‘The Whole World One Kin’

Sympathy, Charity, and Kinship in Victorian Representations of the Irish Famine

Charlotte Boyce

During the 1840s, the social and political problem of hunger instigated a kind of representational crisis in Victorian print culture. Particularly during the years of the Irish Famine (1845-1851), British newspapers and magazines struggled with the challenge of rendering tangible the physical experience of hunger to readerships largely unaccustomed to its visceral effects.

Taking as its focus the new breed of weekly periodicals that emerged during the 1840s, marketed specifically at middle-class families and female readers, this paper will examine the complex and sometimes contradictory techniques by which such publications sought to depict the Famine and its victims. While seeking to elicit sympathy for the suffering Irish through sentimentalised representations of starving mothers and children, periodicals such as the Illustrated London News and the Lady’s Newspaper were also conscious of the need to shield their female and juvenile readers from the worst horrors of the crisis.

Therefore, their reports would often attempt to mitigate the effects of distressing accounts of extreme deprivation by presenting concomitant representations of charity, kinship and fellow-feeling. Articles recording the events of the National Day of Fast and Humiliation held on the British mainland in March 1847, for instance, tend to emphasise narratives of benevolent sorority and communal sorrow — a representational strategy crystallised in the Illustrated London News’s full-page illustration of England, Scotland and Ireland as three beautiful sisters, joined in grief at the fate of a shrouded Irish victim and his mourning wife. An 1847 edition of the Lady’s Newspaper, meanwhile, choses to focalise its account of the on-going distress in Ireland through the lens of a charity ball held by the ‘Ladies of Belfast’ in aid of afflicted communities throughout the nation (tellingly, an accompanying woodcut depicts the opulent glamour of the ball rather than the abject recipients of its benevolence).

This paper will conclude, then, that the focus on sympathy, kinship and acts of charity in female- and family-oriented periodicals from the 1840s problematically occludes the bodies, voices and experiences of the starving and thus has the potential to distance British middle-class readers further from the realities of the condition of hunger.