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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 13: The City •

The City

Book cover:  Victorian Babylon: People, Streets and Images in 19th-Century London

Author's response


Victorian Babylon: People, Streets and Images in 19th-Century London

by Lynda Nead
Yale University Press: New Haven, 2000
ISBN-13: 978-0-30-010770-8; 264 pages, price £25.00

Pamela Pilbeam

Royal Holloway, University of London

It is unusual to enter into dialogue (even if it only involves a couple of exchanges) with a reviewer and my thanks to Pamela Pilbeam for her careful reading of Victorian Babylon and to Anne Shepherd for enabling this brief exchange.

Reading reviews of published work is always a strange experience. Usually, the work was completed a year or more ago and a healthy process of separation has taken place. And if there has been further reflection on 'how it might have been different', this rarely coincides with suggestions made by reviewers. In this instance, however, some of my unfulfilled ambitions are raised by Pamela and I will comment on these and other issues and debates which are in the book and which I think might be added to the debate.

I want to begin by talking about gender, and more specifically about women, modernity and the city which are not mentioned in Pamela's review. I always saw Victorian Babylon as a polemical study (albeit one without too much explicit table-thumping) which set out to revise existing interpretations of the 19th-century city which are based upon Baudelaire's image of the crowd and the paradigmatic figure of the flâneur. Avoiding, also, revisionist accounts of the invisible flâneuse, I simply wanted to replace women of all classes on the streets of the modern metropolis. Drawing on a range of primary sources, I argued that women were part of the city landscape; navigating particular journeys through the city and coming up against adventure and danger and everyday life. One of the most fascinating archives which I researched was a collection of uncatalogued letters in the Museum of London. Written by a young woman called Amelia Roper, they recounted to her friend her movements, visits and encounters on the streets of London in the 1850s. This 'narrative of footsteps' offered a different account of the experience of city life from that presented in the official reports of the improvers, engineers and modernisers. In retrospect, this section of the book remains one of the most important to me both because of its value and interest as an archive and its significance in interpreting the uses of the streets by men and women in the mid-Victorian metropolis.

Throughout my research on this book, I was struck by the connections and changes between the Victorian metropolis and London in the late-20th century and 21st century. Many of the interest groups which now structure economic and political debates about the future of London, came into being in the early and mid-Victorian period. Most obviously, the Metropolitan Board of Works was created in 1855, but also consumer groups such as the Gas Consumers' Mutual Protection Society and powerful commercial monopolies such as the London Gas Companies began to fight it out concerning the provision of basic amenities in the modern city. This was my point about the economics and poetics of gas in the Victorian city. Not so much, as Pamela writes '[weighing] up the practical and poetical benefits and disadvantages' of gas, but examining relationships between the modern organisation of industrial production and consumption and the aestheticisation of its products.

Pamela raises an important methodological point about the relationship between moral and economic imperatives in the regulation and organisation of the modern city and implies, I think, that I over-emphasise the moral at the expense of the economic. This is a hard one to call; and needs to assessed in relation to particular cases. In the case of Cremorne Gardens it seemed clear to me that that although there was a concerted moral campaign to close the place; the final decision was driven by an economic logic. The Gardens represented underdeveloped land close to the centre of the city and developers were keen to build profitable housing. This economic mandate was recognised at the time and I ended this section of the book on precisely this note.

In the case of Holywell Street, 'the London Ghetto', I think the concatenation of discursive power was different. For me, Holywell Street, was a case-study on the nature of mass, urban, commercial culture. Obscenity was materially and metaphorically the paradigmatic cultural commodity of the modern city and its dangerous effects were thus understood primarily in terms of its influence on public order (young working-class men and women of the middle classes). Pamela's review might give the impression that obscenity was a given and clearly-defined category in this period. This was far from the case. The Obscene Publications Act of 1857 and the case of Holywell Street testify to the competing attitudes concerning what constituted the obscene in this period. The court cases which I referred to in the book suggest that the kind of material which was being prosecuted during this period was not the most sexually explicit, but represented borderline material which most clearly abutted respectable culture. Obscenity in the mid-19th century was a debate concerning the boundaries between respectable and non-respectable cultural consumption in a period of mass dissemination of visual imagery.

Finally, I share Pamela's fantasy of being able to extend the project of Victorian Babylon to the scope of material covered by Altick in The Shows of London. I have recently had reason to look again at Altick's book and thought how exciting it would be to extend his study chronologically to the mid and late-19th century and in the kind of depth which I attempted to achieve in my book. What a fantastic project and how well it would work online. Are there any collaborators out there?

January 2002

Original review

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