Legal Questions and Literary Answers: Poor Law Taxonomies and Realist Narrative Technique in Harriet Martineau’s The Town“


  • M. Colleen Willenbring (Eastern University)



This essay examines the ways in which Harriet Martineau’s short novel The Town“, commissioned as part of the Poor Laws and Paupers Illustrated “series to popularise planned reforms that would become the New Poor Law, offered responses to the Old Poor Law’s ancient practice of legislating poor relief using subjective categories for the poor: idle, able-bodied, deserving and undeserving. Martineau (1802-1876) and her contemporaries believed that the principles of political economy could inform policies that would alleviate the problems associated with flawed judgments of character. The Town dramatises the administrative challenges of the old law by showing how the knowledge and labour of a diligent and fair-minded public servant is insufficient for producing a just distribution of poor relief. Analysis reveals the ways Martineau’s formal strategies both assist and complicate these efforts. Her construction of character responds directly to her contemporaries’ interests in political economy and the morality of the poor in order to support calls for reform on both humanistic and scientific fronts. Specifically, examples demonstrate the text’s use of a technique Martineau and later social problem writers adopt of acknowledging the limitations of individual social positions and imaginatively overcoming those limitations by employing a range of narrative focalisations. These strategies allow Martineau to engage readers’ sympathy and other emotions, bringing the experience of reading to bear on arguments about the real-world challenges of poor law administration in urban communities. In so doing, this unlikely novel testifies compellingly to the importance of literary models for discerning salient qualities of character necessary to imagine social change and ultimately justice.