Is “The Wisest Thing” a Moral Responsibility? Martineau and Benefit Clubs

In Cousin Marshall, Martineau refers to Benefit Clubs as a viable alternative to reliance upon parish relief several times, especially because of John Marshall’s use of this financial option. When the widowed Mrs. Marshall writes to Ned about his money, she says, “I quite approve your wish about the Friendly Society, knowing how my husband did the wisest thing in belonging to one, and at times could have got through in no other way” (123). Earlier, the narrator characterizes John as “a slow and dull, though steady workman” of whom his friends say “that his club served him instead of a set of wits” (73-74). Furthermore, the narrator indicates Mrs. Marshall does not fully recognize that he is not particularly bright because of this one wise choice that enabled them to be self-sufficient when his hard work was not enough to keep them financially afloat: “His wife, who never seemed to have found out how much cleverer she was than her husband, put the matter in a somewhat different light. She attributed to her husband all the respectability they were enabled to maintain…She gave him the credit, not only of the regularity of their little household…but of the many kindnesses which they rendered to their neighbors” (74). Mr. Marshall’s responsible character and Mrs. Marshall’s careful stewardship of their resources also receive attention in these passages, but Martineau stresses how the Benefit Club played a major role in their abilities to be financially responsible and stable. Additionally, Martineau makes a point of clarifying that John is not actually a smart or talented man but rather a good but average man who just had the good sense to listen to the advice of his father and invest in this safety net (73). Martineau considers wise financial decisions as being within the grasp of all the working class that are not severely disadvantaged through disability, as even an allegedly dim-witted fellow like Mr. Marshall could make that choice.

Despite the support the Benefit Club provides the Marshall family in their times of need, Burke, the doctor who presents explanations and solutions for England’s political economy, does not think that Benefit Clubs are inherently the solution and therefore should not be made compulsory. When Effingham asks him what he thinks of the idea of requiring people to join Benefit Clubs, Burke responds,

No man approves such societies more than I, as long as they are voluntary; but fellowship of this kind would lose its virtue, I doubt, by being made compulsory. There are no means that I know of, of compelling a man who will not earn to store his earnings; and the frugal and industrious will do it without compulsion, as soon as they understand the matter: so that in fact the worst classes of society would be left as free to roam, and beg, and steal, as if the institution did not exist. (115-116)

For Burke, and seemingly for Martineau, as her concluding summary echoes much of Burke’s other ideas presented in the narrative, the good, hard-working people will do the common-sense thing once they know its benefits, and the people associated with the term “undeserving poor” would not act sensibly even if they could afford to do so.

Martineau’s characterization of the Marshall family and the contrasting Bell relatives, as well as several other conversations and characters, reveal her strong belief in the difference between deserving and undeserving poor. This is best represented by Louisa Burke’s conversation with Mr. Nugent, in which she expresses her concern for the lack of separation between “blameless and culpable indigence” (29). Of course, Mr. Nugent considers her categories “somewhat too nice,” for Martineau acknowledges that this is indeed an oversimplification. However, though her views are likely more nuanced than her characters’ explanations, she considers a major difference between the deserving poor and the undeserving poor to be the willingness and wisdom to save up resources through these Benefit Clubs. By associating John Marshall, a man who is not especially educated or even smart, with the wisdom of benefit clubs, which then in turn allows him to benefit other people and his relatives, the Bells, whose financial decisions are clever but unwise and often even unethical, with those who would not have the foresight to save through Benefit Clubs, is Martineau suggesting that though Benefit Clubs ought not to be legally required, that there is a sort of moral imperative to make such wise decisions?

While financial responsibility and frugality are certainly admirable qualities that allow for greater participation in the moral responsibility of charity toward neighbors, it seems that Martineau’s fairly clear distinctions between the deserving poor and undeserving poor move financial wisdom from an admirable quality to a characteristic that helps separate the virtuous from the unvirtuous and the deserving from the undeserving in troubling ways. What about those who would have joined the Benefit Clubs had they not already been receiving relief as children or who were trying to be self-sufficient in caring for their aging parents and therefore could not set aside the necessary earnings? Ned is an extreme example of the hard-working poor, but would Martineau find those in similar situations who did not break the cycle of poverty as he did to be undeserving? While she does not explicitly portray failure to plan ahead financially as a moral failing, her characters present limited examples of virtuous people who are not able be fairly self-sufficient through wise financial decisions, and thus, she seems to ignore the possibility of those who do not clearly fit in one category or the other.

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