I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how the Victorians responded in their fiction to metropolitan residential mobility. As much feminist scholarship and work on domesticity has shown, the home was a place loaded in this period with ideological significance, and one’s place of residence, as a result, played a hugely important role in the formation of bourgeois identity. At the same time, cities like London were in practice spaces of residential flux, in which members of the middle classes moved around far more than they do today. Freeholds on properties were rare, and it was common to rent or take relatively short leases on accommodation throughout one’s life. Before marriage, young men would frequently occupy lodgings or live in boarding houses, in even more temporary arrangements, moving every few months or so. As a result, the list of residential addresses one might have accumulated by one’s middle age could be long indeed. As a result, over the course of a lifetime, one’s sense of identity, as expressed specifically in residency, would be markedly fragmented and dispersed. How did writers attend to this complex reality of everyday life?
Anthony Trollope, who was born in 1815 in Keppel Street, Bloomsbury, wrote about one reaction to residential mobility that was doubtless very common: nostalgia. In this passage from his novel Orley Farm (1862), he emphasises the way that, even if one had ascended socially through success in one’s professional career, it was normal to look backwards with affection for the modes of life belonging to one’s past, concretized as they would be in one’s memory by their association with particular residences one could still remember:
“I wonder whether you ever think of the old days when we used to be so happy in Keppel Street?” Ah me, how often in after life, in those successful days when the battle has been fought and won, when all seems outwardly to go well,—how often is this reference made to the happy days in Keppel Street! It is not the prize that can make us happy; it is not even the winning of the prize, though for the one short half-hour of triumph that is pleasant enough. The struggle, the long hot hour of the honest fight, the grinding work,—when the teeth are set, and the skin moist with sweat and rough with dust, when all is doubtful and sometimes desperate, when a man must trust to his own manhood knowing that those around him trust to it not at all,—that is the happy time of life. There is no human bliss equal to twelve hours of work with only six hours in which to do it. And when the expected pay for that work is worse than doubtful, the inner satisfaction is so much the greater. Oh, those happy days in Keppel Street, or it may be over in dirty lodgings in the Borough, or somewhere near the Marylebone workhouse;—anywhere for a moderate weekly stipend. Those were to us, and now are to others, and always will be to many, the happy days of life. How bright was love, and how full of poetry! Flashes of wit glanced here and there, and how they came home and warmed the cockles of the heart. And the unfrequent bottle! Methinks that wine has utterly lost its flavour since those days. There is nothing like it; long work, grinding weary work, work without pay, hopeless work; but work in which the worker trusts himself, believing it to be good. Let him, like Mahomet, have one other to believe in him, and surely nothing else is needed. “Ah me! I wonder whether you ever think of the old days when we used to be so happy in Keppel Street?”
As is often the case with Trollope, the cosy use of the collective pronoun should not lull us into a sense that the strange implications lurking beneath the narrator’s musings are in any way addressed. Drawing our attention to an apparent perversity of thought, in which the prize of hard work proves Pyrrhic, undone as it is by a nostalgic current that prefers the inaccessible past, however ‘dirty’ or ‘grinding’, to the alienated present, Trollope leaves us with an insight that nineteenth-century residential identity was more complicated and problematic than we might have at first imagined.