George Egerton’s ‘Wedlock’ (1894) and the Conception of Urban Sprawl

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.

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