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Diana Maltz, British Aestheticism and the Urban Working Classes, 1870-1900: Beauty for the People (Basingstoke and New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).x + 290 pp., 16 b/w illus. Select bibliography, notes and index. ISBN 1-4039-4569-1. £50.00

Alan Robinson

The publication of Diana Maltz’s British Aestheticism and the Urban Working Classes, 1870-1900: Beauty for the People in a series devoted to ‘research on literary works … produced in the English-speaking world from the time of the Napoleonic wars to the fin de siècle’ may arouse false expectations. Apart from a brief section on Ritualist fiction and on the mission novel of the 1890s and a chapter on Gissing’s novels, there is no discussion of literary works. Instead, the bulk of the monograph is a history of the social aspects of British Aestheticism.

As Maltz herself acknowledges, there are innumerable studies of the Aesthetic Movement and of late Victorian social reform movements, ranging from Gareth Stedman Jones’s Outcast London: A Study in the Relationship between Classes in Victorian Society (Oxford University Press 1971; Peregrine Books 1984) to Seth Koven’s Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London (Princeton University Press 2004). Maltz seeks to break new ground by examining ‘the comprehensive influence of Victorian aestheticism upon philanthropy’ and in particular the ‘practical application’ of British Aestheticism to working-class life and culture (2-3). To this end, she traces the hitherto neglected presence of Aesthetes on Boards of Guardians and uncovers the social networks which linked aesthetes and reformers.

Maltz makes the further large claim that no historian of Victorian social reform has examined ‘the direct application of aesthetic terminology and trends in the arena of slum philanthropy’ (3). Were this true, then her monograph would indeed be groundbreaking. In practice, however, her claim to originality rests on a very broad definition of what can be understood by ‘aesthetic’, rendering it a category so capacious that it could effortlessly accommodate what earlier historians of Victorian social reform have investigated, without usually attaching the label ‘aesthetic’ to their objects of inquiry. The question arises therefore: Is this mere rhetorical sleight-of-hand in a terminological dispute about truth in labelling, or does Maltz’s aestheticisation of social reform movements generate new understanding?

Maltz’s very inclusive definition of aestheticism derives from Regenia Garnier’s notion of ‘practical aestheticism’: ‘anyone who works toward art as transformation of everyday life is a “practical aesthete”‘ (21, 206). The virtue of this definition for Maltz’s argument is that it enables her to distinguish clearly between socially engaged Aestheticism and escapist Decadence and to highlight the importance for British Aestheticism of the tradition of Ruskin, Arnold and Morris as opposed to continental discourses of art for art’s sake. This is a fruitful line of inquiry and Maltz’s analytical differentiation in Chapter 1 among ‘The Social Strands of Aestheticism’ is perceptive and stimulating, even if her emphasis on the Ruskinian and Arnoldian genealogy of Aestheticism is less original than she maintains. What is more original is her use of this definition of ‘aesthetic’ to extend Ian Fletcher’s term ‘missionary aesthete’ to cultural missionaries not hitherto classified as aesthetes.

Those newly defined as ‘missionary aesthetes’ include Octavia Hill (Chapter 2), those associated with Toynbee Hall (Chapter 3), participants in the Sabbatarian debate (Chapter 4) and Ritualist priests (Chapter 5). The Settlement Movement, Toynbee Hall, the art exhibitions organised by the Barnetts at St Jude’s, Whitechapel, and debates about working-class leisure and ‘rational recreation’ are topics familiar to social historians. Maltz’s analysis of them is thorough and well documented in contemporary sources, including archival material. The discussion of the Museum Opening debate and of Sabbatarianism in the later nineteenth century is particularly good. What she adds to existing work is her careful cataloguing of biographical connections among different ‘aesthetic’ groups and between these and social reformers. The traffic is largely one-way, however, from the former Victorian sages, now relabelled as practical aesthetes, to social reformers. It would have been interesting to complement this with some account of traffic in the other direction: from social reform debates to artists, such as those initially associated with The Graphic, who briefly flirted with Social Realism before abandoning it for lucrative portraiture, and to writers, such as Walter Besant, Henry James and Oscar Wilde.

In Chapter 6, ‘George Gissing’s Hopes and Fears for a Popular British Aestheticism’, Maltz does broaden her discussion to include literature. She covers an impressive range of Gissing’s works, highlighting his gradual disillusionment with initiatives to acculturate the masses and what Maltz interprets as his final attempt to ‘redeem the aesthetic from the public sphere into a pure, private one’ (205). The topic of Gissing’s ambivalence towards the working classes is well-trodden ground. This chapter would have been strengthened had Maltz extended the scope of her discussion by placing Gissing’s fiction in the context both of the emergent debate in the 1880s about mass culture and of recent critical debates about consumer culture. There are only passing references to the pivotal novel, New Grub Street, which focuses on the producers of cultural commodities, heralding the concern in In the Year of Jubilee and I>The Whirlpool with their consumers.

Overall, British Aestheticism and the Urban Working Classes, 1870-1900 is a well-researched monograph which provides informative and accessible accounts of late Victorian social debates, without, however, offering a radically new perspective on them. It succeeds in its aim of establishing biographical connections between practical aesthetes with social reformers and in confirming the influence of Ruskin and Arnold on social reformers. But its restricted coverage of literary and artistic works makes it more likely to appeal to historians than to literary scholars.

To Cite This Article:

Alan Robinson, ‘Review: Diana Maltz, British Aestheticism and the Urban Working Classes, 1870-1900: Beauty for the People’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London’, Volume 4 Number 2 (September 2006). Online at Accessed on [date of access]