Steamboats in Our Mutual Friend

In Charles Dickens’s Networks (2012), Jonathan Grossman apologises for neglecting to draw upon one of the most famous Dickensian encounters with modern public transport infrastructure, the Staplehurst train crash the novelist directly experienced in 1865, while he was writing the latter parts of Our Mutual Friend. A number of scholars including Sean Grass & Juliet John (2014) have written about the incident in relation to the novel’s production, as in fact did Dickens himself, in its postscript, which tried to make light of what seems to have been in reality a highly traumatic experience. (As Jill Matus (2001) has argued, Dickens’s feelings about his closeness to death that day may well have found their fullest expression in that haunting ghost story of his from a couple of years later, ‘The Signalman’ (1866)).

While, unlike Dombey and Son, Our Mutual Friend does not choose to focus explicitly upon the dark side of railway mania, this last completed of Dickens’s novels is nonetheless unusually interested in traffic accidents, both (notionally) on the road (Jenny Wren and her father each fear being run over on the busy streets) and, with greater prominence, (actually) on the water. Amongst the various fatal or near-fatal experiences various characters meet with in negotiating the Thames, one of the most interesting is the collision of Rogue Riderhood’s little vessel with a large steamboat, the mode of transport Dickens, Ellen Ternan and her mother had made use of for the earlier part of their journey back from France on the day of the Staplehurst crash. Grossman helpfully unpacks how Little Dorrit plays with the global simultaneity enabled by steam-boat travel, but I would argue that this mode of transport performs an even more significant and complex function in Our Mutual Friend. 

Rogue Riderhood's Recovery

For Jerry White, the steamers in Our Mutual Friend are ‘bullying representatives of modernity’ and a ‘malevolent and destructive force’ (‘Victorian Bloomsbury’, Times Literary Supplement 12 Dec 2012), and this is certainly part of the story. In his description of the accident in which ‘a foreign steamer…runs down a wherry’, Dickens implicitly uses the incident in order to point to the class-differentiation of risk on the river, and to allow it to stand in for the way that the larger mechanistic forces of modern capital bear down relentlessly on whatever falls in their path, regardless of the human cost of collision. The voices watching helpless watching the accident and its fallout form a kind of democratic chorus of resistance to the indomitable strong ship and solidarity with the vulnerable weak boat:

Boats were putting off, torches were lighting up, people were rushing tumultuously to the water’s edge. Some man fell in with a splash, and was pulled out again with a roar of laughter. The drags were called for. A cry for the life-buoy passed from mouth to mouth. It was impossible to make out what was going on upon the river, for every boat that put off sculled into the fog and was lost to view at a boat’s length. Nothing was clear but that the unpopular steamer was assailed with reproaches on all sides. She was the Murderer, bound for Gallows Bay; she was the Manslaughterer, bound for Penal Settlement; her captain ought to be tried for his life; her crew ran down men in row-boats with a relish; she mashed up Thames lightermen with her paddles; she fired property with her funnels; she always was, and she always would be, wreaking destruction upon somebody or something, after the manner of all her kind. The whole bulk of the fog teemed with such taunts, uttered in tones of universal hoarseness. All the while, the steamer’s lights moved spectrally a very little, as she lay-to, waiting the upshot of whatever accident had happened. Now, she began burning blue-lights. These made a luminous patch about her, as if she had set the fog on fire, and in the patch—the cries changing their note, and becoming more fitful and more excited—shadows of men and boats could be seen moving, while voices shouted: ‘There!’ ‘There again!’ ‘A couple more strokes a-head!’ ‘Hurrah!’ ‘Look out!’ ‘Hold on!’ ‘Haul in!’ and the like. Lastly, with a few tumbling clots of blue fire, the night closed in dark again, the wheels of the steamer were heard revolving, and her lights glided smoothly away in the direction of the sea. (436-7)

In The Victorian City (2012), Judith Flanders has written eloquently about the ubiquitousness of steamboat accidents in this period.  As she points out, the way that in Our Mutual Friend the crash is initially apprehended by bystanders suggests the horribly predictable, everyday quality of such occurrences:

‘Does anybody down there know what has happened?’ demanded Miss Abbey, in her voice of authority.

‘It’s a steamer, Miss Abbey,’ cried one blurred figure in the fog.

‘It always is a steamer, Miss Abbey,’ cried another. (436)

The large boat that glides smoothly away from the scene of the crime isn’t, however, just ‘a steamer’, being delineated by the angry-yet-jaded spectators with more particularity as a ‘foreign’ ship. Not a Margate packet, transporting Cockney revellers to the seaside nearby, this steamboat that almost kills Rogue is part of the world outside London this novel rarely represents but to which its metropolitan narratives in various ways relate. The stretch of the water by Limehouse that Riderhood and the Hexams know as a kind of local commons is also a global gateway, a place of international transit between London, the empire and the wider world of commerce. For, like Dombey and SonOur Mutual Friend is a coastal novel as much as it is an urban one, and the novel is repeatedly interested in depicting London as a global port – a capital city that is also the central node for the whole world’s capital.

It is telling that the chorus of unidentified voices watching the scene from the shore condemn the amoral carelessness of the captain by re-orienting the steamer’s destination to places of deportation in the colonies, for this underlines the way that the accident represents not only class-collision but also the friction of global and local: ‘She was the Murderer, bound for Gallows Bay; she was the Manslaughterer, bound for Penal Settlement…’ Deportation hovers in the background of this novel, the first Dickens had written since Great Expectations (1860-1), which had foregrounded the practice through the character of Magwitch. Jenny Wren threatens her father with transportation at one point, while, at another, Eugene Wrayburn predicts Rogue Riderhood will be transported or hung. But another crucial transportation within Our Mutual Friend may also be shadowed by the sudden appearance and disappearance of the errant steamer that treats Riderhood to a close brush with a watery grave: that of John Harmon Jr, in his infancy. When the Boffins remember their parting scene with the boy, they inform us that a steamboat was the conveyance that bore little John Harmon away to a ‘foreign school’ in the text’s back-story: this kind of ship had been the fading object on the horizon upon which the kindly servants fixed their tearful gaze, they having carried the child to the landing place themselves, his miserly father having forbidden the expense of ‘sixpence coach-money.’ We don’t know precisely where Harmon is educated for the same reason that readers are often left in the dark about the precise whereabouts of penal settlements in other Victorian fiction: his ejection from London and England is punitive rather than educational in purpose, and his destination is chosen on account of its being far away from what is interesting or comfortable, far away from home, rather than having any distinct or attractive properties of its own.

Like the utilitarian political economy that justified such crude means of exerting control over an unruly population as transportation for life, steamboats become invested in the cultural imagination with a sense of the indomitable. They often mean strength verging on stubbornness; unwavering commitment to one’s chosen trajectory. One of the most admirably determined characters in the novel, Lizzie Hexam’s obstinate allegiance to her father is described early on in the novel by Miss Abbey Potter, landlady at the Limehouse pub ‘The Six Jolly Porters’, by way of reference to the industrial-era oceanic vessels that pass by the locality on their way out of the Thames estuary:

‘Lizzie Hexam, Lizzie Hexam,’ then began Miss Potterson, ‘how often have I held out to you the opportunity of getting clear of your father, and doing well?’

‘Very often, Miss.’

‘Very often? Yes! And I might as well have spoken to the iron funnel of the strongest sea-going steamer that passes the Fellowship Porters.’ (73)

While steamboats serve at times for metaphors of sticking to a pre-determined path, elsewhere they seem to set the imagination free, allowing characters to dream of multiple futures yet unwritten. In their day-trip to Greenwich, Bella and her father sit watching the busy river there: steamboats tugging themselves off to sea are among the ships clustering before them that inspire the mercenary daughter to project onto them alternative fates:

And then, as they sat looking at the ships and steamboats making their way to the sea with the tide that was running down, the lovely woman imagined all sorts of voyages for herself and Pa. Now, Pa, in the character of owner of a lumbering square-sailed collier, was tacking away to Newcastle, to fetch black diamonds to make his fortune with; now, Pa was going to China in that handsome threemasted ship, to bring home opium, with which he would for ever cut out Chicksey Veneering and Stobbles, and to bring home silks and shawls without end for the decoration of his charming daughter. (315)

Note the global quality here. Steamboats cannot fail to remind Bella of the valuable foreign product addressed to her that had recently arrived irreparably damaged in transit: the (apparently) deceased John Harmon Jr. himself. But what also strikes me about this other passage about encountering steamboats is how it suggests that there is something exciting and stimulating about the modernity and indomitable power of this mode of transport, which runs entirely against the negativity threading the collision passage Jerry White (rightly) picks up upon.

And then again: you saw that ship being towed out by a steam-tug? Well! where did you suppose she was going to? She was going among the coral reefs and cocoa-nuts and all that sort of thing, and she was chartered for a fortunate individual of the name of Pa (himself on board, and much respected by all hands), and she was going, for his sole profit and advantage, to fetch a cargo of sweet-smelling woods, the most beautiful that ever were seen, and the most profitable that ever were heard of; and her cargo would be a great fortune, as indeed it ought to be: the lovely woman who had purchased her and fitted her expressly for this voyage, being married to an Indian Prince, who was a Something-or-Other, and who wore Cashmere shawls all over himself and diamonds and emeralds blazing in his turban, and was beautifully coffee-coloured and excessively devoted, though a little too jealous. Thus Bella ran on merrily, in a manner perfectly enchanting to Pa, who was as willing to put his head into the Sultan’s tub of water as the beggar-boys below the window were to put their heads in the mud. (316)

The polar range of tonality of the different passages about steamboats within the novel does not, necessarily, imply a contradiction within Dickens’s take upon this form of mobility, however. Indeed, we may be able to see the frictionless and solipsistic imperial takeover Bella imagines through the steamboats as, in fact, the occluded perspective of those passengers on the ‘foreign steamer’ who may have witnessed unfazed the collision with Riderhood’s wherry before continuing on their tourist or trade itinerary. At this stage in the novel, Bella is unredeemed, and her imagination is doubtless mediated by a love of Mammon of global proportions, which links her, subtly, with the murderous callousness of the steamers upon which she speculates. (See Murray Baumgarten’s essay ‘The Imperial Child, Bella, Our Mutual Friend, and the Victorian Picturesque’, in Dickens and the Children of Empire ed. Jacobson (2000) 54-66, for more about the imperial connotations of Bella Wilfer’s gaze.)

What is rather fascinating about Dickens’s novel is how both heroines, the good Lizzie and the less-than-good Bella, come to be associated with the figure of the steamer, a figure of determination, positive or negative, in rough and unpredictable waters. How can we connect up ideas of gender to our discussion of the cultural representation of modes of transports? Questions, questions…

Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend first published 1864-5 (Penguin, 1977).

London’s Fields in Our Mutual Friend

In his Atlas of the European Novel 1800-1900 (1998) Franco Moretti argues that Our Mutual Friend (1864-5) represents a pioneering event within the history of English metropolitan fiction, in that this text innovatively gives shape to a ‘third London’ that mediates and connects up the fashionable ‘Stucconia’ of the West and the impoverished slumland of the East. To use a Dickensian pun, for Moretti the novel ‘articulates’ urban space in all its discontinuity and contradiction with a thoroughness that had not been attempted before, making legible a complexity (and an unevenness) that had in antecedent textual products been reduced or flattened out of perceptibility. Moretti is interested in how this novel newly renders the relation of different parts of the urban machine to one another, and in how it therefore allows readers to begin to recognise the city as a structural totality. In his (useful and energising) reading of the novel’s geography, then, Our Mutual Friend is most original for showing us the operation of a pre-existing London, which ideology’s obfuscation and the tardiness of generic evolution had kept hidden.

While I have found very helpful Moretti’s series of synchronic maps detailing the fluctuating geographical scope of each issue of the novel as it appeared month by month in its original periodical format, for me Dickens’s urban representation is remarkable also because it acknowledges the city as itself undergoing constant change, through the speculative building projects that continually redefined it throughout the nineteenth century. Although it includes no ‘before-and-after’ shots of London ‘under construction’, as Dombey and Son (1847) does, and stages no suspenseful encounters amidst the city’s suburban building sites, as several Wilkie Collins novels do, the borders of London in Our Mutual Friend are nonetheless subtly but repeatedly shown to be in a constant state of revision outwards. In the margins of its own narratives, the novel engages with the half-built or un-built margins of the metropolis, and thus addresses London’s unprecedented sprawl, a diachronic phenomenon that Franco Moretti’s two-dimensional reductions cannot encompass.

In Moretti’s ‘broad-brush strokes’ cartographical representation of the novel’s first monthly number, he places the Veneerings in the vicinity of Mayfair. In fact, although we can’t know from the text’s description precisely where they live (this geographical vagueness being an intentional element of Dickens’s satire upon these context-less characters), we do know it can’t be Mayfair, or anywhere in the relatively old part of London to the east of Hyde Park, for the narrator insists this is a ‘bran new quarter of London’, i.e. one that has only just been built. Just as the unknown Veneerings have only recently become accommodated within London high society, so the home in which they host their aspirational parties has only recently been constructed, and the neighbourhood in which it finds itself has only recently become transformed from rural fields to urban streets and squares. While the shiny Veneering residence implicitly invokes through negation its recent rural past, other spaces on the edge of the city in the novel are haunted by ghosts of the city to come, such as the Wilfers’ house  (a site I’m doubly interested in, not only for its contribution to sprawl’s representation but also for its depiction of lodging).

Bella’s family house is ‘in the Holloway region north of London’, not far from the dust-heaps of Boffin’s Bower. To one side of the house lies a ‘tract of suburban Sahara…where tiles and bricks were burnt, bones were boiled, carpets were beat, rubbish was shot, dogs were fought, and dust was heaped by contractors’. The proximity of the Wilfer residence to the site known formerly as Harmony Jail, indeed, plays a key role within the plot, for it enables the circumstance of the back-story in which the deceased John Harmon Sr. writes the utter stranger Bella into his will in a kind of parody of a local bequest. (Having bumped into R Wilfer and his daughter on their Sunday walk in the neighbourhood Harmon Sr. decides to deploy her within his experimental last will and testament, banking misanthropically on his suspicion that the selfish little girl he overhears will grow up to be an even more offensive marriageable young lady, so that he can inflict emotional damage on Harmon Jr. from beyond the grave.) But to the other side of the house, the ‘fields and trees’ the narrator tells us also lie between the Wilfers’ suburbia and London proper are also significant, because they point to the city in potentia, a city whose future speculative building projects will surely triumph over the remaining rural space in a matter of years. When we read that scene from the latter part of the novel’s first book, in which the mysterious lodger Rokesmith in only an apparent accident chances upon Bella reading a new novel in the fields near her house, it is important that the setting is the residual rural hinterland, rather than a park or garden square fully contained by the city. In this relatively pastoral exception within a fairly relentlessly urban novel, Bella’s preference of books about money rather than books about love sounds a worrying note, alerting Rokesmith to her taste for capital (and by extension, the capital).

Whereas the London Dickens presents us with in the novel is unfinished and haunted with the ghosts of future cities, the nostalgic form of televisual adaptation requires a more stable referent from the settings in which it stages its reassuringly ‘period’ dramas. When the BBC filmed its most recent version of Our Mutual Friend, which aired in 1998, it avoided the confusion its viewers might have faced should there have been rural gaps left dotted around the shifting edge of the city, as the novel has it. The scene in question, towards the end of the first episode, relocates the encounter between Bella and her family’s new lodger in an urban public garden surrounded by black iron railings.

.BBC 1998 adaptation still

This different geography muddles matters. Bella (Anna Friel) and John (Steven Mackintosh) look like they might be figures in a Renoir or Caillebotte; those well tended borders and that elaborately wrought bench lend an air at once of fashion and formality that is misplaced in the context of a barely finished and decidedly unfashionable suburb. The enclosed space of the garden, moreover, surely foils the would-be lover’s pretence at bumping into the girl accidentally, which the open fields would have left an open possibility. Most importantly, the sound of noisy streets in the immediate background of the televisual frame undermines the sense of the unexpected pastoral under threat that is implied within the original textual version of this meeting. In the BBC adaptation, the vicinity of Holloway is less hybrid or ‘on the cusp’, and constitutes no variation upon the countryside at all but is thoroughly metropolitan, which signals (misleadingly) that Bella is likewise already a ‘finished’ urban product, completely at ease with the city’s logic of getting and spending. Removed from its rural context, there is less friction, less rub, in this scene of interrupted reading, between Bella (in her attractive awkwardness) as she is (or might be), and Bella (in her base mercenariness) as she represents herself.

Television creates its worlds via the limitations of sets set free by the infinitude of montage, a technique Eisenstein famously said he learnt from Dickens himself. His novels, however, are interested also in the gradual, addressing the way one thing seeps into and becomes another, over time, such as we might imagine occurs when the country becomes the city. Our Mutual Friend is fascinating because it points to these ‘gradual spaces’; at the edge of London, but does so through a narrative form that glories in discontinuities, in sudden jumps and cuts (as Moretti’s maps demonstrate). It would be good to have an adaptation that captured this tension better, and offered an urban geography as surprising, dynamic and comprehensive as the one he wrote.

(Re)reading Thackeray on Grief’s Inequity

Which of the dead are most tenderly and passionately deplored? Those who love the survivors the least, I believe. The death of a child occasions a passion of grief and frantic tears, such as your end, brother reader, will never inspire. The death of an infant which scarce knew you, which a week’s absence from you would have caused to forget you, will strike you down more than the loss of your closest friend, or your first-born son—a man grown like yourself, with children of his own. We may be harsh and stern with Judah and Simeon—our love and pity gush out for Benjamin, the little one. And if you are old, as some reader of this may be or shall be old and rich, or old and poor—you may one day be thinking for yourself—”These people are very good round about me, but they won’t grieve too much when I am gone. I am very rich, and they want my inheritance—or very poor, and they are tired of supporting me.”

Thackeray, Vanity Fair (1847-8)

In the monograph on nineteenth-century Bloomsbury I’m writing, Vanity Fair features as a turning point in the period in which the metropolitan locality of Russell Square and its environs becomes fully enfranchised into the literary geography of the novel for the first time. Just as other previously neglected parts of the nation were then being exploited substantively and appreciatively in the work of his contemporaries, such as Yorkshire in the Brontës or Manchester in Gaskell, so Thackeray expands the geographical scope of the metropolitan novel by writing a sprawling masterpiece whose heart is in socially marginal Bloomsbury, a part of town that had been overtly scorned and mocked by the silver-fork school of fiction this text critically draws upon and subverts. Having developed this argument about the novel for several years, I had thought the lecture I’m giving in a couple of weeks on Vanity Fair would write itself: barring the more general material that I’d need to add in order to calibrate my take on Thackeray for an undergraduate context, surely I knew what I wanted to say?

Returning to the text, however, I’m confronted with an embarrassment of riches that is at once wonderful to behold and difficult to handle. Much of what I’ve become newly interested in through this most recent reading I guess I’ll have to leave aside in order to present something manageable and meaningful for students, who have probably never encountered any of it before. But Thackeray’s focus on death and grieving, as exemplified in the passage above, which in my memory of the text I had confined or reduced to something less nuanced, will have to find its way into the lecture somehow, I reckon. I’m going to have to get my thinking hat on, and try to make some better sense of how the novel’s account of the work of mourning might relate to its innovative geography. How do the widow Amelia’s almost obsessive daily trips to Bloomsbury to pay homage to her dead husband’s memorial in the Foundling Hospital relate to the locality’s fluctuating value within the city’s live social currency? Hmm – probably not a question to pose in the lecture itself! But it’s just interesting how the rereading we do for teaching purposes can redirect us into avenues of research that we’d otherwise never have discovered…

Gissing and lodging-house naturalism (2)

The end of Arthur Golding’s tragic life happens amidst a sublime landscape half-way across the globe from the metropolis, when he throws himself into Niagara Falls. It is London, however, that creates the conditions for his tragedy, and indeed, it is London’s Thames that first gives him the inspiration for a watery self-made grave, which he contemplates initially in the immediacy of grief following John Pether’s death (438). Golding’s fatal tendency to return to the past and to misery rather than venture onwards to a happier future is figured geographically at the very beginning of Workers in the Dawn, when, as a recently bereaved child, he slips out of the protection of his new rural guardians and trudges back to the city, losing himself to any anxious philanthropists amidst its crowds.  This infant’s act of rejection of the countryside for the urban environment he knows better is, of course, a savage and profound subversion of the figure of the Wordsworthian child in Romanticism’s everyday Eden (the sardonic name of the slum in Whitecross Street that draws him homewards is ‘Adam and Eve Court’). But while Gissing rebutts Wordsworth’s fantasy that the urban child naturally divines the authority of nature’s parenthood, the novelist does not endorse little Arthur’s preference of the city for the country. Rather, the orphan’s active embrace of London signals proleptically to readers the first-fruits of one long naturalist descent into hell, demonstrating that his eight years’ habitation in Whitecross Street and its neighbourhood have soaked, through miasma, into his very bones, and he is already, in all probability, irredeemable.

If the tragedy of Arthur Golding can be guessed early on from the way the boy cannot help but return to London’s poorest neighbourhoods, its progress can be traced, conversely, through the character’s subsequent series of failed attempts to keep himself from being contaminated by the urban, and more specifically, by the degraded multiple-occupancy accommodation he has no choice but inhabit as a young adult. One crucial source of tension within the novel derives from Golding’s vain project to separate himself off from and raise himself above the residential spaces in which he finds himself, prominent among which are Bloomsbury’s lodging-houses. This tension recapitulates but modifies that to be found in Trollope’s The Small House at Allington, which pitted the rurally-born Johnny Eames’s ambitions for upward social mobility against the contaminating urban environs of Burton Crescent. As in the earlier novel, the greatest threat to Golding’s hermetic self-improvement comes from romantic (or sexual) encounter in the boarding-house, and the possibility of a consequent bad marriage. Unlike Eames, however, Golding fails to get away from his own ‘Mealyer’ (Carrie) before it is too late. The tease of possible tragicomic marriage in Trollope becomes full-blown marital tragedy in Gissing.

The first lodging-house Golding experiences as a grown man is based in Gower Place, just south of Euston Square, on Bloomsbury’s northern borders. He and his friend Mark Challenger try to keep ‘completely apart from the other residents’, avoiding as much ‘social intercourse’ with them as possible (317):

His landlady’s name was Pettindund, and, besides her own family of grown-up sons and daughters, she had her house always full of lodgers. When Arthur grew to know these people with some degree of familiarity, they excited in him a feeling of unutterable disgust. Enthusiastic as were his hopes for the amelioration of the poor and ignorant, he saw at once that here he had come into contact with a class of people from whom it was vain to expect improvement save by the agency of time. They could not be called poor, since the weekly earnings of the family amounted to no small sum, the whole of which they regularly squandered in surfeit and vice; and their mental and moral debasement was to them no pain whatever. To attempt to influence these people by any powers of example or persuasion, which an individual could exercise, he saw at once would be waste of time. They were too completely sunk in their hoggish slough to be capable of rescue by any single hand. (281)

Golding fails to recognise that his ‘contact’ with these porcine fellow inmates can work both ways, affecting him despite his separatist intentions.  If this autodidact of a character had read Trollope’s (recently published) novel featuring Bloomsbury boarding-houses, in addition to the translation of Homer  he occasionally quotes from (421), he would perhaps have been less worried about his impotence to influence them and more wary about the dangers to himself of an insidious ‘entanglement’ there. Though not so naive as to imagine he can improve or ameliorate all of those with whom he shares a roof, Golding makes an  ‘exception’ for his future wife Carrie Mitchell that proves to be his Achilles heel. Gissing suggests that Golding’s idealistic exceptionalism about Carrie, whom he singles out from the crowd as alone worthy to be saved, plays an active role within his contamination by the very environment he opposes. In the novel’s most sophisticated revision of the Bloomsbury boarding-house narrative for the purposes of naturalism, Workers attends to the multi-relational mechanics of sexual feeling, presenting the reviled space, through the absolute disgust it generates, as an agent in the production of desire.

At first, the character’s interest in Carrie seems to announce a straightforward and unmediated sexual drive: the narrator marks down Golding’s interest in the ‘young girl’ whom he has ‘occasionally passed on the stairs’ as evidence of his ‘susceptibility’ to a ‘beautiful female face’ (317). But there is a third party that complicates the couple’s hormonal proximity to one another, adding complexity to the socio-sexual dynamics of this space: the house (and its inhabitants). In my reading of the novel, Golding’s deepening attraction for Carrie is generated not only despite the  ‘unutterable disgust’ he feels for the other inhabitants such as Mrs Pettindund, but also, in part, because of it. The landlady of the Gower Place establishment represents a louder and more unpleasant version of the already problematic figure depicted by Dickens and Trollope, who splices together roles of matriarch and business-woman to the detriment of the former. Not only does the Pettindund family lack a vigilant maternal guide to protect them from their own ‘moral debasement’, but the landlady subjects one of her own relatives (her niece, Carrie) to her most hard-nosed treatment, thus confirming her abdication of Gissing’s favoured feminine virtues. (Mrs Pettindund shows Carrie no familial mercy after she falls pregnant, for instance, and, had been charged ‘no end of money for her board and lodging’ (318) even before this event.) What is most remarkable about the Gower Place landlady, however, is not her heartless behaviour to her own kin per se, but the effect this has upon Golding in stimulating his desire for her niece.

Golding’s gradual fascination with Carrie is largely mediated by his disgust-tinged encounters with Mrs. Pettindund’s pitiless, mercenary treatment of her, as it is for instance in this scene, when he leans over the banisters to eavesdrop upon a conversation in which the landlady confronts her niece about her pregnancy and tells her to leave the house:

“Yer don’t think I’m sich a fool as to keep yer, eh?” pursued the kindly-hearted landlady. “An’ lose the good name o’ th’ouse an’ all? If you do, you’re mistaken, that’s all as I’ve got to say t’yer.”

The listener’s straining ears could just catch the answer.

“You won’t turn me out of doors, aunt?” pleaded the girl’s sobbing voice. “Won’t you let me stay till it’s over, and then work and pay you all back?”

“A likely joke that, too! You pay me back! Catch yer doin’ of it! I tell you, you leave this ‘ouse to-day, an’ there’s no two ways about that. D’ye ‘ear?”

“But you’ve always been kind to me, aunt!” sobbed Carrie “Won’t you have some pity? If I’ve done wrong, I’m sorry for it; and I shall have to suffer for it all my life. You’ve been kind to me till now, aunt; don’t be so cruel as to turn me out. I’ve no home to go to.”

“What I ‘ave been, an’ what I’m goin’ to be now, is two very different things,” returned Mrs. Pettindund, in her coarse, gin-thickened, over-fed voice, and always with that inimitable ferocity of the true London lodging-house keeper. “I’ll trouble yer to pay me twelve-an’-sixpence, too, as soon as you get it; so you’d best go to work to-day, if it’s only for the money. I’ll have no —- i’ my ‘ouse, an’ so you ‘ave it straight.” (321)

Reading between the lines, Golding’s ‘entanglement’ with the seductively vulnerable Carrie is produced narcissistically from his overt self-definition against the contaminating living space they share, a space the aunt embodies. In a series of scenes that culminates in a parody of the family get-togethers of Dickens’s Christmas stories, when Mrs Pettindund refuses entrance to the heavily pregnant Carrie on Christmas Eve, the narrator covertly invites us to connect Golding’s visceral disgust for the Gower Place boarding house and landlady with his attraction to the girl he attempts to rescue. The chapter in which the narrator first relates Golding’s growing infatuation with Carrie is entitled, by way of a Nietzschean distinction, ‘Love or Pity?’, but it could have more pointedly been called ‘Love or Disgust?’. For Gissing thus demystifies the process by which even the most vigilant occupants of Bloomsbury lodging-house accommodation could succumb to its contaminating perils. In an odd version of Girardian triangularity that deploys the detested site itself in the production of desire, the male lover’s idealistic rejection of the overly grubby lodging-house is co-opted into the doomed marriage plot initiated there.

George Gissing, Workers in the Dawn ed. Debbie Harrison (Victorian Secrets, 2010).

George Gissing and lodging house naturalism (Part 1)

George Gissing’s Workers in the Dawn (1880) is an extraordinarily ambitious first novel that is complex (though less than concise) in its construction, serious (though problematically misogynistic) in its engagement with social realities such as alcoholism and prostitution, brave in its inscription of a tragic suicidal end for its main character, and valuable in its documentary reference to under-recorded but significant historical phenomena such as the working-class reception of the 1871 Commune in Paris. In a narrative that in some respects resembles Henry James’s The Princess Casamassima (1886), Workers in the Dawn traces the story of an unusually handsome boy, noble of blood but born into poverty, who comes into contact but becomes disillusioned with late nineteenth-century London’s newly prominent left-wing politics. Like Hyacinth Robinson in James’s novel, Gissing’s Arthur Golding gains an incomplete education and works as a youth with artisans in the book trade (Hyacinth is a bookbinder; Arthur, a printer). Both characters display some sort of artistic propensity which is never allowed to play itself out, and both novels, therefore, instantiate stunted forms of the Künstlerroman, wherein the self-actualization of the male lead is only ever mooted and never achieved. (Golding: ”When shall I have my first picture in the Academy?’ (185) Fate: ‘Never.’)

Like The Princess Casamassima, Gissing’s novel deserves to be recognised as one of the great London novels of the period, and was, indeed, one of the key initiators of the flourishing in the latter two decades of the century of the grittier sort of urban fiction of which James’s book is a lauded example. Gissing became famous later on in the decade for writing fiction set in very poor, slummy parts of London, such as Clerkenwell (see The Nether World (1889)): the geography of Workers in the Dawn includes these kinds of settings (notably in its opening chapter, which plucks an orphan from Whitecross Street, reputedly ‘the worst street in London’), but is largely drawn from the more socially mixed localities of Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia. As Richard Dennis has traced (2009), the series of temporary addresses at which the unfortunate hero resides mirrors very closely the residential trajectory of lodging and boarding houses the novelist himself plotted. While the novel has long been recognised as partly autobiographical, being often described as containing a fictionalized rendering of the early years of his life which he spent with Nell Harrison (the ‘rescued’ prostitute and alcoholic he unhappily married) the recent spatial turn in scholarship has demonstrated the novel is at its truest-to-life in its choice of residential locations.

Though unaware of the novel’s autobiographical use of London, the reviewer in the Examiner (July 17, 1880) still recognised its geographical interest as one of Gissing’s chief literary innovations, picking up specifically on his inclusion of the ‘shellfish’ of the slums and, more codedly, the ‘mysteries’ (prostitution) of Leicester Square. I include the piece here complete:

Gissing Workers in the Dawn Examiner July 17 1880 p868

In addition to marking the novel’s ‘bold’ representation of the metropolis, however, the review also treats questions of literary geography in other respects too. Both in the way its first sentence notes Gissing’s evident elective affinities with the French naturalist tradition, and in its italicized recourse to the French language (‘tableaux vivants‘) when gesturing to unspeakable continental vices, the reviewer in the Examiner seems to suggest that Zola’s Paris is somehow spectrally present throughout Workers in the Dawn, even though readers do not encounter it directly. (Paris is perhaps most forcibly legible in the text in the grotesque scene in which the working-class radical-cum-madman John Pether burns to death amidst the (both literally and metaphorically) incendiary newspaper reports of the Commune he has been poring over in bed.) It is interesting that while the review points out that Parisian naturalism is in the background of this London novel, it also implicitly insists that Gissing might have done more to bring this fully scandalous French affiliation into the light. Hinting that the doubtless ‘talent[ed]’ author suffered from an English failure of nerve, perhaps deriving from too conflicted a desire simultaneously to ape Zola’s uncompromising naturalism and to inject a ‘stronger touch of morality’ into the mix, the review claims that Gissing’s novel suggests not only what it ‘might have avoided’ but also what it ‘has not done.’ Though hidden beneath an apparently harsh judgement that the novel would have better gone unpublished, the Examiner‘s fair critique of Gissing’s contradictory mash-up of French descriptivism and English prescriptivism recognises the intellectual potential of Workers as much as it chides its failure in execution.

One key aspect of the novel’s spectrally Parisian London geography is its repeated focus on multiple occupancy housing. As Sharon Marcus (1999) has shown, despite the fact that lodging- and boarding-houses were extremely common in nineteenth-century London, the English capital preferred to imagine itself as a city characterised by neatly defined town-houses inhabited by only one family each, in contradistinction to the promiscuous disorder of apartment-living the Parisians put up with. In the nineteenth-century English cultural imagination, there was something other, something French, about sharing a front-door with co-nomadic strangers. But Gissing’s novel eschews this pretence at lodging’s otherness by showing the practice as ubiquitous, depicting one boarding- or lodging-house after another, of varying qualities and housing characters across a range of class positions, from the nightmarish site in Whitecross Street at the very beginning to the first-floor lodgings let out to Augustus Whiffle, a lazy middle-class student of divinity (221). Those fairly well-appointed rooms of Whiffle’s, like several let out to Golding, are located in Bloomsbury, the part of London this novel constructs most thoroughly. Gissing presents Bloomsbury as he had found it: an area characterised by an unusual degree of class mixture, with a plethora of multiple occupancy housing that catered to a very wide spectrum of society. In doing so, the novel offers a series of variations upon the Bloomsbury boarding house, a literary space Gissing knew not only from direct experience, having inherited it from Dickens and Trollope. In Workers in the Dawn, this site that had been treated in farcical or tragicomic terms by those earlier writers becomes modulated with a naturalism that pays overt homage to Zola, thereby acknowledging a covert French-ness that, according to Sharon Marcus, had been there all along.

George Gissing, Workers in the Dawn ed. Debbie Harrison (Victorian Secrets, 2010).

Re-constructing Poe’s Houses

I’ve been re-reading Edgar Allan Poe recently, in advance of teaching him this term for the first time on a couple of modules, and have been struck greatly by his idiosyncratic attention to the materiality of houses, in stories such as ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1841), ‘The Purloined Letter’ (1845), ‘The Black Cat’ (1843) and ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ (1843). Through reading Walter Benjamin and various other theorists and interpreters of urban space (such as Ben Highmore, 2005), I have become accustomed to thinking of Poe as the great documenter of the open streets, and of the crowds and flâneurs that haunt them, but in returning to these exquisite stories I’ve become additionally more and more interested in how they treat the (by definition) limited space of buildings and the rooms they contain. Of course, much has already been said from a psychoanalytic perspective of the fascination of Gothic writers with the unheimlich home, but here I am addressing more specifically the way Poe scrutinises (to the extent of almost trying to pull apart) the physicality of inhabited buildings per se, to demystify them as bricks, mortar and wood or iron support structures, arranged as walls, fireplaces, roofs. Poe’s concern with the material limits of houses, as sites under-written and circumscribed both by the finite physical space they occupy and by the variable quality of materials with which they have been constructed, deserves more attention from literary scholars, partly in order to trace one source of a strain of imaginative engagement with the materiality of domesticity that surfaces in later fiction by writers such as Wilkie Collins and Richard Marsh.

Some extraordinarily productive readings have emerged from the critical deployment of those two famous Dupin stories, ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ and ‘The Purloined Letter’, as metaphors for the interpretive quest; for reading as detection (most notably by none other than Jacques Lacan). Although in the end both stories self-reflexively seem to insist that enlightenment is not (if it is anything at all) a matter of anyone going anywhere, the texts spatialize both the concealment of and the hunt for the truth in a very material way. In the earlier story, the biggest conundrum presented by the apparently psychopathic crime Dupin eventually solves is the fact of the body of one of the victims ‘forced’, improbably,’up the narrow aperture’ of a chimney ‘for a considerable distance’. By contrast, the twist of ‘The Purloined Letter’ is, famously, that the letter hasn’t had to have been stuffed into any all-too-unyielding nooks or crannies at all, but is lying on the desk in full view. Nonetheless, although the end of the story seeks to transcend what has gone before, the longer (middle) part of the story relates a very meticulous search of the premises conducted by the police, which serves to make us uncomfortably aware of the physical limits of inhabited spaces:

          “…we examined the rungs of every chair in the hotel, and, indeed, the jointings of every description of furniture, by the aid of a most powerful microscope. Had there been any traces of recent disturbance we should not have failed to detect it instantly. A single grain of gimlet-dust, for example, would have been as obvious as an apple. Any disorder in the gluing — any unusual gap in the joints — would have sufficed to insure detection.”

“I presume you looked to the mirrors, between the boards and the plates, and you probed the beds and the bedclothes, as well as the curtains and carpets.”

“That of course; and when we had absolutely completed every particle of the furniture in this way, then we examined the house itself. We divided its entire surface into compartments, which we numbered, so that none might be missed; then we scrutinized each individual square inch throughout the premises, including the two houses immediately adjoining, with the microscope, as before.”

Two other stories, ‘The Black Cat’ and ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, both explore houses as limited enclosures, in which there is only so much space for concealment or containment: like the other stories, they make use of the trope of the hidden thing that for one reason or another will not remain hidden. In each of them, the use of a deranged first-person narrator makes us readers more and more aware of form, leading me to wonder whether Poe’s repeated attention to the idea of the finite materiality of buildings might have had at least something to do with his relation to the textual kind of enclosure writing short stories itself enacts. In any case, just before the grotesque final paragraphs of ‘The Black Cat’, the narrator takes a bunch of policeman round his house, and cannot help himself in talking about the ‘well-constructed[ness]’ of its walls, behind one of which he has deposited the wife he has murdered:

“Gentlemen,” I said at last, as the party ascended the steps, “I delight to have allayed your suspicions. I wish you all health, and a little more courtesy. By the bye, gentlemen, this—this is a very well constructed house.” [In the rabid desire to say something easily, I scarcely knew what I uttered at all.]—”I may say an excellently well constructed house. These walls—are you going, gentlemen?—these walls are solidly put together;” and here, through the mere phrenzy of bravado, I rapped heavily, with a cane which I held in my hand, upon that very portion of the brick-work behind which stood the corpse of the wife of my bosom.

‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ tells a similar tale of bodies (un)successfully concealed, but here emphasises the labours of the murderer who has to confront the house’s materiality in order to try to escape legal comeuppance:

If still you think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body. The night waned, and I worked hastily, but in silence. First of all I dismembered the corpse. I cut off the head and the arms and the legs. I then took up three planks from the flooring of the chamber, and deposited all between the scantlings. I then replaced the boards so cleverly, so cunningly, that no human eye –not even his –could have detected any thing wrong. There was nothing to wash out –no stain of any kind –no blood-spot whatever. I had been too wary for that. A tub had caught all –ha! ha!

Those details of the planks and the ‘scantlings’ (whatever they are!) are so significant here, rhyming in a truly horrible way with the other object that he disassembles into its parts (the body itself). It would be worth analysing what purpose other than Gothic readerly effect this materialization or demystification of domestic materiality serves in Poe’s work, however, and in particular, to think about how his writing relates to adjacent contemporaneous discourses about limited, inadequate, or ‘jerry-built’ housing, following on from Sharon Marcus’s work in Apartment Stories (1999). But that’s for another day…

Unstable Toponymy in the ‘Golden Age’ of Crime Fiction

The Cartwright Gardens Mystery (1924) begins, promisingly, with a suspicious death, witnessed by a young male lodger named Albert Jennison, who is leaning outside his window, which faces the street the novel marks down firmly in its title. In setting the scene for this murder, the narrator elaborates with substantial detail upon the literary geographical territory:

Cartwright Gardens lies in the far east corner of Bloomsbury, somewhat south of the dreary Euston Road, and somewhat north of the still drearier quarter that fringes on the western confines of Clerkenwell. Whoever knows nothing of it and goes thither on a voyage of discovery must not expect what the name, taken literally, would seem to suggest – here are neither bushes not brakes, flowers nor fruits. What is here is a drab and dismal crescent of houses, fronted by an enclosure wherein soot and grime descend on the London plane tree and the London turf; an oasis, perhaps, in the surrounding wilderness of shabby streets, but only, as things go, for the brave sparrow and his restless stalker, the lodging-house cat.[1]

In foregrounding spatiality, both in the title and the text’s opening set-piece, ‘Golden Age’ popular detective fiction writer J. S. Fletcher was partly following a formula that had proved successful for him in the past. He had come to fame in the previous decade with The Middle Temple Murder (1918) and had very recently published The Charing Cross Mystery (1923), both of which novels made explicit use of recognisable metropolitan locations in order to accentuate a sense of topicality and urgency. In this practice he was, of course, hardly original, as the prominent use of real London places in detective fiction had become common by this point in the development of the genre and can be traced back at least as far as that pioneering pot-boiler, The Notting Hill Mystery (1862-3). Part of the repertoire of tricks writers could employ to achieve the ‘reality effect’ Roland Barthes has discussed, branding one’s fiction with an actual residential address was a way of linking it in the reader’s imagination with the crime columns of newspapers, which similarly christened unsolved crimes with recourse to the Post Office Directory.

Cartwright Gardens Mystery

What is curious and notable, however, about the book’s prominent geography is the fact that the very street spotlighted in Fletcher’s novel had featured in those newspaper columns, albeit fifty years earlier. In 1878, it had played host to the shocking homicide of an elderly widow, Rachel Samuel. An unsolved crime sensation, the case was known popularly with reference to the then current name of the street as the ‘Burton Crescent murder’. The renaming of Burton Crescent, which was almost certainly prosecuted partly in response to the reputational corrosion the locality sustained because of the unsolved crime with which it was associated, happened as late as 1908. While the bricks and mortar of the street itself had been laid down between 1809 and 1820 by the speculative master builder James Burton (after whom it would take its original name), its latter designation  ‘Cartwright Gardens’ was only sixteen years old when the novel appeared.

When we pay attention to the novel’s intertextuality with the geography of other earlier and more famous texts, the old street name appears to have been intentionally (if subtly) invoked. In Anthony Trollope’s The Small House at Allington (1864), the ‘hobbledehoy’ hero of that novel Johnny Eames also rents a room in a boarding house on Burton Crescent (as it was then called). Like Albert Jennison, Eames is in his early twenties and a fellow of imaginative or even poetic propensities (a ‘builder of castles in the air’). Both leave their lodgings in this street behind and move, initially, to the Great Western Hotel, in Paddington. That detail of residential trajectory is surely too precise to be unmeaning coincidence. It suggests Fletcher was aware of Trollope’s novel (and of the old street name) when writing his own text set in the same geographical location.

A number of theorists of space have seen something rather fascinating and complex in place names. Georg Simmel finds the shift from names to numbers in the modern city a phenomenon that illustrates the move towards ever greater efficiency (and consequent alienation) that occurs in industrialised modernity.[2] Walter Benjamin[3] and Michel de Certeau, meanwhile, are both interested in what escapes that shift away from messy particularity. The former thinks about the poetic ‘magic’ that occurs in the chance encounter between two names formed by a street corner, while the latter explores how the imposed significances inscribed by planners on the streets they design or rename become broken up, subverted, and rewritten by the everyday poetic practices of talkers and walkers.[4] By ghoulishly reviving the memory of a repressed past by staging another murder there, and by pointing the (careful and thorough) reader, through allusion to local literary history, to the old tainted street name, Fletcher’s novel might be seen to enact another related kind of subversive local practice to those de Certeau envisions. Rather than opposing a top-down scripturality with an alternative semantics of street-level resistance that is carried through oral and spatial manoeuvres, The Cartwright Gardens Mystery coaxes out the spectre of the old name from beneath the new through the play of submerged intertextuality and genre.

[1] J. S. Fletcher, The Cartwright Gardens Mystery (London: W. Collins, 1924) p1.

[2] Georg Simmel, ‘The Sociology of Space’, in Simmel on Culture: Selected Writings ed. Frisby and Featherstone (SAGE, 2000) p137-169

[3] Alexander Regier, ‘The Magic of the Corner: Walter Benjamin and Street Names’ The Germanic Review: Literature, Culture, Theory, Volume 85, Issue 3, 2010. pages 189-204.

[4] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (1984, 103-5).