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Narrating Poverty and Precarity in Britain


Edited by Barbara Korte & Frédéric Regard


Berlin: De Gruyter, 2014

Hardcover. vii + 232p. ISBN 978-3110367935. €78.95


Reviewed by Jacques Carré

Université Paris-Sorbonne



Poverty studies are rapidly becoming a new academic field, including research in such disciplines as economics, sociology and even philosophy. Judith Butler’s work on ‘precariousness’ and ‘recognition’, often quoted in this book, is a famous example. Literary critics are not far behind, as we can see in Korte and Regard’s Narrating Poverty and Precarity in Britain which gathers contributions by an international team of confirmed and promising scholars. The book’s introduction stresses, after Bourdieu, the ability of writers to give a voice to the poor from multiple standpoints. For many centuries, fiction has been able not only to awaken a social conscience among predominantly middle-class readers, but also to use story-telling as a means of exploring poverty along new paths. The book, however, takes literature in its broadest sense, and a wide array of 19th- and 20th-century texts is here examined: works of fiction like novels, but also melodrama and popular tales, on the one hand; other chapters deal with fundamentally documentary productions like journalistic and social reports as well as films and television series.

The collection starts by a very original piece on ‘Envying the Poor : Contemporary and Nineteenth-Century Fantasies of Vulnerability’. Carolyn Betensky boldly parallels the complaints of the Wall Street traders against criticism of selfishness by Obama, and those of the rich heroes of social novels who feel hurt by the hostility of the poor. In spite of their dominant position, the rich envy the poor, not because they want to be poor, but because they feel misunderstood and are jealous of the ability of the poor to attract sympathy. Taking examples from 19th-century social novels, Betensky asserts that literature about the poor is in fact more about the consciences of the caring rich than about poverty. She singles out George Sand’s Le Compagnon du Tour de France (1840) and Benjamin Disraeli’s Sybil, or the Two Nations (1845) for instances of confrontations of ‘the aggrieved rich and the stubbornly class-fixated poor’ [30].

Joanna Rostek examines Harriet Martineau’s ‘paradoxes of poverty’ in Illustrations of Political Economy (1832-34). These 24 fictional tales were designed to persuade the poor to behave according to the iron laws of economic liberalism as explained by Smith, Malthus and Mill. They feature such stereotypical characters as a Poor law scrounger, an industrial striker, a wily beggar and a drunken Irishman, and demonstrate how they all act against their own interests. Rostek suggests that Martineau partly defeats her purpose, as her fictional rendering of poverty breaks down the rigid explanatory categories she wanted to uphold. For example the resourcefulness and diligence of her beggars illustrate the very same qualities required of the ideal liberal subject. The complexity of actual poverty cannot disappear even in simplistic fictional case-studies.

Less wooden are the characters in Victorian melodramas discussed by Joachim Frenk in a valiant attempt to reassess their merits. In particular he emphasises their echoes of current social tensions. Two of his authors, Douglas Jerrold and George Sims, are better known for their documentary work on the London poor. But their melodramas are shown to have a subversive potential: the ruined farmer in The Rent Day (1832) is fleeced so shockingly by his landlord that rebellion sounds justifiable. And Sims’ play The Lights o’ London (1881) manages to denounce the common association between crime and poverty. As for Boucicault’s The Poor of New York (1857), it suggests that the truly poor (in the lower middle class!) may be invisible because of the Victorian obsession with appearances, while some of the paupers are mere impostors.

Frédéric Regard lucidly explains how W.T. Stead’ revelations on ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’ operate. The journalist was accused of ‘peddling pornography’ in the Pall Mall Gazette as he vividly described how young girls could be actually bought, raped and tortured in London. Regard highlights the mythical dimension of Stead’s account of this submerged sexual predation: the journalist figures as Theseus attempting to fight the Minotaur, while the victims may be seen as a gendered version of the homo sacer of ancient Roman law, who could be killed by men but not sacrificed according to divine law. Stead’s aim was to show how female precariousness (in Butler’s sense) had become the norm with the complicity of the political élites. The author suggests that the repetitive accounts of interviews between violated girls and the journalist create ‘a tension between emotional remembrance and ethical exigency’ [86], which, it is hoped, will prompt the reader to act.

Marina Remy Abrunhosa usefully compares two classic reports on poverty, James Greenwood’s A Night in a Workhouse (1866) and George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). Her aim is to analyse instability in both texts: first the ambiguous identity of the enquirer who remains a disguised bourgeois intruding into an alien milieu, and secondly the instability of the object of observation itself, an anonymous and heterogeneous crowd. Poverty remains opaque, as it ‘resists representation’ [102]. As for the writer’s status, it is all the more precarious as the genre of the social report is a hybrid of journalism, essay-writing and semi-fiction. While recognising features common to the two reporters, Abrunhosa identifies their different approaches. Greenwood postures as the self-conscious explorer of the abyss of poverty, who is relieved to emerge out of it after a single night. On the contrary, Orwell seems more prepared to communicate with the paupers, asking them questions, making them speak, in an effort to express their own feelings.

In her study of The Poor Mouth (1941) by Flann O’Brien, Marie-Luise Egbert focuses on language rather than on poverty itself. According to O’Brien, the Gaelic language, which was losing ground among the poor peasants of Western Ireland, became an object of rather perverse adulation at the beginning of the 20th century. Egbert claims that the great writers of the Irish renaissance (Synge, Yeats, Lady Gregory) as well as the obscure authors of Gaelic autobiographies (for example O’Criomhthian and Sayers) idealised the miserable lives of those peasants in order to connect them with a supposedly authentic Irishness. In his book written in Gaelic O’Brien developed a satire of this folklorist literature, and denounced the way authentic poverty was made instrumental to a dubious cause. He did not wish to have his book translated into English (this was done only after his death), as if he wanted to address only the victims of what he saw as a manipulation.

Eveline Kilian discusses the condition of Eastern European immigrants in Britain as presented in two recent novels: The Road Home (2007) by Rose Tremain and Antigona and me (2008) by Kate Clanchy. She makes use of Butler’s work on recognition, particularly the decentering of the self which recognition involves. Kilian is critical of the first novel, a kind of Bildungsroman describing the return home of an immigrant from a formerly communist country after staying in Britain for 18 months. This man decides to rouse his native country from its lethargy, in oblivion of its past, and successfully applies Western business values. Kilian explains that here is no recognition of the other, in so far as the past is erased. Clanchy’s novel is described as more promising as the narrator of Antigona and me is highly conscious of the decentering induced by the recognition of the other. The narrator describes her relationship with a Kosovar woman who has fled her country and her husband with her daughters. The refugee has to cope with different ‘frames of recognition’ (Butler’s phrase), but manages to preserve some degree of agency by taking advantage of their limits. This allows Kilian to criticise the abstractness of Butler’s analysis of recognition.

Alan Warner’ first novel, Morvern Callar (1995), is an exploration of precarious lives that takes full advantage of several narrative techniques. The ‘careers’ of the eponymous heroin and of some other proletarian characters are conjured up in chaotic English rendering oral speech. Their disjointed episodes reveal the collapse of former communities and solidarities and the emergence of apparently erratic behaviours. In a neoliberal world where money is ultimately the only value and consumption the only horizon, the destiny of the poor is to lose control over their lives and over themselves. Yet according to Romain Nguyen Van’s analysis of the novel, Warner suggests that the loss of the communitarian ethos is not final, and eventually opens up religious perspectives.

King : A Street Story (1999) was originally published without the author’s name — or rather, as the reader quickly discovers, King is the name of a dog whose thoughts we are supposed to read. Georg Zipp focuses his study on the theme of the parallax, the angle created by the several possible visions of the same object, which is here survival in the street. Are we reading what goes in the brain of a dog, or in that of a man who takes himself for a dog, or of that of John Berger the animal lover? The reader is expected to choose. The very subject of the novel changes according to the perspective adopted. Moreover the discourse itself is dislocated by the instability of the lives of the poor: the characters have lost their former names, and their former culture; they end up becoming dogs as they are expelled from their slum by tear gas and bulldozers. In this Beckett-like fable, the bare existence of a narrative voice, even threatened and uncertain, seems to be the only sign of resilience.

Barbara Korte examines the popularity of television series, films and popular novels that feature life on the margins. She suggests that they are often well-intentioned, much like the efforts of Charles Dickens and George Sala to prick the consciences of their Victorian middle-class readers into action. But she suspects that such popular commercial productions as J.K. Rowlings’ The Casual Vacancy often provide a stereotyped vision of the poor and the rich that leaves no room for social change. She posits that these books address a mainly middle-class audience and tend to exonerate them from any duty of interference with social inequality. She gives a detailed analysis of Penny Vincenzi’s No Angel (2000), set in the early 20th century, showing that here the poor are doomed to their fate, unless an unlikely rich philanthropist propels one of them into the sphere of the educated. Elizabeth George’s What Came Before He Shot Her (2007) is an example of ‘council estate fiction’ that shows social services and well-meaning individuals powerless before gangs. Yet Korte suggests that clichés about hopeless council estates lives can be destabilised by more original plots, as in Attack the Block (2011), a film by Joe Cornish, combining science fiction with social realism.

Helen Hester investigates the notion of ‘poverty porn’, currently used to refer to those reality shows in television about the dismal lives of the underclass. Why should pornography be related to images that have no explicit sexual content? Hester suggests that middle-class viewers respond to these programmes by a mixture of passive prurience and active compassion. These two attitudes, however, are not contradictory in her opinion. Following Freud, she explains that the general desire of knowing things is not unrelated to the voyeuristic impulse. And the sense of guilt ‘poverty porn’ can induce in the middle-class viewer may be connected with a redeeming compassion and possibly attempts to remedy the plight of the persons concerned. Yet the main flaw of such programmes is that they avoid the wider issues of poverty, and reduce it to provocative individual cases.

This is an extremely stimulating collection, which fully vindicates the idea that fiction has things to say on poverty that could not be revealed by non-literary means. It invites the reader to question his own prejudices on the subject. Secondly, this book brings considerable light on the more documentary texts on poverty, suggesting they can never be taken at face value, and are often destabilised by the ambiguous position of their authors and by the elusive diversity of poverty.


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