Re-constructing Poe’s Houses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unstable Toponymy in the ‘Golden Age’ of Crime Fiction

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

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

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

Cartwright Gardens Mystery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I saw three ships (or eight): Collins, Crabbe and druggy Aldeburgh

In my work, I’m pretty committed to trying to get my research ‘out there’ as much as possible, and have experimented with a fair few different kinds of dissemination in the past few years, including doing walking tours about William Morris, speaking to a residents association for the Brunswick Square and Brunswick Centre neighbourhood about its locality literary history, recording podcasts about the writer as resident, and, of course, this blog (a relatively new medium for me). Of all the varieties of what is tediously reified by managerial types as ‘public engagement’ I’ve been involved in, certainly the oddest, most nerve-wracking and also most enjoyable has been academic stand-up comedy, an innovation Steve Cross at UCL introduced me to, through its pretty awesome Bright Club. Having previously done routines for them about nineteenth-century Bloomsbury (I hear you yawn!) and the houses of parliament burning down (more exciting, yes?), they’ve asked me to participate in one event that I just couldn’t afford to turn down. This Sunday afternoon, I’ll be joining a cross-disciplinary bunch of other academics that will (hopefully) amuse and inform the public about intoxicants. Anyone that knows me even slightly will agree that, for once, at least, I can claim to be expert on something….

I’ve chosen to do a talk on the use and cultural representation of opioids in the nineteenth century, a topic I’ve become interested in largely through my research into the poetry of George Crabbe, a clergyman writer who was also (perhaps not coincidentally), addicted to laudanum for much of his life. Laudanum, that ubiquitous cure-all made of alcohol and opium, was extremely widely available throughout the Romantic and Victorian periods. Crabbe, who is best known for writing ‘Peter Grimes’ (1810), a poem set in Aldeburgh which Benjamin Britten would make famous through his glorious opera of the same name, was by no means alone in forming a life-long habit after being prescribed the medicine for a relatively minor ailment. Another writer a couple of generations after him, Wilkie Collins also became hooked on the stuff, and wrote it into the plots of some of his sensation novels, including most famously, The Moonstone (1868). One of his earlier novels, which was serialised in Dickens’s All the Year Round between March 1862 and the beginning of 1863, No Name also features a protracted scene that revolves around this potentially lethal but also very commonplace nineteenth century intoxicant. The thing that really intrigues me about this novel’s use of laudanum is – as so often in my work – the matter of space and geography. For where does Collins choose to set the novel’s thrilling laudanum scene but Aldeburgh.

I haven’t yet been able to find out whether Collins did or could have known about Crabbe’s addiction – haven’t had time to track down the relevant books yet, sorry! But what we might call a kind of intertextuality of literary geography always jumps out at me when I read texts that inscribe a new story on an already culturally mediated site: so often, when writers engage with a place in their fiction, they call up the memory of other contemporary or previous writers that have become associated with that place in their own work. Much of my research into nineteenth-century Bloomsbury involved tracking down these shadowy references to the cultural constructions of the place from the literature of a few decades back, as for instance does my chapter about the intertextual relation of the geography of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair to its silver fork antecedents. When I read this novel by Collins, the lengthy section set in Aldeburgh kept reminding me of passages I knew from Crabbe’s masterpiece The Borough (1810), of which ‘Peter Grimes’ forms a part. When I came across the scene in which the mentally disturbed heroine Magdalen Vanstone contemplates suicide by laudanum overdose, it appeared to directly invoke the spirit of Crabbe, a poet whose tragic verse includes non-heroic ‘self-murder’ with notable and unusual frequency.

Magdalen Vanstone

Leaving that unsolved question of the intentionality or otherwise of the spatial intertexuality between Crabbe and Collins, in my stand-up routine I’m going to play it for laughs. Contemplated suicide, should, of course, be no laughing matter, and in the case of No Name this is, in one sense, very much the case. Magdalen’s long night of toying with killing herself is a highly powerful and emotional piece of writing, which can be, even now, very moving. But, as so often happens with Victorian fiction, there is an element of farce that lies behind the sentiment. (One is reminded of Oscar Wilde’s famous quip about Little Nell’s exit stage right.) In what seems to me, when one reads it in the cold light of one’s office, a preposterous plot scenario, Magdalen decides to give her fate up to the gods by playing ‘eeny-miny-mo’ with the ships on the sea that pass by her window within a strictly timed thirty minutes. Psychologically acute or absurdly contrived, bearing in mind, we know all along Collins can’t afford to lose his beautiful heroine: you decide!

      The sea showed it to her. Dimly distinguishable through the mist, she saw a little fleet of coasting-vessels slowly drifting toward the house, all following the same direction with the favoring set of the tide. In half an hour—perhaps in less—the fleet would have passed her window. The hands of her watch pointed to four o’clock. She seated herself close at the side of the window, with her back toward the quarter from which the vessels were drifting down on her—with the poison placed on the window-sill and the watch on her lap. For one half-hour to come she determined to wait there and count the vessels as they went by. If in that time an even number passed her, the sign given should be a sign to live. If the uneven number prevailed, the end should be Death.

With that final resolution, she rested her head against the window and waited for the ships to pass.

The first came, high, dark and near in the mist, gliding silently over the silent sea. An interval—and the second followed, with the third close after it. Another interval, longer and longer drawn out—and nothing passed. She looked at her watch. Twelve minutes, and three ships.           Three.

The fourth came, slower than the rest, larger than the rest, further off in the mist than the rest. The interval followed; a long interval once more. Then the next vessel passed, darkest and nearest of all. Five. The next uneven number—


She looked at her watch again. Nineteen minutes, and five ships. Twenty minutes. Twenty-one, two, three—and no sixth vessel. Twenty-four, and the sixth came by. Twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-seven, twenty-eight, and the next uneven number—the fatal Seven—glided into view.         Two minutes to the end of the half-hour. And seven ships.

Twenty-nine, and nothing followed in the wake of the seventh ship. The minute-hand of the watch moved on half-way to thirty, and still the white heaving sea was a misty blank. Without moving her head from the window, she took the poison in one hand, and raised the watch in the other. As the quick seconds counted each other out, her eyes, as quick as they, looked from the watch to the sea, from the sea to the watch—looked for the last time at the sea—and saw the EIGHTH ship.

She never moved, she never spoke. The death of thought, the death of feeling, seemed to have come to her already. She put back the poison mechanically on the ledge of the window and watched, as in a dream, the ship gliding smoothly on its silent way—gliding till it melted dimly into shadow—gliding till it was lost in the mist.

The strain on her mind relaxed when the Messenger of Life had passed from her sight.

“Providence?” she whispered faintly to herself. “Or chance?”

Her eyes closed, and her head fell back. When the sense of life returned to her, the morning sun was warm on her face—the blue heaven looked down on her—and the sea was a sea of gold.

She fell on her knees at the window and burst into tears.

The Boarding House Parlour

As a couple of my previous posts have related, I’m currently writing a new chapter for my monograph on nineteenth-century Bloomsbury that addresses the social and cultural space of the boarding house. A number of fictional representations of Bloomsbury boarding houses appear between the 1830s and the 1880s, which, building very clearly on from one another, allow for the development of kinds of realism that were quite unfamiliar in other more conventional narrative spaces. One particular room stands out within cultural discourse upon the boarding house for the way it seems to provoke especial anxiety (or, indeed, subversive delight) on the part of writers, because it accentuates the social hybridity temporary accommodation heralds more broadly: the parlour or drawing room. When Trollope and Gissing make use of the Bloomsbury boarding house in order to produce innovations in realism, they draw specific inspiration from these reception rooms, finding in them an enhanced social precariousness that crystallises the broader spatial phenomenon they exemplify.

Why might this be the case? The historian Thad Logan, who argues in her The Victorian Parlour (2001) that within the symbolism and practice of the period there is no essential difference between parlours and drawing rooms, suggests that these reception rooms became in this period the heart of the family home, and were loaded with more ideological weight than any other room in the house. If, as so much domestic history has confirmed, the home became unprecedentedly crucial to the production and maintenance of bourgeois identity in the nineteenth century, parlours and drawing rooms were the indispensable constituents of such a socio-spatial formation:

the parlour was the scene…for the performance of middle-class leisure, performances critical to the experience of everyday life. The parlour could not, in fact, be removed without radically changing the meaning embodied in the house, without disrupting the house’s ability to signify “home”. (Logan, 27)

Whereas a lot of earlier work on the centrality of the home in this period emphasised the way domesticity was required to secure a space cordoned off somehow from the street and the social world more broadly, Logan shows how the parlour was central to the production of ‘home’ partly because it faced not only inwards to the family but also outwards to society, through the pervasive rituals of ‘calling’ hosted there. The parlour was not only a complex space within the context of the boarding house. Even in the ideal space of the bourgeois home – occupied by one family alone – it had multiple (and possibly contradictory) functions:

Within the domestic structure of everyday life, the parlour’s function is a complex one. It is the most public space in the house in so far as the reception of visitors is concerned: hence (in part) it is strongly associated with decorative display. Yet the parlour is also an inner sanctum – a room into which tradesmen, for instance, did not venture, a room set aside for the private life of the family members, only tended by servants when specifically called for or before the family had awakened. (Logan, 27)

The ‘public/private’ distinction is present in the ideal domestic drawing room, but it appears in a complicated dialectical form, whereby an ‘inner sanctum’ is secured through the constant rehearsal of socio-spatial codes such as taboos on the presence of servants precisely for the purpose of its occasional exhibition to callers from outside the home. (Logan is helpfully anthropological in her explanation that the practice of ‘calling’ allowed most importantly ‘a carefully orchestrated exchange of intimacies, rather than [simply] conversation’ (Logan, 31).)

Another book published a few years before Logan’s, Elissa Heil’s The Conflicting Discourses of the Drawing-Room (1997) uses a very different methodology but perceives something equally complex about this space in the nineteenth century. Relying heavily on a Bakhtinian theoretical framework, Heil intriguingly picks up on a point made in one of Bakhtin’s essays, published in English as part of The Dialogic Imagination (trans. Holquist 1983), which demonstrates his recognition of the parlour as one of the most central literary chronotopes of the period:

In the novels of Stendhal and Balzac a fundamentally new space appears in which novelistic events may unfold – the space of parlors and salons  (in the broad sense of the word)…In salons and parlours the webs of intrigue are spun, denouements occur and finally – this is where dialogues happen, something that acquires extraordinary importance in the novel, revealing the character, “ideas” and “passion” of the heroes. (Bakhtin quoted in Heil, 15)

Heil, though somewhat held back by an over-schematic approach to her subject, makes a good case for the drawing room as an exceptional space within the home, in which, for instance, the woman was a kind of ‘queen’, enjoying a kind of ‘ownership’ that was denied her elsewhere. In part because of this gender exceptionality, and in part, relatedly, because of the way the room ‘houses both the public and private spheres’ (Heil, 20), the drawing room or parlour becomes a ‘decisive space’ within fiction, ‘where encounters and dialogic confrontations’ (Heil, 20) can occur:

The drawing-room sets the stage for personal and social conflicts – for a balance between private need and public obligation – and becomes a testing ground for characters put on social trial. As one of the only meeting places where the forms of propriety entitle women to meet men on an almost equal footing, the drawing-room is charged with infinite possibilities for the making and breaking of relationships, for the acquiescence to and challenging of established societal mores. (Heil, 21)

Returning to the boarding house, what happens when the already complex social space of the ideal family home’s drawing room or parlour is wrenched from its domestic setting and re-inserted into the worryingly hybrid, fluid, even contingent mess that was multiple occupancy accommodation? For one thing, the dialogic qualities Heil discerns are amplified, and the social conflicts she discusses in terms of gender are complicated by the very distinctive additional presence of class difference. In short, the boarding house parlour or drawing room is ‘charged with [still more] infinite possibilities for the making and breaking of relationships’, in that the social mix of characters it enables tends to even more subversive levels of potential equality.

If parlours in general are dialogic spaces (as the etymology, from the old French, ‘to speak’, insists), boarding house parlours enable a still more (apparently) anarchic discourse to take place. Gathered together in one space from all over the city, nation or empire, and representative of different classes and genders, the boarders metaphorically cross borders (if you will) when they engage in conversation in the boarding house parlour. It is the social permeability of these spaces that attracted writers such as Dickens, Trollope and Gissing, who wanted to energise their plots with something new, and in the process, took realism further than it had gone before.

Writers often allude to this social permeability through their depictions of the literal physical permeability of boarding houses, the functionalities of whose rooms were not always as separable as could be desired. As the following testimony illuminates, published in an article entitled ‘Wanted, Apartments’ from Temple Bar in December 1864, even before anyone opened their mouth to converse, boarding house parlours were redolent of seepage and mixture, of matter out of place:

‘I have rung the changes from Pimlico to Camden Town; I have tried stuffy parlours, where the smell of blankets oozes through the folding-doors, and the flavour of bed-tick asserts itself in every dish. I know the second-floors, where there is no bell, and where the meaty miasma from the dinner of the man below mocks the unsubstantial herring at your economic tea.’ (‘Wanted, Apartments’, Temple Bar Dec 1864 p85-88)

In my readings of episodes from Dickens, Trollope and Gissing that occur in the parlours and drawing rooms of Bloomsbury’s boarding houses, I connect the materiality of that oozing ‘through the folding-doors’ with the social and cultural blending and blurring these spaces allowed.

From cities ‘on the march’ to urban ‘sprawl’: metaphors in transition

At the recent BAVS (British Association of Victorian Studies) conference, whose theme was ‘Victorian Sustainability’, I addressed the participation of nineteenth-century fiction in the discourse upon the unplanned horizontal expansion of cities, which led to the coining, in 1955 (according to OED) of the now dead metaphor of ‘sprawl’. Over the course of the Victorian period, the rhetoric through which writers rendered urban sprawl changes, the construction of new suburban houses becoming increasingly construed in terms of natural reproduction, incubation, and germination, whereas it had been largely described before that by way of the analogy of war, conquest or empire. The key decade for this transition appears to have been the 1860s, when both Dickens and Collins, who had written about the subject in earlier novels, newly engage with sprawl in a way that is suggestive of biological kinds of growth and multiplication, and not simply social (and therefore reversible) kinds. In the larger version of the paper, I show how this shift towards the biological becomes more pronounced towards the end of the century, and argue that when we engage with the idea of ‘sprawl’, we should be aware both of the complex cultural historical roots of the metaphor and of the negative implications for the environmental movement of using a concept with its ‘roots’ (ahem) in biologistic conceptions.

March of Bricks and Mortar

Whereas, from the 1830s to the 1850s, the growth of the city was frequently imagined in terms of war or imperial takeover, from the 1860s on, more biological images of organic change creep into sprawl fiction, through gestures to natural reproduction and to the figure of the child. ‘The March of Bricks and Mortar’ (1829), by Dickens’s great illustrator Cruikshank, was influential in establishing an association of urban sprawl with a kind of battle, or conquest, and a number of articles and pieces from 30s and 40s make similar kinds of analogy; even as late as Bulwer Lytton’s What Will He Do With It? published in 1859, we can see the shadow of the battle idea playing itself out, in its description of new North London suburbia, where each ‘encamped’ tenement is ‘tortured into contrast with’ its neighbours, most of whom (Pharoahs, Spartan, Normans, Goths) are past warmongers.

…one of those new dwellings which yearly spring up north of the Regent’s Park [formerly in Middlesex] – dwellings that, attesting the eccentricity of the national character, task the fancy of the architect and the gravity of the beholder – each tenement so tortured into contrast with the other, that, on one little rood of ground, all ages seemed blended, and all races encamped. No. 1 is an Egyptian tomb! – Pharaohs may repose there! No. 2 is a Swiss chalet – William Tell may be shooting in its garden! Lo! The severity of Doric columns – Sparta is before you! Behold that Gothic porch – you are rapt to the Norman days! Ha! those Elizabethan mullions – Sidney and Raleigh, rise again!

Dickens and Collins, both employ the conquest idea, broadly conceived, in their depictions of urban sprawl from this earlier Victorian period; Dombey and Son (1847) and Hide and Seek (1854), both clearly reference Cruikshank’s picture, the former writing ‘giant forms of cranes, and tripods straddling into nothing’ into its famous depiction of a building site, and the latter doing the war metaphor to death

Alexander’s armies were great makers of conquests…but the modern Guerilla regiments of the hod, the trowel, and the brick-kiln, are the greatest conquerors of all…What dismantled castle, with the enemy’s flag flying over its crumbling walls, ever looked so utterly forlorn as a poor field-fortress of nature, imprisoned on all sides by the walled camp of the enemy, and degraded by a hostile banner of pole and board, with the conqueror’s device inscribed on it–“THIS GROUND TO BE LET ON BUILDING LEASES?”

In the 1860s, both writers return to the subject of the city under construction, and in the rhetoric of both, something has changed. In the Dickens of Our Mutual Friend (1865), an ‘unfinished street already in ruins’, witnessed briefly on the way to Bradley Headstone’s school, becomes juxtaposed with the half comic, half alarming, presence of a ‘child of particularly incoherent mind’, who halts his already incomprehensible construction of what is represented here as a ‘toy neighbourhood’ half way through by violently kicking the table and falling asleep:

The schools were newly built, and there were so many like them all over the country, that one might have thought the whole were but one restless edifice with the locomotive gift of Aladdin’s palace. They were in a neighbourhood which looked like a toy neighbourhood taken in blocks out of a box by a child of particularly incoherent mind, and set up anyhow; here, one side of a new street; there, a large solitary public-house, facing nowhere; here, another unfinished street already in ruins; there, a church; here, an immense new warehouse; there, a dilapidated old country villa: then, a medley of black ditch, sparkling cucumber-frame, rank field, richly cultivated kitchen-garden, brick viaduct, arch-spanned canal, and disorder of frowziness and fog. As if the child had given the table a kick and gone to sleep.

In Armadale (1866), meanwhile, Collins uses building plots for a scene of classic suspense, which invokes not a sense of visible brutish aggression but instead a pervasive sense of decay.

The streets dwindled feebly….into smaller and smaller houses, and died away on the barren open ground into an atrophy of skeleton cottages. Builders hereabouts appeared to have universally abandoned their work in the first stage of creation. Landowners set up poles on lost patches of ground; and, plaintively advertising that they were to be let for building, raised sickly little crops meanwhile, in despair of finding a purchaser to deal with.

Here the setting is ostensibly the emergent suburbs of a provincial town in East Norfolk, but its description links it with the parallel passages about London in Collins’s other work. Compared both to dead foetuses and rotten bones, this sprawl passage sets the scene for Mr Bashwood’s nervous encounter with Miss Gwilt, and hints of the narrative’s covert interest, elsewhere in the novel, in other kinds of projects ‘abandoned in the first stage of creation’, through its inclusion of what most critics have assumed to be an abortion doctor. The Law and the Lady (1875) likewise associates deserted building plots with a more organic form of stalling or interruption, when it takes the reader for the first time to the house of the grotesque Misserimus Dexter, who lives in a ‘great northern suburb of London’ that is still under construction:

….in the dim light, I saw the half-completed foundations of new houses in their first stage of existence.

There is a foreboding in the writing of this scene of a different register to the earlier novels. The jocular satire, lengthy lists and elaborate military conceits of Dickens, Bulwer, and the early Collins, have been replaced by the pan-around camera view, noting with a sense of wary distance all that is in sight. The fictional technique anticipates the language of cinema, and the uneasy glance at those ‘gaunt scaffolding poles’ reminds one of that moment in Ridley Scott’s film Alien (1979) when the protagonist Kane first surveys all those slimy eggs waiting to be hatched. Similar to the worryingly quiet bits of other horror films, the horror of this building plot is that of insidiousness, of the gradual and therefore virtually unnoticeable creep. When one looks at it square in the face, it appears so dead, so static, so bereft of animate industry, being ‘waste ground’, with all that phrase’s connotations of oblivion, futility, lack. Come back another day, however, and it will have been transformed into a ‘bran-new’ part of suburbia. The building plot, meanwhile, with its messy paraphernalia of scaffolding and scattered bits of un-built houses, will have sidestepped into the next field.

Poe, Stevenson, and Collisions in the City

At the beginning of the twentieth century, a number of thinkers turned to the city to analyse and theorise specifically urban forms of everyday life. Figures such as Georg Simmel and Walter Benjamin attempted to think through and generalise about the way people were currently living in the most modern of cities.This incursion of the messily topical into the intellectual arena can be claimed, to a great extent, as the beginnings of critical social science. But this early point of urban studies also has a prehistory in the work of nineteenth-century writers who, in a less rigorous way and within more popular genres, had responded to the same phenomena. This is not a prehistory Benjamin at least would have wanted to downplay: much of his work relies explicitly on the imaginative energies of writers from the 1800s, such as his influential material on the flâneur, which draws heavily on the poetry of Baudelaire and a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Man in the Crowd’ (1839).

In Benjamin’s ‘On some motifs in Baudelaire’, a posthumously published fragment from the Arcades Project written almost exactly a hundred years after Poe’s story, he explores the kind of street education moving around the modern city both requires and provides:

Moving through…traffic involves the individual in a series of shocks and collisions. At dangerous intersections, nervous impulses flow through him in rapid succession, like the energy from a battery. Bauderlaire speaks of a man who plunges into a crowd as into a reservoir of electric energy. Circumscribing the experience of the shock, he calls the man a ‘kaleidoscope equipped with consciousness.’ Whereas Poe’s passers-by cast glances in all directions which still appeared to be aimless, today’s pedestrians are obliged to do so in order to keep abreast of traffic signals. Thus technology has subjected the human sensorium to a complex kind of training.

What emerges strongly from this passage is the growing threat in urban modernity of collision, and also the development of a new mode of living that is forged in direct relation to this threat. The new pedestrian is conditioned by new taboos that are experienced as ‘nervous impulses’ flowing like some electrical current at the ‘dangerous intersections’ where the horrific possibility of collision comes most vividly into play.

But if we return to Poe’s fiction, not all of his passers-by are as relaxed or ‘aimless’ in the glances that they cast as Benjamin implies. In another of his stories that is also, not coincidentally, one of the initiators of the detective-writing tradition, Poe demonstrates an interest in collisions in the city that suggests he intuits their symptomatic identity in the emergent modernity to which his fiction responds. In ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1841), the proto-detective Auguste Dupin is indulging in a spot of night-walking in Paris with his friend, the narrator, when the former vocalizes a comment upon the latter’s un-vocalized train of thought, provoking the astonished companion to ask him to explain what appears on the surface to be the exercise of supernatural powers. Dupin obliges by narrating a complicated trajectory of deduction, combining optical and auditory observation, and also linking up the contours of their previous conversations with minor everyday events in which they recently participated in their physical journey through space to the present place and moment in time.

As the narrator says: ‘There are few persons who have not, at some period of their lives, amused themselves in retracing the steps by which particular conclusions of their own minds have been attained.’ What is interesting about Dupin’s explanation is that it lends substance to that process of ‘retracing…steps’, by drawing the city and its dynamic material reality into an archaelogy of intellectual process, showing how an apparently new idea can be derived from an earlier haptic encounter on the streets. The point of departure to which Dupin has traced his companion’s thought is, intriguingly, a collision with a stranger:

     “It was the fruiterer,” replied my friend, “who brought you to the conclusion that the mender of soles was not of sufficient height for Xerxes et id genus omne.”

“The fruiterer! –you astonish me –I know no fruiterer whomsoever.”

“The man who ran up against you as we entered the street –it may have been fifteen minutes ago.”

I now remembered that, in fact, a fruiterer, carrying upon his head a large basket of apples, had nearly thrown me down, by accident, as we passed from the Rue C___ into the thoroughfare where we stood; but what this had to do with Chantilly I could not possibly understand.

Although the narrator has already forgotten the collision, Dupin, the pioneer, the prophet of modernity, realises that something momentous and formative has occurred. Poe’s fiction offers no elaboration of the centrality of collision taboo to the operation of the modern city, but by placing such an ‘accident’ so prominently before his readers, as an agent of thought for the un-reflexive pedestrian and an object of thought to the analyst, ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ gestures towards the significance Benjamin would later illuminate.

Like Poe’s story, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) uses a collision to initiate a train of thought, but here it is not only to frame the core narrative with a discussion of the interrelations of the material and intellectual world, but to kick-start the main plot itself. The main narrator Utterson’s fascination with the figure of Hyde begins, after all, when he hears from his friend Enfield the perplexing story of one particularly remarkable street collision:

“Well, it was this way,” returned Mr. Enfield: “I was coming home from some place at the end of the world, about three o’clock of a black winter morning, and my way lay through a part of town where there was literally nothing to be seen but lamps. Street after street, and all the folks asleep—street after street, all lighted up as if for a procession and all as empty as a church—till at last I got into that state of mind when a man listens and listens and begins to long for the sight of a policeman. All at once, I saw two figures: one a little man who was stumping along eastward at a good walk, and the other a girl of maybe eight or ten who was running as hard as she was able down a cross street. Well, sir, the two ran into one another naturally enough at the corner; and then came the horrible part of the thing; for the man trampled calmly over the child’s body and left her screaming on the ground. It sounds nothing to hear, but it was hellish to see. It wasn’t like a man; it was like some damned Juggernaut.

Beyond the asymmetry of the two figures colliding and the asymmetric physical injuries caused by such a meeting between a small child ‘running…hard’ and a little man ‘stumping along…at a good walk’, the really ‘horrible’ or ‘hellish’ feature of this episode – its uncanny quality – is the calmness with which Hyde tramples over the body. It is the intentionality of this street accident, deliberately transgressing as it does the collision taboo, that unveils this character as the embodiment of the urban Gothic.

Bloomsbury 1904: ‘a dreary patch of second-rate boarding-houses’

'The Bohemian in Bloomsbury'. Saturday review of politics, literature, science and art. Sep 17, 1904.

‘The Bohemian in Bloomsbury’. Saturday review of politics, literature, science and art. Sep 17, 1904.

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.  

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.

‘Orley Farm’: between fiction, art, and memory

Frontispiece to Trollope's 1862 novel, Orley Farm: drawing by John Millais.

Frontispiece to Trollope’s 1862 novel, Orley Farm: drawing by John Millais.

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.

Dickens and ‘The Boarding House’ (1834)

          One of Dickens’s very first works of fiction, ‘The Boarding House’, makes use of temporary accommodation in Bloomsbury in order to generate narrative scenarios that caricature and subvert the normative marriage plot. Later Bloomsbury boarding-house fiction finds a different tone with which to construct this particular social space in relation to bourgeois marriage conventions, such as the tragicomic in the Burton Crescent scenes in  Trollope’s The Small House at Allington (1864) or the naturalistic-tragic in the Gower Place scenes in Gissing’s Workers in the Dawn (1880), but Dickens’s fictionalized house is placed within the generic context of farce. At the same time, while the modes through which this space becomes represented grow darker, modulated over the decades as they are by the development of realism, this slight early story that was anthologized in Sketches by Boz (1836-7) anticipates much of the narrative potential later renderings of the Bloomsbury boarding house would bring to fruition.
          The story, which was initially published in two parts, over consecutive months, is structured around two consecutive sets of paying guests residing under one roof in Great Coram Street. Mr and Mrs Tibbs have set up a boarding house there, in order to supplement the pension he receives in reward for the years he served soldiering as a young man. The ‘tolerable house’ they take and furnish is chosen for no apparent reason than the ‘reception of boarders’, and is situated in Bloomsbury ”within ten minutes’ walk of’-everywhere’ so as to make it most attractive to those who might spot the advertisement they have ‘inserted in the morning papers’. The majority of the words that adorn that ad, which boasts a ‘cheerful musical home in a select private family’, are delusive, if not positively fraudulent: the very form of such a document soliciting business, indeed, clearly cancels out its content, in terms of the claims the Tibbses make about their house being a familial home, implicitly sacrosanct from the market. As I have discussed in a previous post, the location of the boarding house in Bloomsbury accentuates its (ideologically, if not actually) contradictory functions as home and business: over the course of the nineteenth century, this West Central district of London suffered a gradual social decline precisely because of its geographical proximity to the City, and the world of commerce, at a time in which the middle class were increasingly defining themselves through the separation of their domestic spaces from spaces of work, and thus deserting Bloomsbury for regions further West.
          Initially, as the first chapter narrates, the Tibbs’s first boarders are Mr Hicks and Mr Simpson, two young bachelors, plus one somewhat older single man, Mr Carton; these three are symmetrically balanced by a trio of unattached females, the Maplestone mother and her two daughters, both of whom are on the lookout for a husband. Such a mixture of single people is, of course, standard boarding-house fare, but the canny Mrs Tibbs is aware that managing the liaisons of inmates is a matter of some delicacy. Marriage between these inmates would be a disaster for the Tibbses, and she pronounces a kind of taboo upon the word to her husband: ‘I beg you won’t mention such a thing…A marriage, indeed, to rob me of my boarders – no, not for this world.’ On the other hand, some romantic tension in the air acts as glue, binding her tenants to this specific Bloomsbury house and dissuading them from exchanging it for another nearby, which they might find, in all other respects, equally convenient: ‘A little flirtation…might keep her house full, without leading to any other result.’ To put it another way, Mrs Tibbs encourages intra-house romantic affection because she recognises that it serves as a disguised kind of ‘loyalty bonus’, which can be co-opted and made to work within the commercial nexus she inhabits, whereas marriage proper has a destabilising effect, threatening the house’s profitability by her guests’ dispersal. As we might have guessed from this kind of set-up, a total of three prospective marriages do suddenly ensue, and the tidily profitable full house Mrs Tibbs had been hoping to maintain is broken up with dramatic thoroughness.
          As Greg Dart has stressed (2012, p93), the role of the boarding-house keeper problematically blends the familial and the commercial, but in this story Mrs Tibbs is not the most conflicted of the two hosts, as she has no obvious trouble keeping her mind upon the bottom line of the income she secures by seeming to entertain whilst actually impeding her guests’ conjugal ambitions. It is her hen-pecked husband that adopts the role of ‘father’, in agreeing to give away the bride in one of the three clandestine weddings due to take place beyond Mrs Tibbs’s knowledge. After the event, in punishment for this act of rebellion, Tibbs is banished from the marital bedroom to the basement kitchen, and thus sacrifices much of what is left of his own marriage on the altar of vicarious romance. Actually, it is not only the Tibbs’s marriage that is on the rocks in ‘The Boarding House’: all three matches made in the Bloomsbury address in the first half of the story fail, one before the wedding has even taken place:
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.
          In the following and final second chapter, Mrs Tibbs appears to have plumped for a less risky strategy, and has let her rooms, tellingly, in a much less gender-balanced manner: four single men, plus an invalid with ‘no stomach’ who only surfaces from his room on Sundays, seem unlikely to pose much of a threat to the conjugal status of the only single woman tenant of the house, Mrs Bloss, a recent widow and hypochondriac. The young woman, Agnes, who attends to Mrs Bloss as her companion and nurse, however, attracts the unwanted attention of Mr Tibbs, whose banishment from his wife’s bed appears to have driven him into a pervy middle-life-crisis. In an attempt to prevent another boarding-house break-up, having heard on the grapevine that some sort of unsanctioned relationship between persons unknown might be fermenting, Mrs Tibbs and one of her male guests hide out one night after everyone has apparently gone to bed, in order to catch the romantic culprits at it. Thus emerges a farcical denouement worthy of P. G. Wodehouse. A conversation that is only partially overheard is misunderstood in the fashion of ‘Chinese whispers’, a number of people creep around in the dark hoping to surprise and identify each other, Mr Tibbs (‘clearly under the influence of gin-and-water’) declares to his ‘Hagnes’ how much he hates his wife, shortly before the latter faints, having been herself uncovered and accused in what appears to be a compromising situation alone in the dark with the man with whom she had actually been playing detective. Explanations don’t carry, and the Tibbses separate ‘by mutual consent’; the boarding house, like the marriage, is discontinued, and everyone goes their own way, saving the invalid and Mrs Bloss, who do marry, and ‘revel in retirements: happy in their complaints, their table, and their medicine’.
          Dickens continually makes us aware of the Bloomsbury house itself as a kind of agent in the narrative. It intrudes into the lives of the inhabitants, through the kinds of undesired communication its badly constructed walls and ceilings permit. At times, this less-than-solidity, this permeability, is expressed in physical terms – in the ‘wet [that goes] through to the drawing-room ceiling’ after the second-floor front is ‘scrubbed, and washed, and flannelled’ to make way for the new tenant, Mrs Bloss. But mostly, the house enables communication in aural terms, such as the voices ‘distinctly heard’  above one of the guests ‘in the store-room on the first floor, over the leads’, voices that set Mrs Tibbs on the wild goose chase that ends in her downfall. The house militates against the Tibbs’s marriage even as it acts as a sort of matchmaker to the guests, simply by throwing them together, in such an un-domestic ‘entanglement’. Whatever amorous adventures it seems to spark, it does so at the expense of the teleological pay-out readers expect from the conventional marriage plot, however: concocting a couple of marriages that barely get off the ground at all, and severing for good the boarding-house keeper’s own marriage, its only successful partnership seems to rely on the lubrication provided by the couple’s mutual abiding interest in popping pills for imaginary ailments. In the ‘match results’ of Bloomsbury versus the marriage plot, the score looks like 3-1.