Economizing Characters: Harriet Martineau and the Problems of Poverty in Victorian Literature, Culture and Law

Mary Colleen Willenbring, Marquette University


Economizing Characters considers the deployments of character in critical artistic and political texts of the 1830s, chiefly Harriet Martineau's didactic fictions and the reports of the Poor Law Commission. Each of four chapters addressing themes that represent the early nineteenth century's theoretical problems relating to poverty— taxonomy, population, charity, and independence—shows that as these works delimit, or economize, their adoption of the conventions of realist fiction to maintain a strong position within other discourses on poverty, their strategic use of character allows readers to reimagine these problems in ways that prove important for both later social problem fiction and the period's reforms of the system of poor relief. In turn, Martineau's use of the formal strategies of narrative to make political arguments reveals certain unacknowledged political elements in the traditional forms of realist narrative. The argument thereby furthers a reconsideration of its primary texts for the field of nineteenth-century studies, revealing a range of ethical-artistic strategies not fully valued by the aesthetics and politics of literary studies.