London 19 Seminar: 1872 Roundtable (27/01/22)

Please find the reading materials for the 1872 roundtable below, should you wish to do some homework, before the event itself!

Jules Verne, Le tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours (1872) (trans. Around the World in Eighty Days)

Kiera Vaclavik is Professor of Children’s Literature and Childhood Culture at QMUL whose work has centred particularly on nineteenth century English and French works for young readers and their subsequent adaptations. Her publications in this area include explorations of underground descents, fashion and dress, and soundscapes. Her next project considers whole world narratives and children’s literature as world literature.

Mary Cholmondeley’s diary, Christmas 1872

Carolyn Oulton is Professor of Victorian Literature and Director of the International Centre for Victorian Women Writers (ICVWW) at Canterbury Christ Church University. Her biography of Mary Cholmondeley, Let the Flowers Go, was published by Pickering and Chatto in 2009. She is the project lead for and her most recent monograph, Down from London: Seaside Reading in the Railway Age, will be published by Liverpool University Press in March 2022.

The Johnson Street School in Stepney, London (The Experimental School’), opened in 1872

Jonathan Godshaw Memel is Lecturer in English Literature at Bishop Grosseteste University. He was previously a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham on the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project ‘Florence Nightingale Comes Home for 2020’, where he co-authored Florence Nightingale at Home (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), and a Great Western Research/National Trust-funded PhD candidate at the University of Exeter (2016). He is currently at work on a monograph, provisionally titled UnlearningThe Afterlife of Victorian Education in Thomas Hardy’s Fiction. He sits on the British Association of Victorian Studies’ Executive Committee and currently serves as its Treasurer.

The Secular Chronicle 1.1 (August 1872), edited by George H. Reddalls 

Clare Stainthorp is a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow in the Department of English at Queen Mary University of London, primarily working on a project about nineteenth-century atheist, secular, and agnostic movements and their periodicals. Her first book was a study of the life and works of Victorian poet, philosopher, and scientist Constance Naden (Peter Lang, 2019) and she has co-edited a volume of primary sources titled ‘Disbelief and New Beliefs’ with Naomi Hetherington for a Routledge Historical Resource on Nineteenth-Century Religion, Literature and Culture (2020).

Ginx’s Baby: extracts selected by Sarah Wise for the London 19c Seminar 1871 Roundtable, 28th January 2021.

GINX’S BABY: His Birth and other Misfortunes. A Satire

By Edward Jenkins  (1871)

Full text of the novella here: Ginx’s Baby, by Edward Jenkins (

Selected extracts to skim below

[Short bio]  Sarah Wise teaches 19th-century literature and social history courses at the Bishopsgate Institute and the City Lit, and is an adjunct at the University of California’s London-based London Study Program. She is the author of three books and has most recently contributed to the London Journal on the topography of late-19th century London poverty in fiction; and has an essay on Charles Booth’s influence on ‘slum fiction’ forthcoming in D Maltz (ed) Arthur Morrison and the East End (Routledge, due out 2021).

Ginx’s Baby, by Edward Jenkins (

EXTRACTS from the novel, in sequence

[From CHAPTER ONE]  In eighteen months, notwithstanding resolves, menaces, and prophecies, GINX’S BABY was born. The mother hid the impending event long, from the father. When he came to know it, he fixed his determination by much thought and a little extra drinking. He argued thus: “He wouldn’t go on the parish. He couldn’t keep another youngster to save his life. He had never taken charity and never would. There was nothink to do with it but drown it!” Female friends of Mrs. Ginx bruited his intentions about the neighbourhood, so that her “time” was watched for with interest. At last it came. One afternoon Ginx, lounging home, saw signs of excitement around his door in Rosemary Street, Westminster. A knot of women and children awaited his coming. Passing through them he soon learned what had happened. Poor Mrs. Ginx! Without staying to think or argue, he took up the little stranger and bore it from the room——

“O, O, O, Ginx! Ginx!!”

She would have risen, but a strong power called weakness pulled her back.

The man meanwhile had reached the street.

“Here he comes! There’s the baby! He’s going to do it, sure enough!” shrieked the women. The children stood agape. He stopped to consider. It is very well to talk about drowning your baby, but to do it you need two things, water and opportunity. Vauxhall Bridge was the nearest way to the former, and towards it Ginx turned.

“Stop him!”


“Take the child from him!”

The crowd grew larger, and impeded the man’s progress. Some of his fellow-workmen stood by regarding the fun.

“Leave us aloan, naabors,” shouted Ginx; “this is my own baby, and I’ll do wot I likes with it. I kent keep it; an’ if I’ve got anythin’ I kent keep, it’s best to get rid of it, ain’t it? This child’s goin’ over Wauxhall Bridge.”

But the women clung to his arms and coattails.

“Hallo! What’s all this about?” said a sharp, strong man, well-dressed, and in good condition, coming up to the crowd; “another foundling! Confound the place, the very stones produce babies. Where was it found?”

CHORUS (recognizing a deputy-relieving officer). It warn’t found at all; it’s Ginx’s baby.

OFFICER. Ginx’s baby? Who’s Ginx?

GINX. I am.


GINX. Well!

CHORUS. He’s goin’ to drown it.

OFFICER. Going to drown it? Nonsense.

GINX. I am.

OFFICER. But, bless my heart, that’s murder!

GINX. No ’tain’t. I’ve twelve already at home. Starvashon’s sure to kill this ‘un. Best save it the trouble.

CHORUS. Take it away, Mr. Smug, he’ll kill it if you don’t.

OFFICER. Stuff and nonsense! Quite contrary to law! Why, man, you’re bound to support your child. You can’t throw it off in that way;—nor on the parish neither. Give me your name. I must get a magistrate’s order. The act of parliament is as clear as daylight. I had a man up under it last week. “Whosoever shall unlawfully abandon or expose any child, being under the age of two years whereby the life of such child shall be endangered or the health of such child shall have been or shall be likely to be permanently injured (drowning comes under that I think) shall be GUILTY OF a MISDEMEANOR and being convicted thereof shall be liable at the discretion of the court to be KEPT IN PENAL SERVITUDE for the term of three years or to be imprisoned for any term not exceeding two years with or without hard labor.”

Mr. Smug, the officer, rolled out this section in a sonorous monotone, without stops, like a clerk of the court. It was his pride to know by heart all the acts relating to his department, and to bring them down upon any obstinate head that he wished to crush. Ginx’s head, however, was impervious to an act of parliament.

GINX. D—— the act of parliament! What’s the use of saying I shan’t abandon the child, when I can’t keep it alive?

OFFICER. But you’re bound by law to keep it alive.

GINX. Bound to keep it alive? How am I to do it? There’s the rest on ’em there (nodding towards his house) little better nor alive now. If that’s an act of Parleyment, why don’t the act of Parleyment provide for ’em? You know what wages is, and I can’t get more than is going.

CHORUS. Yes. Why don’t Parleyment provide for ’em? You take the child, Mr. Smug.

OFFICER (regardless of grammar). ME take the child! The parish has enough to do to take care of foundlings and children whose parents can’t or don’t work. You don’t suppose we will look after the children of those who can?

GINX. Jest so. You’ll bring up bastards and beggars’ pups, but you won’t help an honest man to keep his head above water. This child’s head is goin’ under water anyhow!—and he prepared to bolt, amid fresh screams from the Chorus.

Two gentlemen, who had been observing the excitement, here came forward.
FIRST GENTLEMAN. This is our problem again, Mr. Philosopher.

Mr. PHILOSOPHER (to Ginx). You don’t know what to do with your infant, my friend, and you think the State ought to provide for it? I understand you to say this is your thirteenth child. How came you to have so many?

This question, though put with profound and even melancholy gravity, disconcerted Ginx, Officer, and Chorus, who united in a hearty outburst of laughter.

GINX. Haw, Haw, Haw! How came I to have so many? Why my old woman’s a good un and——

In fact, after searching his mind for some clever way of putting a comical rejoinder, Ginx laughed boisterously. There are two aspects of a question.

PHILOSOPHER. I am serious, my friend. Did it never occur to you that you had no right to bring children into the world unless you could feed and clothe and educate them?

CHORUS. Laws a’ mercy!

GINX. I’d like to know how I could help it, naabor. I’m a married man.

PHILOSOPHER. Well, I will go further and say you ought not to have married without a fair prospect of being able to provide for any contingent increase of family.

CHORUS. Laws a’ mercy!

PHILOSOPHER (waxing warm). What right had you to marry a poor woman, and then both of you, with as little forethought as two—a—dogs, or other brutes—to produce between you such a multitudinous progeny—

GINX. Civil words, naabor; don’t call my family hard names.

PHILOSOPHER. Then let me say, such a monstrous number of children as thirteen? You knew, as you said just now, that wages were wages and did not vary much. And yet you have gone on subdividing your resources by the increase of what must become a degenerate offspring.

The philosopher had gone too far. There were some angry murmurs among the women and Ginx’s face grew dark.

STONEMASON. Your doctrines won’t go down here, Mr. Philosopher. I’ve ‘eard of them before. I’d just like to ask you what a man’s to do and what a woman’s to do if they don’t marry: and if they do, how can you honestly hinder them from having any children?

The stonemason had rudely struck out the cardinal issues of the question.

PHILOSOPHER. Well, to take the last point first, there are physical and ethical questions involved in it, which it is hard to discuss before such an audience as this.

STONEMASON. But you must discuss ’em, if you wish us to change our ways, and stop breeding.

CHORUS. Best get out o’ this. We don’t want any o’ yer filhosophy. Go and get childer’ of yer own, &c., &c.

The Philosopher and his friend departed, carrying with them unsolved the problem they had brought.

CHAPTER VIII.—The Baby’s First Translation.  

The stonemason had been the hero of the moment; now attention centred on our own hero. Ginx hurried off again, but as the crowd opened before him, he was met, and his mad career stayed, by a slight figure, feminine, draped in black to the feet, wearing a curiously framed white-winged hood above her pale face, and a large cross suspended from her girdle. He could not run her down.

NUN. Stop, MAN! Are you mad? Give me the child.

He placed the little bundle in her arms. She uncovered the queer, ruby face, and kissed it. Ginx had not looked at the face before, but after seeing it, and the act of this woman, he could not have touched a hair of his child’s head. His purpose died from that moment, though his perplexity was still alive.

NUN. Let me have it. I will take it to the Sisters’ Home, and it shall live there. Your wife may come and nurse it. We will take charge of it.

GINX. And you won’t send it back again? You’ll take it for good and all?

NUN. O, yes.

GINX. Good. Give us yer hand.

A little white hand came out from under her burthen, and was at once half-crushed in Ginx’s elephantine grasp.

GINX. Done. Thank’ee, missus. Come, mates, I’ll stand a drink.

A few minutes after, the woman of the cross, who had been up to comfort the poor mother, fluttered with her white wings down Rosemary Street, carrying in her arms Ginx’s Baby.


The early days of his residence at the Home of the Sisters of Misery, in Winkle Street, was the Eden of Ginx’s Baby’s existence. Themselves innocent of a mother’s experiences, the sisters were free to give play to their affections in a novel direction, and to assume a sort of spiritual maternity that was lucky for the changeling. He was nestled in kind serge-covered arms: kisses rained upon him from chaste lips.

Then with the rise of the visionary projects just mentioned the gravest doubts began to agitate the fertile and casuistic mind of the Lady Superior. The holier her ideal St. Ginx of the future, the more to be deplored was any heretical taint in the present. Holy mother!…

Ginx’s baby was now fed on consecrated pap. But his mother, Mrs Ginx, was not a woman to be silent under her wrongs. From her husband she hid them, because the subject was forbidden. She poured out her complaint to Mrs. Spittal and other Protestant matrons. Thus it came to pass that one day, in Mr Ginx’s absence, the good woman was surprised by a visit from a “gentleman.” He was small, sharp, rapid, dressed in black. He opened his business at once.

“Mrs. Ginx? Ah! I am the agent of the Protestant Detectoral Association.”

Mrs. Ginx wiped her best chair and set it for him.

“By great good fortune the secretary received only half an hour ago intelligence of the shocking instance of Papal aggression of which you have been the victim. Would Mr. Ginx not join in an effort to recover his child?”

“No, sir; I should think not: he went an’ gave it away.”

“I know; but he is a Protestant?”

“Well; would you like to have your child back?”

“O yes, sir,” cries Mrs. Ginx, brightening.

“Then we’ll have an affidavit and apply for a Habeas Corpus.”

It was impossible not to be satisfied with such words as these, whatever they meant and Mrs. Ginx was cheered, while the little man went on his way…


Ginx’s baby had been discovered by a policeman swaddled in a penny paper, distressingly familiar to metropolitan travellers by rail. At the police station the baby was disposed of according to rule. Due entry was first made in the night-book by the superintendent of all the particulars of his discovery. Some cold milk was then procured and poured down the child’s throat. Afterwards, wrapped in a constable’s cape, he was placed in a cell where, when the door was locked, he could not disturb the guardians of the peace.

The same night, in the next cell, an innocent gentleman, seized with an apoplexy in the street but entered in the charge-sheet as drunk and incapable, died like a dog.


When Ginx’s Baby had grown to a discretionary age, and was at all able to know truth from error—supposing that to be knowable—there were in the country fifty thousand reverend gentlemen of every tincture of religious opinion who might ply him with their various theories, yet few of these would be contented unless they could seize him while his young nature was plastic, and try to imprint on immortal clay the trade-mark of some human invention. The committee held twenty-three meetings. They were then as far from unity of purpose as when they set out.

The secretary asked the committee to provide the money to discharge the baby’s liabilities; but they instantly adjourned, and no effort could afterwards get a quorum together. When the persons who had charge of the Protestant foundling discovered the state of affairs they began to dun the secretary and to neglect the child, now about thirteen months old and preparing to walk. Since no money appeared they sold whatever clothes had been provided for him, and absconded from the place where they had been farming him for Protestantism. The secretary, by chance hearing of this, was discreet enough to make no inquiries. Ginx’s Baby, “as a Protestant question,” vanished from the world. I never heard that any one was asked what had been done with the funds; but I have already furnished the account that ought to have been rendered.


One night, near twelve o’clock, a shrewd tradesman, looking out of his shopdoor before he turned into bed, heard a cry which proceeded from a bundle on the pavement. This he discovered to be an infant wrapt in a potato-sack. He was quick enough to observe that it had been deftly laid over a line chiselled across the pavement to the corner of his house, which line he knew to be the boundary between his own parish of St. Simon Magus and the adjacent parish of St. Bartimeus. He took note, being a businessman, of the exact position of the child’s body in relation to this line, and then conveyed it to the workhouse of the other parish.

The infant borne to the workhouse of St. Bartimeus was Ginx’s Baby. When he had been placed on the floor of the matron’s room, and examined by the master, the Guardians of St. Bartimeus met. Among other business was a report from the master of the workhouse that a child, name unknown, found by a shopman, of Nether Place, in the Parish of St. Simon Magus, opposite his shop, and, as he alleged, on the nearer side of the parish boundary, had been left at the workhouse, and was now in the custody of the matron. The Guardians were not accustomed to restrain themselves, and did not withhold the expression of their indignation upon this announcement…

So the Guardians, keeping carefully within the law, neglected nothing that could sap little Ginx’s vitality, deaden his happiest instincts, derange moral action, cause hope to die within his infant breast almost as soon as it were born. Good God!

The items the Board were really entitled to charge the rate-payers as supplied to our hero were—



Foul air,

Chances of catching skin diseases, fevers, &c.,

Vile company,


Occasional cruelty, and

A small supply of bad food and clothing.

Every pauper was to them an obnoxious charge by any and every means to be reduced to a minimum or nil. Ginx’s Baby was reduced to a minimum.


By the kindness and influence of Sir Charles Sterling, Ginx’s Baby that night, and long after, found shelter in the Radical Club. He gave rise to a discussion in the smoking-room next evening that ought to be chronicled. Several members of the committee supported his benefactor in urging that the child should be adopted by the Club, as a pledge of their resolve to make the questions of which he seemed to be the embodied emblem subjects of legislative action. Others said that those questions being, in their view, social and not political, were not proper ones to give impulse to a party movement, and that the entertainment in the Club of this foundling would be a gross irregularity: they did not want samples of the material respecting which they were theorizing. To some of the latter Sir Charles had been insisting that, whether they kept the child or not, they could not stifle the questions excited by his condition.

“You may delay, but you cannot dissipate them. We are filling up our sessions with party struggles, theoretic discussions, squabbles about foreign politics, debates on political machinery, while year by year the condition of the people is becoming more invidious and full of peril. Social and political reform ought to be linked; the people on whom you confer new political rights cannot enjoy them without health and well-being.”

“But all our legislation is directed to that!” exclaimed Mr. Joshua Hale. “Reform, Free Trade, Free Corn—have these not enhanced the wealth of the people?”

“Partially; yet there are classes unregenerated by their reviving influences. Free trade cannot insure work, nor can free corn provide food for every citizen.”



The Last Chapter

Our hero was nearly fifteen years old when he left the Club to plunge into the world. He was not long in converting his spoils into money, and a very short time in spending it. Then he had to pit his wits against starvation, and some of his throws were desperate. Wherever he went the world seemed terribly full. If he answered an advertisement for an errand-boy, there were a score kicking their heels at the rendezvous before him. Did he try to learn a useful trade, thousands of adepts were not only ready to underbid him, but to knock him on the head for an interloper. Even the thieves, to whom he gravitated, were jealous of his accession, because there were too many competitors already in their department. Through his career of penury, of honest and dishonest callings, of ‘scapes and captures, imprisonments and other punishments, a year’s reading of Metropolitan Police Reports would furnish the exact counterpart.

I don’t know how many years after his flight from Pall Mall, one dim midnight, I, returning from Richmond, lounged over Vauxhall Bridge, listening to the low lapping of the current beneath the arches—looking above to the stars and along the dark polished surface that reflected a thousand lights in its undulations,—feeling the awfulness of the dense, suppressed life that was wrapt within the gloom and calm of the hour. I suddenly saw a shadow, a human shadow, that at the sound of my footstep quickly crossed my dreamy vision—quickly, noiselessly came and went before my eyes until it stood up high and outlined against the strangely-mingled haze. It looked like the ghost of a slight-formed man, hatless and coatless, and for a moment I saw at its upper extremity the dull flash as of a human face in the gloom, before the shadow leaped out far into the night. Splash! When my startled eyes looked down upon the glancing, waving ebony, I thought I could trace a white coruscation of foam spreading out into the darkness, instantly to dissipate and be lost for ever. I did not then know what form it was that swilled down below the glistening current. Had I known that it was Ginx’s Baby I should perhaps have thought “Society, which, in the sacred names of Law and Charity, forbad the father to throw his child over Vauxhall Bridge, at a time when he was alike unconscious of life and death, has at last itself driven him over the parapet into the greedy waters”——

Philosophers, Philanthropists, Politicians, Papists and Protestants, Poor-Law Ministers and Parish Officers—while you have been theorizing and discussing, debating, wrangling, legislating and administering—Good God! gentlemen, between you all, where has Ginx’s Baby gone to?


Robert Louis Stevenson ‘Thrawn Janet’: Audiobook Recording

I’ve decided to start using this site again to play around with the possibilities of recorded audio form in reading and thinking about nineteenth-century literature and its sonic aspects. For the first post in this vein, here is a recording I did with my excellent Glaswegian pal Lucy Brown, back in – I think – 2011, when I was supposed to be finishing the PhD, but decided, unaccountably, for a month or so, that maybe I could become an audio book entrepreneur instead (hmm…).

A masterpiece in the Scottish Gothic tradition, ‘Thrawn Janet’, published in London’s elite Cornhill magazine in 1881, was RLS’s first substantial experiment in fiction with a Scots voice. This voice, which delivers the Gothic content and is the second of two we encounter in the story, estranges at the same time as entrances the implied reader, who has already been interpellated by the initial non-dialect, RP voice, as one of his kind: that is, civilized, educated, the kind of person that reads the Cornhill. The two voices make a telling contrast – the first voice, that of a breezily literate character, whose sentences can be easily read silently off the page, as if they were written, indeed, expressly for that purpose; the second, a working-class character, avowedly suspicious of ‘book-learning’, whose sentences in dialect imply the form of oral, gossipy speech that has had to be transcribed into writing, with difficulty, and against the grain. The last voice is the one on which the story ends, and this decision to leave the reader cast adrift, as it were, in the thought world of its oral, anti-literary culture, is one of the most striking formal features of its complex contribution to the late nineteenth-century revival of the Gothic within literature.

Putting these voices from the page into actual rather than implied oral form, through reading them aloud and recording them thus, so they can be read likewise, repeatedly, has curious effects on the relation, the dynamic, between these two voices. The latter voice migrates from the realm of silent reading difficulty to that of sonic pleasure, the meaning-making musicality of its lively, emotionally engaged speech comes through strong in the recording, commanding an immediate authority that, I think, is more slowly won, when the story is read silently – at least, by those of us for whom the dialect Stevenson uses is very unfamiliar. It would be really fascinating to compare with different readers, who have different degrees of familiarity with Scots dialect, the phenomological experience of reading this story in, alternatively, scriptural/textual and oral/audible form…

In this recording, we decided to characterize and differentiate the two voices, not only according to the clear class divisions implied in Stevenson’s story through his use of dialect and non-dialect, but also gender, and national identity, the second voice being a female Scottish one, and the first, an English male (yours truly, Matt Ingleby!). This shift between the two voices accentuates – in sonic form – the substantial difference between the world views they embody, and raises questions for the reader, about the way the local currencies of violence, real or imagined, within the community narrated by the tale and embodied by the second voice, intersect with the symbolic forms of violence – classed, gendered, and also raced – at work in the world implied by the first voice: that is, in the world of the implied Cornhill reader.

IES 19c seminar: 1869 Roundtable, Feb 1



1869 Roundtable

Friday 1 February, 18.00–20.00

King’s College London (Bush House, South East Wing, Room 2.09)

This event throws together four different artefacts from 1869 facilitating a conversation about how they exemplify or depart from their familial discourses or genres, connect with or rub up against each other.  Four Victorianists will introduce and contextualise a particular artefact after which there will be a general discussion with questions and comments from the floor. You are invited to all come prepared with other 1869 artefacts to bring into the mix alongside the core quartet.


Dr Matt Kerr (Southampton)

Photograph of Hyalonema lusitanicum [1869], from Charles Wyville Thomson’s The Depths of the Sea (1873).

Professor Cathy Waters (Kent)

William Howard Russell’s reports, ‘The Inauguration of the Suez Canal’, for the Times, 7 December 1869.

Dr Helen Goodman (Bath Spa)

Anthony Trollope, He Knew he was Right (particularly monthly number TBA).

Dr Flora Willson (KCL):

Richard Wagner, Das Rheingold [link]

PLEASE NOTE: Because of the current boycott of Senate House, which the London Nineteenth-Century Seminar will be observing – – we have relocated this seminar to King’s College London’s Bush House (SE) 2.09.


Entrance to Bush House (South East Wing) is via the north side of Strand. Google map here.  King’s Campus map here.


Best wishes,

Brian & Matt

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).