Relief (1797). (33) The utility of the picturesque for Smith is that, as Gilpin suggests, it offers a privileged mode in which this established "moral view" can be evaded, and "idleness" can be considered as capable of granting "dignity"; in short, the picturesque elevates Smith's subject to the point that it may become "not ... unamusing" to his readers. To do this, though, the picturesque makes a number of choices, many of which sit problematically with the mendicant subject matter of the Vagabondiana. It is this uncomfortable fit that Lamb is interested in. John Barrell briefly sketches the principal traits of the picturesque as "concerned only with visible appearances, to the exclusion of the moral and the sentimental.... It is thus hostile to narrative; and when it depicts figures it attempts to do so in such a way as raises no question about their thoughts or feelings or their interactions with other figures." (34) To some extent, particularly as regards narrative and interaction, this fits with the Vagabondiana, which often portrays solitary figures, and only once narrates "a bone-picker's" movements during which little more happens than his being "accused of stealing door mats" (43). However, the picturesque becomes unstable when acceptable emphasis on "visible appearance" and the normally excluded "moral and sentimental" are intertwined, as they are when dealing with the urban poor, who receive money by being as obtrusive and pitiable as possible. Elia insists on this intertwining, asking his reader to "Shut not thy purse-strings always against painted distress" at the conclusion of the essay (2:120). Less powerfully, the Vagabondiana, by portraying the poor as they are in the street, could be said to depart unintentionally from the pure picturesque and instead replicate dangerously the means by which the poor, in the noisy urban environment, generate pathos: their appearance. This logic lies behind Sam Smiles's comment that "London beggars had become too obtrusive in the 1810s to remain safely contained in a picturesque domain." (35) Sam Smiles suggests that Smith's references to the long tradition of painting the poor, from "Michelangelo" (Vagabondiana vi) to Smith's own master, "Nollekens" (Vagabondiana vii), may be intended to reinforce the picturesque containment of the beggars, and what I earlier described as antiquarian and "catalogue" influences on the Vagabondiana must also constitute part of an effort to sustain this containment, as well as function as checks on the kind of response that the Quarterly Review or Select Committee reports aimed to elicit.

It is the urban mendicant's way of uniting visual appearance and an appeal to sympathy that threatens the detachment of the picturesque. Given that the beggar's appearance is potentially deceptive, this threat is particularly strong. Smith's and Douce's texts are both very clear about the potential for deception, and Smith never depicts a vagabond whose injuries have been faked, preferring instead the unambiguous disability of amputees like John MacNally (38) (36) or William Frasier (40). After his uncomfortable and knowing use of the "picturesque" and "ornamental," Lamb returns to this particular crux at the conclusion of his essay, when he gives a series of injunctions as to what to do "when a poor creature (outwardly and visibly such) comes before thee" (2:120):
   Rake not into the bowels of unwelcome truth, to save a halfpenny.
   It is good to believe him. If he be not all that he pretendeth,
   give, and under a personate father of a family, think (if thou
   pleasest) that thou hast relieved an indigent bachelor. When they
   come with their counterfeit looks, and mumping tones, think them
   players. You pay your money to see a comedian feign these things,
   which, concerning these poor people, thou canst not certainly tell
   whether they are feigned or not. (2:120)

The reiterative quality of Lamb's style is again present here: "it is good to believe him" becomes the goodness of giving, and the act of belief reappears in the command to "think them players." Such movement, with the aid of some archaic conjugation, then takes a sermonizing turn, although the tone remains difficult to pin down. Simon Hull points out how Elia's advice to "act a charity" demands from the reader "an imaginative investment in the city," (37) while Gregory Dart reads this conclusion as proof of how " [t] o Lamb, theatricality was in no way destructive of the moral spectacle of beggary" but rather "an intrinsic part of it." (38) These are strong readings, but, beyond them remain the chilling words of the final line: "thou canst not certainly tell whether they are feigned or not." This phrase cuts to the heart of the debates on the urban poor, describes the root problem that antiquarian, picturesque, and catalogue influences help avoid in the Vagabondiana: simply put, we cannot be completely certain of another's afflictions. Thomas McFarland writes feelingly of the "abyss" often lurking behind Elia's brilliance, (39) and, in this coda, Lamb now brings the fabric of the essay down on us. The detached magazine reader who has enjoyed Elia's dexterous prose as a spectator is now forced to consider his own position. This move is alien to the Vagabondiana and constitutes the final step in Lamb's comprehensive exploration of the fundamental difficulties of representing the poor, the brutal realization, absent from so many of the official publications of the period, that all such effort is, to a certain degree, subjectively conducted with all the fallibility of the observer.

Newcastle University, UK


31 Parliamentary Debate. 3rd series. 1815. "Mendicity in the Metropolis": 686-90.

33 Parliamentary Debate. 3rd series. 1816. "Poor Laws": 1177-78.

Ackroyd, Peter. London: The Biography. London: Chatto and Windus, 2000.

An Act to amend and make more effectual the Laws relating to Rogues, Vagabonds, and other idle and disorderly Persons, and to Houses of Correction. 1743. 17 Geo. II.c.5.

Barrell, John. The Birth of Pandora and the Division of Knowledge. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.

Bentham, Jeremy. Writings on the Poor Laws. Edited by Michael Quinn. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001.

Boyer, George R. An Economic History of the English Poor Law, 1750-1850. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Colquhoun, Patrick. The State of Indigence and the Situation of the Casual Poor in the Metropolis, Examined. London: H. Baldwin and Son, 1799.

Cronin, Richard. "Magazines and Romantic Modernity." In British Periodical Text, 1797-1835, edited by Simon Hull, 69-91. Penrith: Humanities eBooks, 2008.

Dart, Gregory. Metropolitan Art and Literature, 1810-1840: Cockney Adventures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Douce, Francis. Illustrations of Shakespeare and Ancient Manners with Dissertations on the Clowns and Fools of Shakespeare. 2 vols. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees and Orme, 1807.

--. "Observations on a Piece of Antiquity found at Selbourne in Hampshire, on the estate of Mr. John White, late of Fleet Street." Archaeologia 17 (January 1814): 115-17.

--. "My Grandfather's Diary." Merry England 3.13 (1884): 55-61. Eastwood, David. "Rethinking the Debates on the English Poor Law." Utilitas 6, no. 1 (1994): 97-116.

Fish, Judith. "'A Merry Season to us all, and auspicious New Year to our London': Charles Lamb and the Representation of a City." The Charles Lamb Bulletin 125, no. 1 (2004): 2-10.

Fox, Celina. Londoners. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1987.

Gatrell, Vic. City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London. London: Atlantic Books, 2006.

Godwin, William. The Enquirer: Reflections on Education, Manners and Literature in a Series of Essays. New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1965.

Grande, James. "Looking at Lamb's London through William Godwin's Diary." The Charles Lamb Bulletin 152, no. 4 (2010): 105-16.

Green, David R. Pauper Capital: London and the Poor Law, 1790-1870. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010.

Gruber, Jacob W. "Ethnographic Salvage and the Shaping of Anthropology." American Anthropologist 72, no. 6 (December 1970): 1289-99.

Himmelfarb, Gertrude. The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age. London: Faber and Faber, 1984.

Hilton, Boyd. A Mad, Bad and Dangerous People? England 1783-1846. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2008.

Hull, Simon P. "Spellbinding London: Charles Lamb, 'Elia,' and the Old Country House." Studies in Romanticism 48, no. 1 (Spring 2009): 121-38.

--. Charles Lamb, Elia and the London Magazine: Metropolitan Muse. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2010.

Innes, Joanna. "The "mixed economy of welfare" in early modern England: Assessments of the Options from Hale to Malthus (1683-1803)."

In Charity, Self-Interest and Welfare in the English Past, edited by Martin Daunton, 139-81. London: UCL Press, 1996.

--. "State, church and Voluntarism in European Welfare, 1690-1850." In Charity, Philanthropy and Reform from the 1960s to 1850, edited by Hugh Cunningham and Joanna Innes, 15-66. London: MacMillan, 1998.

--. "The State and the Poor: Eighteenth-Century England in European Perspective." In Rethinking Leviathan: The Eighteenth-Century State in Britain and Germany, edited by John Brewer and Eckhart Hellmuth, 225-80. Oxford and London: Oxford University Press and The German Historical Institute London, 1999.

James, Felicity. "Charles Lamb, Elia and the London Magazine: Metropolitan Muse." Byron Journal 38, no. 2 (2010): 192-93.

Lamb, Charles. The Works of Charles Lamb. Edited by William MacDonald. 12 vols. London: J. M. Dent, 1903.

--. The Works of Charles and Mary Lamb. Edited by E. V. Lucas. 7 vols. London: Methuen, 190-1905.

Lees, Lynn Hollen. The Solidarities of Strangers: The English Poor Laws and the People: 1700-1948. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Legislative Reports on the Poor Laws, from the Years 1817 to 1833, inclusive, with Remedial Measures Proposed. London: J. Ridgway and Sons, 1834.

London Magazine 29. Vol. 5. London: Taylor and Hessey, May 1822.

London Magazine 30. Vol. 5. London: Taylor and Hessey, June 1822.

Martin, Matthew. Substance of a Letter, Dated Poets' Corner, Westminster, 3rd March 1803, to the Right Hon. Lord Pelham, on The State of Mendicity in the Metropolis. London: J. Ridgway, 1811.

Mayhew, Henry. London Labour and the London Poor. 4 vols. New York: Dover, 1968.

McFarland, Thomas. Romantic Cruxes: The English Essayists and the Spirit of the Age. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.

"Minutes of the Evidence taken before the Committee appointed by the House of Commons to inquire into the State of Mendicity and Vagrancy in the Metropolis and its Neighbourhood." The Quarterly Review 14, no. 27 (1815): 120-45.

Nord, Deborah Epstein. Walking the Victorian Streets: Women, Representation, and the City. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995.

O'Neill, Michael. '"Only what might have been': Lamb and Illusion." The Charles Lamb Bulletin 128, no. 4 (2004): 96-108.

Parker, Mark. "Ideology and Editing: the Political Context of the Elia Essays." Studies in Romanticism 30, no. 3 (Fall 1991): 473-94.

Poovey, Mary. Making a Social Body: British Cultural Formation, 1830-1864. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Poynter, J. R. Society and Pauperism: English Ideas on Poor Relief, 1795-1834. London: Routledge, 1969.

Randel, Fred V. The World of Elia: Charles Lamb's Essayistic Romanticism. London and Port Washington: Kennikat Press, 1975.

Reiman, Donald H. "Of Beggars." The Wordsworth Circle 19, no. 2 (Spring 1988): 71-76.

Rose, Lionel. "Rogues and Vagabonds": Vagrant Underworld in Britain, 1815-- 1985. London and New York: Routledge, 1988.

Select Committee on the State of Mendicity in the Metropolis. Report from the Select Committee on the State of Mendicity in the Metropolis. London: 11 July 1815.

Select Committee on the State of Mendicity in the Metropolis. Report from the Select Committee on the State of Mendicity in the Metropolis. London: 28 May 1816.

Smiles, Sam. "Dressed to Till: Representational Strategies in the Depiction of Rural Labor, c. 1790-1830." In Prospects for the Nation: Recent Essays in British Landscape, 1750-1880, edited by Christiana Payne, Michael Rosenthal, and Scott Wilcox, 79-95. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.

--. Eye Witness: Artists and Visual Documentation in Britain 1770-1830. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2000.

Smith, John Thomas. Antiquities of Westminster; the Old Palace; St Stephen's Chapel, &c. &c. Containing two hundred and forty-six engravings of topographical objects of which one hundred and twenty two no longer remain. London: T. Bensley, 1807.

--. Vagabondiana; or Anecdotes of Mendicant Wanderers through the Streets of London; with Portraits of the Most Remarkable, Drawn from the Life. London: J. and A. Arch, 1817.

--. An Antiquarian Ramble in the Streets of London with Anecdotes of their more Celebrated Residents. Edited by Charles Mackay. 2 vols. London: Richard Bentley, 1846.

Treadwell, James. Autobiographical Writing and British Literature, 1783--1834. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Winch, Donald. Riches and Poverty: An Intellectual History of Political Economy in Britain, 1730-1834. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

(1.) Dart, Metropolitan Art and Literature, 1810-1840: Cockney Adventures (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 157; Hull, Charles Lamb, Elia and the London Magazine: Metropolitan Muse (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2010), 139.

(2.) Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), 134.

(3.) Sam Smiles, "Dressed to Till: Representational Strategies in the Depiction of Rural Labor, c. 1790-1830," in Prospects for the Nation: Recent Essays in British Landscape, 1750-1880, eds. Christiana Payne, Michael Rosenthal, and Scott Wilcox (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 118.

(4.) David R. Green, Pauper Capital: London and the Poor Law, iygo-1870 (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010), 18.

(5.) Fox, Londoners (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1987), 199.

(6.) John Thomas Smith, Vagabondiana; or Anecdotes of Mendicant Wanderers through the Streets of London; with Portraits of the Most Remarkable, Drawn from the Life (London: J. and A. Arch, 1817), v. Further references will be given in the text.

(7.) For more information about the publication context of Lamb's essay, see Hull, Charles Lamb, 121; and Dart, Metropolitan Art and Literature, 153.

(8.) The Works of Charles and Mary Lamb, ed. E. V. Lucas, 7 vols. (London: Methuen, 19031905), 2:114. Further references will be given in the text.

(9.) Report from the Select Committee on the State of Mendicity in the Metropolis (London, 28 May 1816), 3. Further references will be given in the text.

(10.) Gatrell, City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London (London: Atlantic Books, 2006), 547.

(11.) Parker, "Ideology and Editing: the Political Context of the Elia Essays," SiR 30, no. 3 (1991): 476, 485.

(12.) Poynter, Society and Pauperism: English Ideas on Poor Relief, 1795-1834 (London: Routledge, 1969), 276-77.

(13.) Poovey, Making a Social Body: British Cultural Formation, 1830-1864 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 10.

(14.) Hilton, A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People?: England 1783-1846 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2008), 35.

(15.) Ackroyd, London: The Biography (London: Chatto and Windus, 2000), 611.

(16.) Poynter, Society and Pauperism, 276.

(17.) Martin, Substance of a Letter, Dated Poets' Corner, Westminster, yd March, 1803, to the Right Hon. Lord Pelham, on The State of Mendicity in the Metropolis (London: J. Ridgway, 1811), Table 1.

(18.) Anon, "Minutes of the Evidence taken before the Committee appointed by the House of Commons to inquire into the State of Mendicity and Vagrancy in the Metropolis and its Neighbourhood," The Quarterly Review 14, no. 27 (1815): 131. Further references will be given in the text.

(19.) Ackroyd, London, 611.

(20.) Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor, 4 vols. (New York: Dover, 1968), 4:398-99.

(21.) John Thomas Smith, Antiquities of Westminster; the Old Palace; St Stephen's Chapel, &c. &c. Containing two hundred and forty-six engravings of topographical objects of which one hundred and twenty two no longer remain (London: T. Bensley, 1807), v, iii.

(22.) Francis Douce, "Observations on a Piece of Antiquity found at Selbourne in Hampshire," Archaeologia 17 (1814): 115.

(23.) Parker, "Ideology and Editing," 485.

(24.) John Thomas Smith, An Antiquarian Ramble in the Streets of London with Anecdotes of their more Celebrated Residents (London: Richard Bentley, 1846),

(25.) Barrel, The Birth of Pandora and the Division of Knowledge (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992), 95.

(26.) The image of Dyball has been reproduced online: Julie L. Melby, 'Vagabondiana,' last modified 3 July 2008,, accessed 30 December 2015.

(27.) Hull, Charles Lamb, 128.

(28.) Cronin, "Magazines and Romantic Modernity," in British Periodical Text, 1797-1835, edited by Simon Hull (Penrith: Humanities eBooks, 2008), 73.

(29.) Nord, Walking the Victorian Streets: Women, Representation, and the City (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), 48.

(30.) Quoted in Judith Fish, "'A Merry Season to us all, and auspicious New Year to our London': Charles Lamb and the Representation of a City," The Charles Lamb Bulletin 125, no. 1 (2004): 5-6.

(31.) Charles Lamb, The Works of Charles Lamb, ed. William MacDonald, 12 vols. (London: J. M. Dent, 1903), 11:190-91.

(32.) Gilpin, quoted in Smiles, "Dressed to Till," 89.

(33.) Bentham, Writings on the Poor Laws, ed. Michael Quinn, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001).

(34.) Barrell, The Birth of Pandora, 104.

(35.) Smiles, Eye Witness: Artists and Visual Documentation in Britain 1770-1830 (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2000), 114.

(36.) The image of MacNally has been reproduced online: "The Kilt," last modified 5 October 2010,, accessed 30 December 2015.

(37.) Hull, Charles Lamb, 146.

(38.) Dart, Metropolitan Art and Literature, 160.

(39.) McFarland, Romantic Cruxes: The English Essayists and the Spirit of the Age (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 26.
COPYRIGHT 2015 Boston University
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2015 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Harriman-Smith, James
Publication:Studies in Romanticism
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 22, 2015
Previous Article:Will the public please step forward? Libel law and public opinion in Byron's The Vision of Judgment.
Next Article:Mary Fairclough. The Romantic Crowd: Sympathy, Controversy and Print Culture.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters