When Virginia Stephen (better known by her married name, Woolf) moved into Bloomsbury, in 1904, at the very beginning of her writing career, the area had a long and rich history in cultural representation, though one characterised by denigration more than celebration. As the passage from a contemporaneously published piece bucking that trend suggests, despite (or rather, because of) its ‘banality’, ‘vulgarity’ and ‘sordidness’, generations of writers had trodden ‘upon the shoulders’ of the ‘unfortunate region’, gaining inspiration from its peculiar qualities – even to the extent that the ‘more sensitive of its inhabitants’ had taken to disavowing the tainted name in their address entirely. Nowadays, the name of Bloomsbury is more likely to invoke different connotations within the popular imagination – of wealthy intellectuals living in each others pockets; of the Bells, John Maynard Keynes, Duncan Grant, and the Woolfs themselves, the very antitheses of banality and vulgarity, we might think (if not, for the prudish, sordidness!) But the Bloomsbury that attracted this famous coterie at the beginning of the twentieth century was precisely that described in the passage above, and the ‘dreary patch of second-rate boarding houses’ described by the Saturday Review is, more or less, the same one Woolf herself constructed in Mrs Dalloway (1925), when she housed Septimus Warren Smith in cheap temporary accommodation there. Far from a site of transcendence from the tedious mess of material reality, Bloomsbury was in 1904 (as it was for much of the nineteenth century) a space associated with the real, at its most ‘dreary’ or, indeed, embarrassing.
One key strand of my research concerns the relationship between cultural constructions of gender (broadly conceived) and the social production of space in the long nineteenth century. Hence, as earlier blog posts demonstrate, when I consider sites such as the boarding house, I foreground the way writers such as Dickens play with contemporaneous ideals about marriage through their innovative fictionalizations of this particular geography. In a related vein, there’s an article of mine published in Nineteenth Century Gender Studies that looks at the way stereotypes of domestic masculinity were deployed in the 1850s and 1860s, by authors including Edward Bulwer Lytton and Mary Elizabeth Braddon, to perform an apparently different form of cultural work entirely: the clarification (or ‘zoning’) of the bourgeois centre of London into residential west and commercial east. In my reading of the geographical work of the Victorian novel, representations of gender frequently occur hand in hand with representations of space, drawing energy symbiotically one from the other.
I’m set to give a related paper at BAVS (British Association of Victorian Studies) in September about the way anxieties about natural reproduction are carried through narrative depictions of urban sprawl. Developing an earlier interest of mine in the ways in which nineteenth-century serial novelists related to the figure of the speculative builder, (conceiving of half-finished suburban streets as analogous to their own speculative publishing projects), I want to explore in this paper how, in the last few decades of the century, the discourse upon the ‘jerry built’ suburbs at the edge of London was suffused with nightmarish figures of abandoned, aborted, or otherwise surplus-to-requirements children from post-Malthusian and social Darwinian imaginaries.
One text I’ve only come across very recently (thanks to an essay by Anne Witchard) illuminates what I mean with particular concision: George Egerton’s short story, ‘Wedlock’, which can be found in her second proto-modernistic collection, entitled Discords (1894). Egerton highlights the geographical context of her narrative very distinctly in the opening passage, capturing effectively the unsavoury quality of this space under construction, where the juxtaposition of the new residents’ utopian hopes for the ‘ideal homes’ they’re hoping to have found and the sooty, debris-strewn reality is stark and sardonic:
Two bricklayers are building a yellow brick wall to the rear of one of a terrace of new jerry-built houses in a genteel suburb. At their back is the remains of a grand old garden. Only the unexpired lease saves it from the clutch of the speculator. An apple-tree is in full blossom, and a fine elm is lying on the grass, sawn down, as it stood on the boundary of a ‘desirable lot’; many fair shrubs crop up in unexpected places, a daphne-mezereum struggles to redden berries amid a heap of refuse thrown out by the caretakers; a granite urn, portions of a deftly carven shield, a mailed hand and a knight’s casque, relics of some fine old house demolished to accommodate the ever increasing number of the genteel, lie in the trampled grass. The road in front is scarcely begun, and the smart butchers’ carts sink into the soft mud and red brick- dust, broken glass, and shavings; yet many of the houses are occupied, and the unconquerable London soot has already made some of the cheap art curtains look dingy.
What strikes me about this depiction of urban sprawl, as in other similar depictions by George Gissing, is how images of construction are wedded, inevitably, with images of destruction and decay. The ‘ever increasing number of the genteel’ are at war with the past, and at war with the land that records that past, even as they are – in the social Darwinian view – at war with each other. Here, ‘unconquerable London soot’ is a synecdoche for the unconquerability of London itself, and it projects the commonly held late nineteenth-century fear that the overpopulation of cities in general and the metropolis in particular spelt disaster for the race and the nation.
It is into this pessimistic (if familiar) rhetoric of late nineteenth-century post-Malthusian anti-suburban discourse that Egerton drops a extraordinary tale of grief-inspired infanticide. Those berries that are struggling to redden in the first paragraph are echoed, all too ripely, by the concluding sentences, which stain the suburban house with the blood of murdered children:
Upstairs in a back room in the silent house a pale strip of moonlight flickers over a dark streak on the floor, that trickles slowly from the pool at the bedside out under the door, making a second ghastly pool on the top step of the stairs — a thick sorghum red, blackening as it thickens, with a sickly serous border. Downstairs the woman sits in a chair with her arms hanging down. Her hands are crimson as if she has dipped them in dye. A string of blue beads lies on her lap, and she is fast asleep; and she smiles as she sleeps, for Susie is playing in a meadow, a great meadow crimson with poppies, and her blue eyes smile with glee, and her golden curls are poppy-crowned, and her little white feet twinkle as they dance, and her pinked-out grave frock flutters, and her tiny waxen hands scatter poppies, blood-red poppies, in handfuls over three open graves.
Two everyday things that sit uneasily in the margins of the earlier parts of story emerge reconfigured by the sensational ending as somehow Gothically charged: the bricks that the workmen handle so laconically, upon which the narrator focuses obsessively, and the perambulators pushed by the happy new parents, who we witness ironically, from a distance. Egerton’s short story, through the poetic force of the miniature form it employs, thrusts these quotidian features of the cityscape together and insists that we recognise that, in urban sprawl, they are directly (and, perhaps, disturbingly) intertwined.
Anthony Trollope’s An Autobiography (1883) introduces space prominently in its first chapter.[i] Treated not only as a context for but also a kind of agent in the human chronicles that follow, spatiality is signalled to be a fundamental rather than an ornamental aspect of lived experience:
I was born in 1815, in Keppel Street, Russell Square; and while a baby, was carried down to Harrow, where my father had built a house on a large farm … That farm was the grave of all my father’s hopes, ambition, and prosperity, the cause of my mother’s sufferings, and of those of her children, and perhaps the director of her destiny
Fixing on the farm as the ‘director’ of the family’s ‘destiny’, the author casts this site as a kind of compensation for his father’s practice as a Chancery barrister in ‘almost suicidal chambers’ in Lincoln’s Inn. At the time of Anthony’s birth, Thomas Trollope is buoyed up enough to feel himself ‘entitled to a country house’ in addition to the Bloomsbury home, but in this exuberant expenditure overreaches himself: things go ‘much against him’, the farm proves ‘ruinous’, and the landlord features in the family’s collective imagination as ‘a cormorant…eating [them] up’: ‘My father’s clients deserted him …Then, as a final crushing blow, an old uncle, whose heir he was to have been, married and had a family!’ This ironic catastrophe reverses the Trollope family’s upward social mobility and provokes a residential move to match, which functions in the autobiography as a kind of traumatic primal scene.
Towards the end of the narration of this passage about the decline in the immediate family fortunes, Trollope exposes the way his fiction had borrowed its geographies from that troubled early period in his life:
The house in London was let; and also the house he built at Harrow, from which we descended to a farmhouse on the land, which I have endeavoured to make known to some readers under the name of Orley Farm. This place, just as it was when we lived there, is to be seen in the frontispiece to the first edition of that novel, having had the good fortune to be delineated by no less a pencil than that of John Millais.
Here the ‘good fortune’ of having secured one of the nation’s greatest painters for Orley Farm’s illustrations stands in for the larger upswing in the writer’s fortunes to which this autobiography attests.[ii] Turning to the frontispiece of the first edition of one of his books reminds us, moreover, that there have been other editions, that the author’s career has been a successful one. In drawing our attention to this space of childhood held in common between fictional and biographical worlds, we witness Trollope inscribing it not only with retrospective longing but also a sense of the boy’s future destiny as a popular writer. The house he renames Orley Farm is implicitly a material determinant for his turn to the literary profession. The farm can be best interpreted as the ‘director’ of his mother Frances’s fate, after all, if we infer that without the social decline it embodied she would have never taken up her pen to earn money. Had the father been successful, and the Trollope family stayed in the big house at Harrow instead of downsizing to the more humble one on its land, we are led to ponder whether Anthony would ever have thought of writing for a living himself.
Thus space is subtly implicated in the more prominent and controversial project of An Autobiography to expose the materiality of literature, undermining Romantic ideas of authorship by stressing the mechanical realities of serial fiction production and the pecuniary interests of the producer. As George Gissing, author of the similarly demystifying New Grub Street (1891), appreciated, Trollope was unusually frank in detailing his reliance not on poetic inspiration but on routines of work that would appear familiar to readers in other professions, such as the law.[iii] As the title of Mary Hamer’s Writing by Numbers (1987) commemorates, Trollope rigidly timetabled hours of writing that were made to fit around the other social and professional demands of each day.[iv] The autobiography had an unusual interest in the quantitative in more ways than one: a chart resembling a page from an accountant’s ledgers at the back of the book documented precisely how much money the author earned from each novel he wrote.
In Trollope’s posthumously published Autobiography, then, literature is unveiled as a business like any other, in which efficiency and success can be measured objectively. Trollope’s conjunction of domestic space and the failing career betrays, more mutedly, a similar imperative. In his discussion in the Autobiography of ‘Orley Farm’, Trollope blends nostalgia for a lost childhood with the practical matter of professional success, a topic that would prove to be the chief leitmotif of the whole text. In the auto/biographical mythologies attached to Walter Scott’s Abbotsford and Dickens’s Gad’s Hill, the fetishised residential site is made to stand in for and signify the fruits of a successful career in writing sellable books.[v] Trollope’s Autobiography, in pointing backwards to foreground a house that his father had lost through his own stunted career progression, curiously subverts this Scottian or Dickensian idea. Instead of presenting the dream house as the tangible substance and proof of a career made good through the persistent hard-graft of literary endeavour, Trollope returns us to a house from his past that he does not own, but which, through fictional representation he has in some way miraculously redeemed.
[i] For lucid, comprehensive discussions of the Autobiography, see Andrew Sanders, Anthony Trollope (Northcote Press, Writers and their Work, 1998) and Victoria Glendinning, ‘Trollope as autobiographer and biographer’, in The Cambridge Companion to Anthony Trollope ed. Carolyn Dever and Lisa Niles (Cambridge, 2010), p17-30.
[ii] ‘Millais probably found Trollope’s written description, for all its apparent clarity, difficult to follow, for in a letter to Chapman Trollope spoke of the possibility of having the building photographed or of Millais’ going out to see it. A photograph, remarkably like Millais’ drawing, may have been the source for the illustration… Of [Trollope’s novelistic description of the farmhouse] Bradforth Booth remarked that writing could scarcely be less precious. Millais, on the other hand, has chosen to idyllicise the scene…in a manner somewhat removed from the realism of most of his drawings for Trollope. Here, for example, Millais has added…a milkmaid and cow, meant no doubt to contribute a bucolic touch – although one would not ordinarily expect to see cows milked in an orchard, and from the wrong side at that. The house seems remote and quiet, but one has it constantly in the mind’s eye as one reads the story of Lady Mason…’ N. John Hall, Trollope and his Illustrators (London: Macmillan, 1980) p53-4.
[iii] See Simon J. James, Unsettled Accounts: Money and Narrative in the Novels of George Gissing (Anthem, 2003) p48.
[iv] Mary Hamer, Writing By Numbers: Trollope’s Serial Fiction (1987).
[v] See Iain G. Brown (ed.) Abbotsford and Sir Walter Scott: The Image and the Influence (Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 2003). John Forster’s The Life of Charles Dickens (1872-4) emphasises the importance of Gad’s Hill to the author as a symbol of both how far and how little he had travelled in the world, since his imaginative boyhood days to the point at which, as a wealthy and successful novelist, he could fulfil his childhood dreams and purchase the house that had been his object of fantasy.
On the following morning, Mr. Septimus Hicks was united to Miss Matilda Maplesone. Mr. Simpson also entered into a ‘holy alliance’ with Miss Julia; Tibbs acting as father, ‘his first appearance in that character.’ Mr. Calton, not being quite so eager as the two young men, was rather struck by the double discovery; and as he had found some difficulty in getting any one to give the lady away, it occurred to him that the best mode of obviating the inconvenience would be not to take her at all. The lady, however, ‘appealed,’ as her counsel said on the trial of the cause, Maplesone v. Calton, for a breach of promise, ‘with a broken heart, to the outraged laws of her country.’ She recovered damages to the amount of 1,000l. which the unfortunate knocker was compelled to pay. Mr. Septimus Hicks having walked the hospitals, took it into his head to walk off altogether. His injured wife is at present residing with her mother at Boulogne. Mr. Simpson, having the misfortune to lose his wife six weeks after marriage (by her eloping with an officer during his temporary sojourn in the Fleet Prison, in consequence of his inability to discharge her little mantua-maker’s bill), and being disinherited by his father, who died soon afterwards, was fortunate enough to obtain a permanent engagement at a fashionable haircutter’s; hairdressing being a science to which he had frequently directed his attention.
Of the enormous quantities of popular fiction the Victorians produced, the comic material has faded out of critical consciousness more than other genres, such as sensation and crime fiction. Humour dates fast, as we know, but from a historical perspective, it is precisely this twinned topicality-cum-obsolescence that makes it a valuable resource for understanding what made a culture tick. One very successful run of comic novels that also had a life as Dickensian public readings by the author was George Rose’s Mrs Brown series, published under the pseudonym Arthur Sketchley, between 1866 and 1882. In these books, Rose adopts the voice of an illiterate elderly woman, Martha Brown, (not unlike Sairey Gamp, from Martin Chuzzlewit), setting the character on course to visit various places on the contemporary tourist trail, such as the Paris Exhibition (1867), the Highlands (1869), the Nile (1869), South Kensington (1872), and the Crystal Palace (1875) (but also having her encounter social-political scenarios, such as ‘the new Liquor Law’ (1872), ‘the Alabama Claims’ (1872), Woman’s Rights (1872), and ‘the Shah’s Visit’ (1873)). The conjunction of the crude gender and class satire embodied in the condescending use of ventriloquism, and the topical commentary on subjects readers would know something about via more serious genres, such as newspaper editorials, proved a winner.
One of the novels, written at the height of the series, in the mid 1870s, narrated a trip to Margate. Mrs Brown at Margate (1874) has Martha and some of her pals determine on going to the town they know as ‘Margit’ in order to get a better view of the ‘Comit’ the papers have been predicting will pass over Britain. Mrs Brown has been there many times before, and on arriving, she can’t help casting her mind back to the days before 1856, when the jetty then standing was built by one Eugenius Birch, days when the town was not so swollen with quite so many ‘new ‘ouses’:
Later, Martha gets into the spirit of the place and goes for a donkey ride along the sands. When she sees the slight beast, she has some reservations:
As it happens, it is not the donkey’s ability to hold her weight that she should have worried about. After ambling around on its back for a while, she finds herself far away from any of the boys that should have been supervising her ride, a position of isolation that suddenly seems rather ominous after the donkey starts hurtling headlong into the sea on what appears to be a suicide mission:
All’s well that ends well. Mrs Brown escapes the ‘watery grave’ to which for a moment she felt bound, not that the rest of the trip is plain sailing. Falsely accused of stealing another family’s things, Martha has to go through the indignity of defending herself to a ‘perliceman’, after which she resolves to ‘drop’ Margate for good. In her valedictory address to us readers, she admits she will always have a soft spot for the place, however. Whereas Ramsgate is a bit too ‘genteel’ for her, Margate is the ‘land of liberty’. If she were the Queen, she would build her palace there, ‘as no doubt [Victoria] would, poor dear, if she could do what she liked, and knowed what real enjoyment means’:
Today’s post follows on from yesterday’s by continuing to concentrate on Margate in the first half of the nineteenth century. In my reading of Barham’s doggerel verse from the Ingoldsby Legends, I argued that readers share something with the ‘Cheapside buccaneers’ the poem notices, passengers that embark happily on their journey but disembark feeling rather queasy, buffeted around as they have been by its clumsy metre and contrived rhymes. Here, I want to zone in on the particular place into which the sea-sick arrive in Margate for the first time: the pier. A piece of transport infrastructure but also a site of spectacle, upon which the town’s visitors would perambulate and gawp at the sea, the steam-boats coming in, and each other, Margate’s stone pier and wooden jetty were in this period the subject of a number of cultural representations, not least of which is Turner’s spectacular late painting:
Turner, Margate Jetty c.1840. Oil on canvas, 47 x 37 cm. National Museum Wales.
In Turner’s depiction of the jetty, his radically indistinct application of paint projects a kind of dream structure that dissolves into the sea. By contrast, a range of textual material from periodicals published in the 1820s and 1830s bring both pier and jetty into sharper focus, drawing out their social significance and commenting on the kinds of people and activity they fostered. For the Romantic painter, the idea of these extensions of the human and built into the sublime and unfathomable seems to have inspired him on a symbolic level, so that the details of the jetty as a lived space become somewhat smudged. Satirical poems and tourist literature that appeared in magazines such as the Mirror of Literature, Monthly Magazine and the Literary Magnet flesh out the human dimensions of these iconic structures, which by mediating the town and the ocean from which the vast majority of its Cockney visitors arrived, were nothing less than the central nodes of Margate life.
One article that appeared in the July 1824 edition of The Literary Magnet, entitled ‘Margate Pier’, for instance, pointed out an unusual feature of Margate’s pier that is difficult to ascertain from a visual representation. Owing to its position facing into the North Sea, anyone walking on Margate Pier could directly experience bracingly pure Polar winds, sometimes tinged as they would be by the smells of ‘homeward bound’ whaling ships:
A number of articles from the Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction, by contrast, plough a more satirical furrow, finding in the pier and the approach of steamboats towards it scenarios rich with social comedy, deriving in the main from the mixture of classes. Two pieces published one year apart in the same paper riff off the same (bad) pun, in which Margate’s ‘pier’ is mistaken for and intentionally replaced by ‘peer’:
The pun in this 1828 poem, however contrived, reminds us that class distinction suffused these spaces of consumption. Coming to Margate for many was not about escaping but embracing the competitive stresses and strains of metropolitan society. Indeed, this coastal town, and especially its pier – complete with its plethora of promenaders seeing and being seen – played host to a dynamic celebrity culture, in which some ‘perfum’d’ ‘beau’ could always be relied upon to be claiming to know some ‘lordship’ or other. The following year, in 1829, the same phonetic slippage allows for banter of a more political variety:
Although this version is, on the one hand, just another bad pun in the manner of improvisatore and novelist Theodore Hook, it also (like that writer’s own puns) has something of a sting in its tail. At a time in which the political consensus was being challenged from various quarters, in these years running up to the Reform Act, such references to the possibility of constitutional alternatives should not be read as entirely casual. In both uses of the pun, in fact, Margate’s pier can be read as representing something emblematic of modernity in this period, particularly in terms of the imagination of class. One common metropolitan classification of Margate was that it was too vulgar and Cockney. If we regard this derogatory opinion as a reaction to the new ascendant modernity Margate exemplified, intrinsically related to Britain’s faltering march towards a fuller parliamentary democracy, these apparently contrived jokes about its pier, which bring class and constitutional reform into the frame, can be recognised as knowing responses to the geographical embodiment of topical historical phenomena.
An article entitled ‘The Margate Hoy’ which appeared in November 1832 in Monthly Magazine invites itself to be read in the shadow of recent the Reform Act, which came into law in June 1832. The author consciously casts his mind back to the days before steam-boats, ‘when people were not bitten with the mania of innovation’:
This nostalgia for the Margate hoy, in preference to the modern steam-boat, partly recalls the 1823 musings of Charles Lamb on the subject, which can be found in ‘The Old Margate Hoy’, one of the Essays of Elia. But in the Monthly Magazine piece seems to channel a conservatism that is very much of its own immediate historical moment, in the aftermath of constitutional change that many commentators thought was dangerously tainted with French revolutionary ideas. I don’t think we should take the author at his word when he claims the essay’s early ‘digression’ into political rant has ‘nothing to do’ with the Margate hoy, as the lamented technological change here analogises and stands in for the broader socio-political one. The enunciation of retrospective longing in relation to the sailing ship as opposed to the coal-fired steamer is, implicitly, also the veiled articulation of a desire for the apparent stability of the pre-Reform past. Towards the end of the essay, when the sea journey has come to an end and the passengers are disembarking onto the pier, class politics re-emerges strongly:
The author regards and differentiates the class identities of those leaving the hoy from what seems to be a clear conservative perspective. The passengers might have been all mixed up, in modern ‘Cockney’ fashion, on the ship itself, but in making their way onto dry land via the pier, they each prove their social status and breeding, with reassuring legibility. The aristocrats refrain from ‘indecent’ impatience, while the ‘demy-aristocrats’ do well enough in imitating them; the ‘bagmen’, meanwhile, are brutes, knocking the bottle of stout out of the ‘rosy’ publican’s hand. This microcosm of a nation imagines a chaotic scene desperately needful of the pacifying politeness of its aristocracy: the vessel safely moors to the pier, but is met with another sea of human ‘bustle and confusion’, the only antidote to which appears to be the ‘temperate demeanour’ of the elite. At the same time, the farcical energy of the scene suggests that the author may be less anxious and more amused by the human turbulence he witnesses on Margate Pier…
As anyone that’s been hanging out with me for the past couple of years will attest, I’ve recently become more and more interested in nineteenth-century Margate. It’s not simply that my research affection for urban Bloomsbury has been superseded, as such, by a fascination for all things maritime and beachy. Rather, I’ve started to realise that much that captures my imagination about the West Central district of London between the 1820s and 1840s also applies to the North Kent coastal town, and that the two very different places nevertheless shared much in common, in terms of their role within the cultural politics of the time. Both of these sites were, in my understanding of this period, at the very front line of what we might call early nineteenth-century modernity, embodying what Greg Dart (2012) describes as a ‘Cockney’ class hybridity, at once democratically open and pretentiously vulgar.
The short poem below pays homage to a Margate contemporaneous with its publication in The Ingoldsby Legends – that idiosyncratic collection of poems, stories and other literary tit-bits written (though concealed by the Ingoldsby pseudonym) by the Reverend Richard Harris Barham, which began appearing in Bentley’s Miscellany in 1837, but which quickly assumed a book form in the 1840s. The Legends were immensely popular from the beginning, and beloved throughout the Victorian period, though now they’ve faded almost completely out of view, even in scholarly circles. A number of the book’s constituent parts render Margate, a place the author knew very well, but this one I particularly love for the way its form meets the tacky Cockneyism of the town, via its shoddy rhymes and lack of patience: its preference for effect over reflection. In literary historical terms, Barham is worth reading in order to recognise the continuities and discontinuities of earlier forms of satire (such as the mock-epic) with those that surface in this early Victorian period. But the poem’s chief value for me is in its work of constructing a new kind of lower-middle-class consumer hub within a literary genre more conventionally reserved for more sublime or beautiful landscapes. As the ‘Cheapside Buccaneer’ suggests, one can never escape London in this town, a (pleasantly) disconcerting moment for metropolitan readers who may have been conned into thinking the poem would take them away from themselves – to Margate, or Buenos Ayres (intriguingly, a row of houses near the beach possessed this street name). No, like the crews that ’embark so gay’, the poem leaves us to ‘disembark’ feeling rather ‘queer’, having just read a stanza that admits in its last lines how excessively ‘stiffly grand’ the whole experience has been:
I've stood in Margate, on a bridge of size Inferior far to that described by Byron, Where 'palaces and pris'ns on each hand rise, ' --That too's a stone one, this is made of iron-- And little donkey-boys your steps environ, Each proffering for your choice his tiny hack, Vaunting its excellence; and should you hire one, For sixpence, will he urge, with frequent thwack, The much-enduring beast to Buenos Ayres--and back. And there, on many a raw and gusty day, I've stood and turn'd my gaze upon the pier, And seen the crews, that did embark so gay That self-same morn, now disembark so queer; Then to myself I've sigh'd and said, 'Oh dear! Who would believe yon sickly looking man's a London Jack Tar,--a Cheapside Buccaneer!--' But hold my Muse!--for this terrific stanza, Is all too stiffly grand for our Extravaganza.
Dickens had a very idiosyncratic eye for the metropolis in which he lived and was fond of seeking out its neglected corners. In his piece entitled ‘The City of the Absent’ (first published in the 1860s in the periodical the novelist edited, All the Year Round, but later republished posthumously in The Uncommercial Traveller (1875)), he discusses one of the ‘retired spots’ that he particularly ‘loves to haunt’, the old churchyards that can be found in the ancient commercial centre of the British capital, the City of London. In that favourite verb of his, Dickens’s ‘haunting’ plays with and puts an unusual spin on the conventional idea that these spaces might be populated by ghosts, as here it is the author himself that appears as a kind of spectre, within and yet not fully a part of the world he ‘peeps’ in upon. The churchyards, pressed in as they are by the city’s unchecked growth, go to hide, but Dickens finds them out, determined to disturb their silence:
Such strange churchyards hide in the City of London; churchyards sometimes so entirely detached from churches, always so pressed upon by houses; so small, so rank, so silent, so forgotten, except by the few people who ever look down into them from their smoky windows. As I stand peeping in through the iron gates and rails, I can peel the rusty metal off, like bark from an old tree.
Iron railings are the conduit through which this spectre spectates, delivering a sense of distanced obsession – as they do at the end of Bleak House (1852-3), when Lady Deadlock peers through the gate of another urban churchyard in an effort to unite herself with her dead past. But, in their corroded state here, Dickens borrows them to use in another strange metaphor for the provisional yet present, the ephemeral yet palpable, which straddles the organic-inorganic divide, as so much of this writer’s imagery does.
Like Thomas Hardy’s poem, ‘The Levelled Churchyard’ (1882), which I discussed in a previous blog post, Dickens is fascinated by the vicissitudes of time upon the material relics with which we commemorate those who have left us. The paradoxically tangible absence that is inherent to these kinds of space is met with a weird collection of things. As in the saturated landscapes of Tarkofsky’s film Stalker (1979), there is a constant drip, which draws rust from iron. Other metal, such as the old lead, is re-used, like the scraps of waste in Our Mutual Friend (1865), another novel in which the living take rough precedence over the dead. And then there are the tombstones themselves, which unlike those Pip misreads at the beginning of Great Expectations (1860), are completely ‘illegible’, which ‘withers’ the ‘worthies’ of centuries gone by. As the last apostrophe of this stunning set-piece in prose imagines, the departed seem to make their voices heard, despite their de-individuation, through the erosions of time. Like Hardy’s poetry about the dead and their monuments, something remains in the air whether or not anyone cares to listen for it:
The illegible tombstones are all lop-sided, the grave-mounds lost their shape in the rains of a hundred years ago, the Lombardy Poplar or Plane-Tree that was once a drysalter’s daughter and several common-councilmen, has withered like those worthies, and its departed leaves are dust beneath it. Contagion of slow ruin overhangs the place. The discoloured tiled roofs of the environing buildings stand so awry, that they can hardly be proof against any stress of weather. Old crazy stacks of chimneys seem to look down as they overhang, dubiously calculating how far they will have to fall. In an angle of the walls, what was once the tool-house of the grave-digger rots away, encrusted with toadstools. Pipes and spouts for carrying off the rain from the encompassing gables, broken or feloniously cut for old lead long ago, now let the rain drip and splash as it list, upon the weedy earth. Sometimes there is a rusty pump somewhere near, and, as I look in at the rails and meditate, I hear it working under an unknown hand with a creaking protest: as though the departed in the churchyard urged, ‘Let us lie here in peace; don’t suck us up and drink us!’
In George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860), a young Maggie Tulliver is somewhat perplexed to learn that her father’s head miller is not interested in knowing more of his ‘fellow creatures’ such as Dutchmen, a topic she feels she is pretty knowledgeable about, having read the hugely successful children’s travel picture book, Pug’s Tour Through Europe; or the Travell’d Monkey (1824). It is one of the many books embedded in this novel, and serves on the one hand to (further) demonstrate how Maggie’s identity is in some sense constructed out of what she reads, and on the other, subtly to historicize the narrative Eliot is telling, by particularizing the cultural practices of her characters, placed as they are in pre-Victorian provincial Lincolnshire rather than the metropolitan modernity in which the novel was written. Eliot, the implied author, stands with her implied readers to the side of this exchange, approving of Maggie’s attempt at the humanistic education of the parochial Luke, but also laughing, from the perspective of the more complete cosmopolitan, at her failure of imagination to think beyond the stereotypes her children’s book has offered her. (For more on Pug’s Tour see C. C. Barfoot (1997).
“But if I lent you one of my books, Luke? I’ve not got any very pretty books that would be easy for you to read; but there’s ‘Pug’s Tour of Europe,’–that would tell you all about the different sorts of people in the world, and if you didn’t understand the reading, the pictures would help you; they show the looks and ways of the people, and what they do. There are the Dutchmen, very fat, and smoking, you know, and one sitting on a barrel.”
“Nay, Miss, I’n no opinion o’ Dutchmen. There ben’t much good i’ knowin’ about them.”
“But they’re our fellow-creatures, Luke; we ought to know about our fellow-creatures.”
“Not much o’ fellow-creaturs, I think, Miss; all I know–my old master, as war a knowin’ man, used to say, says he, ‘If e’er I sow my wheat wi’out brinin’, I’m a Dutchman,’ says he; an’ that war as much as to say as a Dutchman war a fool, or next door. Nay, nay, I aren’t goin’ to bother mysen about Dutchmen. There’s fools enoo, an’ rogues enoo, wi’out lookin’ i’ books for ’em.”