The Growing Awareness of Poverty

  • Derek Fraser


IT was clear even to the most assiduous upholder of the individualist ethic that not everybody was able to practise the virtues of self-help or to benefit by them all the time. John Stuart Mill’s gradual conversion from a strict Benthamite individualism to a near-socialism was evidence of an intellectual’s acceptance of the limitations in practice of a theoretically justifiable credo. It was all too easy to assume, like one of Dickens’s self-made masters, that everyone could make $60,000 out of 6d.; that, in the words of Matthew Arnold, ‘You have only to get on the back of your horse Freedom . . . and to ride away as hard as you can, to be sure of coming to the right destination’. As a perceptive cultural historian has remarked, ‘Although Victorian didactic literature constantly insists on the necessity of self-help, one of the dominant themes of a major tradition within Victorian fiction is the powerlessness of the individual’.1 Writers such as Mill and Thomas Carlyle exposed the paradox thal:, though a more egalitarian and democratic society might be emerging, the individual was becoming increasingly absorbed in the mass, losing identity and purpose. The Victorian response to the powerlessness (or, as it was often conceived, moral weakness) of the individual was an over-liberal dose of charity. The phenomenal variety and range of Victorian philanthropy was at once confirmation of the limitless J:>enevolence of a generation and implicit condemnation of the notion of self-help for all.


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© Derek Fraser 1984

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  • Derek Fraser

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