What is it to be wretchedly poor

There are times when literature expands beyond telling a compelling fictional story and becomes eternal truth.

Because I’ve been reading Anthony Trollope for the past several years as a way of escaping our current turmoil and soothing myself into sleep, I’ve come upon a number of Trollope descriptions deserving special attention.

Here, from The Last Chronicle of Barset, Trollope distinguishes between gentry poverty, i.e., the descent of people who were perhaps once lower middle class, and the abject poor.

None but they who have themselves been poor gentry — gentry so poor as not to know how to raise a shilling — can understand the peculiar bitterness of the trials which such poverty produces. The poverty of the normal poor does not approach it; or, rather, the pangs arising from such poverty are altogether of a different sort. To be hungry and have no food, to be cold and have no fuel, to be threatened with distraint for one’s few chairs and tables, and with the loss of the roof over one’s head — all these miseries, which, if they do not positively reach, are so frequently near to reaching the normal poor, are, no doubt, the severest of the trials to which humanity is subjected. They threaten life — or, if not life, then liberty — by reducing the abject one to a choice between captivity and starvation. By hook or crook, the poor gentleman or poor lady — let the one or the other be ever so poor — does not often come to the last extremity of the workhouse. There are such cases, but they are exceptional.


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