‘Poverty Porn’ in Nineteenth-Century Fiction: Spectacle, Space, Surveillance and the Victorian Imagination
University of Surrey
Institutional email: GarthMRWenman@outlook.com
In his preface to Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens (1837) states that his intentions are to ‘dim the false glitter’ (p. x) surrounding the mistreatment of the poor and not to write for the ‘amusement’ of the higher classes (p. ix). Despite this, Dickens’ representation of ‘the dregs of life’ (p. vi) was republished in 1850 in a ‘household edition’ for those who could afford the pleasure, and remains one of the most adapted novels (DeBona, 1992, p. 78). My research will compare texts like Oliver Twist with the Victorian practice of ‘slumming’, wherein the middle classes enter the ‘intimate […] spaces of the poor’ to take pleasure in a ‘grotesque spectacle’ (Koven, 2006, p. 3). This process of slumming, and the middle-class interest in viewing the ‘grotesque spectacle’ of the Victorian realist novel, will be related to Tracy Jenson’s (2014) definition of ‘poverty porn’. In contemporary media such as Benefits Street (Channel 4, 2014), the continuing creation of spectacles of the poor is pornographic as it elicits pleasure from images of the grotesque. ‘Poverty porn’, as this research will argue, originates in the Victorian realist novel. While Dickens claims to remove the ‘glitter’ from the Poor Law Amendment Act, his representation of the poor and the slums have a pornographic function for middle-class audiences. I will argue that the representation of the poor in realist fiction affirms the ideologies of the higher classes, subjecting the poor to a form of surveillance. The ethics of representing the poor in the Victorian realist novel, through adaptation and appropriation, remain oppressive in contemporary ‘poverty porn’. As such, it is important that these representations be understood at their origins in the Victorian period to question the ethics and elitism that underlie the pornographic representation of the poor.