Awkward visits: Distr ict visiting, gender and middle-class identity in the Victorian imagination
Dayton, Anne LeBeau
Doctor of Philosophy
This project explores the textual representation of district visiting, a form of philanthropy in which a volunteer, usually a middle-class woman, called on working-class homes within a geographically specified district. Drawing on novels and non-fiction prose published between 1850 and 1900, I argue that district visiting is best understood in the context of middle-class anxieties about upward mobility and the expansion of their own class. While guidebook authors were limited to exhaustive descriptions of the proper behavior of district visitors, novelists imagined successful district visiting as evidence that a woman of questionable class origin had internalized the identity of a lady. The status of male charitable visitors, most of whom were clergymen, was less defined: some authors relished visiting as a site of female influence, while others feared the feminizing influence of lady visitors. District visiting evolved in the last half of the nineteenth-century from the voluntary duty of gentry daughters at home to a professionalized commitment with protocols and training regimes. This changes led, in turn, to new ways of plotting female character development; plots that earlier in the century might have ended in marriage and a retreat from public commitments were now imagined as culminating with marriage to a man who shared the heroine's dedication to the “slums” or a renunciation of marriage in favor of a life of service and often female companionship. My chapters interweave literary and archival sources, including novels, memoirs, advice manuals, religious tracts, and the archived records of Victorian charities.