"Wanderers and settlers": Vagrancy, begging, and the English middle class, 1790-1867

Laura Sagolla Croley, University of Pennsylvania


This dissertation takes an historical, cultural-studies approach to the fictional and non-fictional discourse surrounding vagrancy and begging in nineteenth-century England, and seeks to show the ways in which that discourse variously consolidates and undermines the cultural authority of the Victorian middle class. Chapter One triangulates the turn-of-the-century discourse of political economy and its newly harsh assessment of vagrancy and begging with the noble vagrants of Wordsworth's poetry and the jolly beggars of Pierce Egan's popular Life in London (1820-1). It argues that Wordsworth and Egan resisted contemporary interventionist attitudes toward the wandering poor, creating "peripatetic" literary modes which emptied vagrancy and mendicity of their class content. Chapter Two focuses on the subsequent rejection of the peripatetic in fictional works such as The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-1), Auroya Leigh (1857), and Adam Bede (1859). It argues that in these works and others, the peripatetic collides with a new, class-inflected notion of wandering as vagrancy, and the figure of the vagrant comes to epitomize the problems of the working classes--thereby helping to shift the Condition of England debate to almost exclusively moral ground. Chapter Three examines a strain of mid-century journalism in which the vagrant moves from representative of the working classes to the depraved other against whom the "respectable" working classes can define themselves. The two vagrant autobiographies treated in this chapter, Josiah Basset's The Life of a Vagrant (1850) and James Dawson Burn's Autobiography of a Beggar Boy (1855), contest journalists' exaggerated distinction between vagrants and beggars on the one hand, and the "working man," on the other. Finally, Chapter Four turns from English and Irish vagrants and beggars to Gypsies, the only poor wanderers who seem to represent for the Victorians an overwhelmingly positive departure from middle-class morality. This chapter shows how the figure of the "Romany Rye" or gypsy-gentleman--in whom the early-century peripatetic is reformulated--works to resist the boundaries of middle-class masculinity.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Croley, Laura Sagolla, ""Wanderers and settlers": Vagrancy, begging, and the English middle class, 1790-1867" (1996). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9712914.