There is a splendid quote from Virginia Woolf’s ‘Character in Fiction’, in which she gently mocks a fashion in building character through the nature of the home they lived in. She writes:
Here is Mr Bennett making use of this common ground in the passage which I have quoted. The problem before him was to make us believe in the reality of Hilda Lessways. So he began, being an Edwardian, by describing accurately and minutely the sort of house Hilda lived in, and the sort of house she saw from the window. House property was the common ground from which the Edwardians found it easy to proceed to intimacy. Indirect as it seems to us, the convention worked admirably, and thousands of Hilda Lessways were launched upon the world by this means. (48)
Housing as character. I confess, being slightly obsessive about how people shape cities and cities shape people, in many ways I find this trait immensely wonderful and charming — especially as they often describe places that are no longer here, or that have changed dramatically over the past decades.
At the same time, writing this at some distance from actually reading the essay, I am often all muddled up about who is an Edwardian, who Victorian, who in between… This of course recalls long passages of Gissing, especially In The Year of the Jubilee (1894), maybe Maugham’s Liza of Lambeth (1897) or W. Pett Ridge’s Mord Em’ly (1898). I just finished Henry Blake Fuller’s The Cliff Dwellers (1893) about Chicago, which draws the same connections between social position and housing, but then, it is in many ways a story of real estate and the growth of American cities. They’re all a bit early though, I suppose I haven’t read many in full throttle. I enjoyed Pett Ridge most and there is the most movement there really both in how characters grow and how they find themselves, but for the first two there is very much a sense of social position matching, or even defined by the type of home occupied.
The structures are rigid, and entirely depressing, in the same way the buildings that mark social stratification stand tall and immovable.
Suddenly it is all less charming. Especially as in some circles, I don’t know at all that it has changed very much…