Affecting up to three-quarters of Britons in the eighteenth century, poverty was both a constitutive feature of the body politic and, for many, a disruptive, unpredictable force that, many feared, threatened to undo the fabric of civil society. This fear, I argue, was not of the poor in and of themselves, but what the poor represented: an anxious reminder of the unruliness of eighteenth-century bodies and spaces. This dissertation is about how advances in eighteenth-century medical understanding about the nature of the body and disease shaped attitudes towards the poor and informed poverty management strategies in British towns and cities. As understandings of illness moved away from a moral to a more recognizably modern medical framework, there was a corresponding shift in representations of the poor: away from lamenting their inherent immorality to speculating on how they might be improved, redeemed, and saved from their condition.
I argue that eighteenth-century novels, medical, and architectural discourse worked together to define and produce an ideal of subjectivity in the period that I call “the voluntary subject:” one for whom self-mastery is coextensive with security from uncertainty and the unforeseen, from accidents that violate the Enlightenment ideal that the project of self-making is a matter of choice, and not of circumstance. The poor radically disrupt this ideal in their vulnerability, serving as a reminder of the porousness of bodies, and of the threats lurking in disordered urban environments. Pushing back against the popular idea of the autonomous Enlightenment subject, I argue for the importance of “the involuntary subject,” and ask the reader to consider how the poor were integral to consolidating an idealized model of voluntary subjectivity in the period.
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