Victorian Sanitation: Narratives of Poverty, Filth and Economy of Morality

  • Chen, Chung-jen (PI)

Project: A - Government Institutionb - National Science and Technology Council

Project Details


Sanitations represent a cultural location at which the human body, social hierarchy, governmental regulations, psychological subjectivity, and material objects converge. Mid-nineteenth century witnesses a collective and fervent dedication to improvement of public health. At the core of this social movement was an anticipation of a sanitary society. Sanitation, for the Victorians, became a target of scrupulous observation and management. To maintain the national health and wealth, the British Empire demanded healthy population. To cultivate the healthy population, cleanliness and decency in everyday life practice and personal hygiene were the most fundamental necessities. This research project argues that a sanitary and safe England was constructed, both textually and cognitively, in spite of a pervasive awareness of the inevitability of risk. Continuous attempts to discover the route of cholera transmission and unfailing efforts to improve the sanitary environment and life habit were founded upon the brimming confidence of modernity: a normative economy of rationality and a reflexive mentality of observation and surveillance. A successful cultural enterprise of governance was formulated with supports both from the rhetorical constructions of a safe England and administrative practices of science, statistics, medicine, public health, and urban cartography. After the Victorian sanitationist tradition of Edwin Chadwick and Florence Nightingale, John Snow’s famous discovery of cholera transmission, William Farr’s study on population statistics and cholera outbreaks, and many devoted endeavors to the improvement of sanitation were eminent demonstrations of the trust in modernity. While a grim picture of filth, contamination, drastic “blue death” of epidemic cholera was haunting the industrialized and urbanized England, campaigns of public health revealed a salient path leading to a health paradise to which risks would be banished and diseases prevented. Mode of risk management thus involves the visualization of invisible dangers. Such Victorian cosmology was characterized by an anonymous acceptance of risk and an unprecedented confidence in the permanence of rationality in seeing the world in a drop of water. This research project aims to explore the concept of Victorian sanitation: their dominances, their variations, and above all, their importance to Victorians’ ideas of security and morality. My methodology is to focus as much as possible on individual works belonging to the realm of literature and medical history. I want to piece together in new ways a rich composite of tangible and perceivable experience from Victorian culture. I mean to read major works of Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Edwin Chadwick, Florence Nightingale, William Farr and John Snow, as being inspired by the economy of morality and political economy, and then to make sense of their relationship to social control and individual resistance.
Effective start/end date8/1/137/31/14


Explore the research topics touched on by this project. These labels are generated based on the underlying awards/grants. Together they form a unique fingerprint.