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Turning the Inside Out: Morals, Modes of Living, and the Condition of the Working Class

  • John B. Lamb (a1)

Extract

Writing on the Living conditions in Devon and Somerset in 1849, Alexander Mackay set out to discredit the often picturesque depiction of the homes of the poor:

We are accustomed to associate with the idea of a country village, or with a cottage situated in a winding vale, or hanging upon the side of a rich and fertile slope, nothing but health, contentment and happiness. A rural dwelling of this class … makes such a nice pencil sketch, that we are naturally inclined to think it as neat and comfortable as it appears. But to know it aright, it must be turned inside out, and its realites exposed to the gaze of the observer. (qtd. in Lester 320)

It was this turning “inside out” of working-class interiors to the voyeuristic gaze of their largely middle-class readers that Mackay and his fellow journalists on the Morning Chronicle set out to accomplish in a series of “letters” written in 1849 and 1850. But such depictions of working-class houses and their interiors had been a staple part of the discourse on the condition of the laboring population as early as 1832, when the Manchester physician and later Assistant Poor Law Commissioner James Kay published The Moral and Physical Condition of the Working Classes, and they continued to appear throughout the 1830s, 40s, and early 50s in the work of Peter Gaskell, William Alison, Thomas Beames, Hector Gavin, Edwin Chadwick, Henry Mayhew, and others. This writing, as I will demonstrate, betrays similar discursive and ideological underpinnings as the workingclass interior becomes the focal point for the assertion of bourgeois value and the maintenance of class distinction.

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Turning the Inside Out: Morals, Modes of Living, and the Condition of the Working Class

  • John B. Lamb (a1)

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