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Starving by Numbers

William Farr, Medical Statistics and the Social Aesthetics of Hunger

Andrew S. Mangham    University of Reading, UK    



This essay argues that Alton Locke (1850) by Charles Kingsley might be read as a response to a tension that emerged, in the nineteenth century, between the imperatives of political economy and medicine. The baggy, reference-laden nature of the novel offers a unique insight into the complex negotiations of what constitutes a narrative of hunger. These negotiations then form part of a discussion of the 'aesthetics' of hunger narratives, which became a central note in the statistical work of men like Edwin Chadwyck and William Farr. What Alton Locke suggests is that there is only an impure aesthetics of hunger; attempts to sanitise the issue by turning it into a series of facts and figures served only to make the matter worse.