Guilty Looks: The Pains and Pleasures of Liberal Reform in Late-Victorian Britain

Tanushree Ghosh, Syracuse University


In Guilty Looks: The Pain and Pleasures of Liberal Reform in Late-Victorian Britain, I argue that late-Victorian liberal reformist texts were engaged in producing an ethical spectating subject. Using Adam Smith's theory of sympathy to understand the spectacularization of ethics in these reform texts, I contend that sympathetic spectatorship was central not only to the formulation of the liberal subject as an ethical subject but also to the imagining of reform as the rescue of victimized working-class and poor individuals. In other words, I demonstrate how the late-Victorian reformist discourse accorded a place of privilege place of the viewer-actor to the liberal subject, as one viewing scenes of misery and performing his own ethical self, and represented the working classes and the poor as passively waiting for aid. I identify the range of affective dynamics arising from the separation of the ethical spectating subject from the visibly suffering individual within liberal reformist narratives. As I attend to the work of affect in moments of reformist "feeling," I also bring the political implications of liberalism's subjective ethics to bear upon questions of aesthetics. Specifically, I examine various representational strategies that enable reform texts to perform a formal closure on class tensions by imagining a submissive and politically malleable working class. The four chapters in this dissertation focus on different cultural configurations of liberalism's specular ethics: expensive gift-books, like London, a Pilgrimage (1872) and Street Life in London (1877), display the overlaps between commodity culture and liberal guilt; reformist journalism, such as How the Poor Live (1882) and The Bitter Cry of Outcast London (1882), which employs stock melodramatic scenes and characters to represent lower-class misery; and slum novels like Children of Gibeon (1886) and A Child of the Jago (1896), which either define ethical action mainly as sympathetic spectatorship or offer through the disruption of bourgeois-liberal sympathy a radically different mode of ethical engagement with representations of suffering.