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The Gospel of Poverty: Poverty, Philanthropy, and Eighteenth-Century British Literature, 1700- 1759

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posted on 01.01.2016, 00:00 by Salita Seibert

The subject of my dissertation is British philanthropic literature, beginning in 1723 with Bernard Mandeville’s controversial criticism of public charity and ending with Jonas Hanway, arguably the most famous figure in the eighteenth-century London charity scene, in the 1750s. Henry Fielding’s novel Tom Jones (1749) and William Dodd’s novels The Sisters; or the History of Lucy and Caroline Sanson (1754) and the posthumous The Magdalen or, History of the First Penitent Prostitute (1783) round out this project, which also considers sermons, economist treatise, histories, travel writing, reform proposals, and philosophical essays as philanthropic literature. The range of fiction and nonfiction texts, which I categorize as philanthropic literature, help answer crucial questions about how social institutions formed with the goal of assisting the poor actually reinforced social and economic inequality. Those questions include, how was poverty theorized as economic problems, social problems, or class problems? And how was philanthropy represented as an answer to those problems? How were the poor defined, proscribed, and confined by these different concerns? Finally, how were philanthropic institutions shaped by discourses of gender, class, and empire? During this period, the poor were consistently viewed as a threat to the existing social and economic order due to their laziness, ignorance, and criminal nature. The poor laws and workhouses, alongside charitable societies with their associated schools and hospitals, all sought to make the poor more socially useful through discipline, education, or a combination of the two. Over the course of the eighteenth-century, I argue, philanthropic writing expresses several important changes in the institutional mission and strategies of public charities. First, philanthropic literature move from adamantly rejecting any possible link between benevolence and personal gain to promoting charity using a combination of nationalistic, religious, and economic inducements. Second, there is a shift from considering somatic to mental disciplinary methods as a means of control over the poor. Thus, philanthropic writers in the 1750s begin promoting choice and self-surveillance rather than force and public surveillance as elements of charity. After establishing the economic and moral terms, which undergirded charity, this dissertation considers the ways different authors associated with the eighteenthcentury London philanthropic community represent the poor, imagine charity, and attempt to shape public opinion through their writing. Unraveling the logic and practices of the period described by many as the “Age of Philanthropy” helps us to recognize, question, and critique charitable practices and concerns. My examination of the eighteenth-century poor and charity serves as an important reminder that charity is not always synonymous with good; and that philanthropy is not and never has been a benign social institution.




Degree Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Kristina Straub

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