Pauperization and interiority in the Age of the New Poor Law and the Anatomy Act | Humanities & Social Sciences

Pauperization and interiority in the Age of the New Poor Law and the Anatomy Act

Tuesday Seminar
Sambudha Sen
Date and Time: 
Tue, 09/08/2016 - 12:00am
02:57 PM to 04:27 PM
HSS Committee Room (MS 610)


This essay is about a set of anxieties that I associate with the experience of pauperization in the age of the New Poor Law and the Anatomy Act. Specifically, I intend building on E.P. Thompson’s seminal “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century” (1971), not to uncover a “moral economy” – which relates to crowd behavior – but to piece together, from the fragmented and often displaced evidence that is available, the internal logic for the anger with which the poor reacted to the Anatomy Act. Specifically, this essay links the pauper’s perception of postmortem dissection to the life long assault on her sense of herself that began with the loss of personal belongings. It shows how the two great anti-poor legislations of the 1830s – the Anatomy Act (1832) and New Poor Law (1834) - destabilized the pauper’s social and personal identity, by focusing on three kinds of anxiety
inseparable from the pauper’s existence : the social embarrassment attendant on the loss of personal belongings , especially clothing , the humiliation enforced on workhouse inmates by the New Poor Law diet and the foreboding that postmortem dissection, followed by anonymous burial, would eject a person from the domain of the social and in this way ensure what Thomas Laqueur has called the irrevocable “obliteration of [her] personhood” . Finally, I turn to the work of Charles Dickens – the only canonical writer of nineteenth-century England capable of imagining pauper anxieties – to reinforce the argument that I have just outlined. But I show that rather than directly expressing the anxieties of the pauper, Dickens registers these by a set of compensations that the resources of the novel form make available to him.


Sambudha Sen teaches English at Shiv Nadar University . He is the author of London, Radical Culture and the Making of the Dickensian Aesthetic and with four others Khakhi Shorts and Saffron Flags. His essays have appeared in ELH, Nineteenth Century Literature and Representations.