Tag Archives: Flora Tristan

The Irish Quarter, Oxford Street

“Irish poverty is a thing apart; it has no model or parallel anywhere in the world; once you have seen it you know that in theory the wretchedness of man has no limits…”
–Gustave de Beaumont, Ireland, its Society, Politics and Religion, 1839

This is a quote given by Flora Tristan to introduce part of her travels and studies of London, a look at the Irish quarter on Oxford Street. (I have written lots about Tristan, the general review of her descriptions of London is here).

At its starting-point, the elegant, long thoroughfare of
Oxford Street, with its throng of carriages, its wide pavements
and splendid shops. is joined almost at right angles by Tottenham Court Road; just off this street, facing Oxford Street, there is a narrow alley nearly always obstructed by an enormous can loaded with coal, which leaves hardly enough room for you to pass, even if you flatten yourself against the wall. This little alley, Bainbridge Street, is the entrance to the Irish quarter.

Bainbridge Street still exists but all the rest of it, absolutely all of it is all gone now as though poverty never existed there. You could not image unpaved streets or coal yards or dunghills here:

It is not without fear that the visitor ventures into the dark, narrow alley known as Bainbridge Street. Hardly have you gone ten paces when you are almost suffocated by the poisonous smell. The alley, completely blocked by the huge coal-yard, is impassable. We turned off to the right into another unpaved muddy alley with evil-smelling soapy water and other household slops even more fetid lying everywhere in stagnant pools. I had to struggle against my revulsion and summon up all my courage to go on through this veritable cesspool. In St Giles, the atmosphere is stifling; there is no fresh air to breathe nor daylight to guide your steps. The wretched inhabitants wash their tattered garments themselves and hang them on poles across the street, shutting out all pure air and sunshine. The slimy mud beneath your feet gives off all manner of noxious vapours, while the wretched rags above you drip their dirty rain upon your head. The fantasies of a fevered imagination could never match the horrifying reality! When I reached the end of the alley, which was not very long, my resolution faltered; my body is never quite as strong as my will, and now I felt my stomach heave, while a fierce pain gripped my head. I was wondering whether I could bear to go any further …

Sometimes I want to hit Flora Tristan, if I’m honest. I’ll spare you the sentimentality that follows, driving her to go further. But go further she did. It is reminiscent of what she found in Shoreditch and Bethnal Green, other centres of Irish settlement:

Picture, if you can, barefoot men, women and children picking their way through the foul morass; some huddled against the waII for want of anywhere to sit, others squatting on the ground, children wallowing in the mud like pigs. But unless you have seen it for yourself, it is impossible to imagine such extreme poverty, such total degradation. l saw children without a stitch of clothing, barefoot girls and women with babies at their breast, wearing nothing but a torn shirt that revealed almost the whole of their bodies; I saw old men cowering on dunghills, young men covered in rags.

What to her could be more other than these impossibly poor people, living in conditions that break my own heart in two. In seeking to describe them she reaches for comparisons and find only ‘negroes‘ and animals. Their dangerous hungers easily mastered by her assurance of authority.

Inside and out, the tumbledown hovels are entirely in keeping with the ragged population who inhabit them. In most of them the doors and windows lack fastenings and the floor is unpaved; the only furniture is a rough old oak table, a wooden bench, a stool, a few tin plates and a Sort of kennel, where father, mother, sons, daughters, and friends all sleep together regardless; such is the ‘comfort’ of the Irish quarter! All this is horrifying enough, but it is nothing compared with the expressions of the people’s faces. They are all fearfully thin, emaciated and sickly; their faces, necks and hands are covered with sores; their skin is so filmy and their hair so matted and disheveled that they look like negroes; their sunken eye express a stupid animal ferocity, but if you look at them with assurance they cringe and whine. I recognised in them the selfsame faces and expressions that I had observed when I visited the prisons. It must be a red-letter day for them when they enter Coldbath Fields; at least in prison they will have fresh linen, comfortable clothes, clean beds and pure air.

A kennel, she writes, where the Irish cringe and whine. They must suffer all the physical misery and hopelessness of poverty, while also being stared at by women like Flora, stripped further of their humanity. This makes me think about the ways such levels of want undoubtedly deform the spirits of those who suffer it (but they are still ‘us’ goddamn it), while also the visual manifestations of it push them beyond the pale of what the middle classes consider human. For Flora, Black folks are already automatically included in this, axiomatic of this status of suffering and otherness. It is hardly surprising, perhaps, that poverty should make the Irish look like negroes to Flora. Act like dogs.

There is such a tangling here of otherness.

It exists in other descriptions of the Irish, like Engels describing their areas in Manchester, likening them to animals and savages, insinuating they cannot be reclaimed but drag the English down with them.

How do they all live? By prostitution and theft. From the age of nine or ten the boys begin to steal; at eleven or twelve the girls are sold to brothels. The adults of both sexes are all professional thieves and their sole passion is drinking. If I had seen this quarter before I visited Newgate I would not have been so surprised to learn that the prison takes in fifty or sixty children a month and as many prostitutes. Theft is the only logical consequence when people live in such destitution as this. (156-158)

At least she does not blame them for their step outside of society’s mores in the battle for survival.

As I have mentioned before, the editing of the book and additional information are splendid — so here are some final facts on the area:

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Irish quarter in St Giles, Holborn occupied roughly the area bounded by Charing Cross Road, New Oxford Street and Shaftesbury Avenue, but in Flora’s time the two last-named Streets did not exist; slum clearance began a few years after her 1839 visit. According to the census of 1831 the population of this district – commonly known as Little Dublin – was a staggering 36,432. The 1841 census registered 82,291 lrish-born residents in London (3% of the population) but this did not include children born in England of Irish parents. By 1851 the number had increased to 109,000 (4.6%) largely because of the influx of Irish after the terrible potato famines in lreland. Professor Lynn Lees has calculated that if children and relatives were added, the figure
would have risen to 156,000, but even this is still short of the
inflated figure of 200,000 that Flora gives for 1839.

The Gin Palace & the Brothel

Flora Tristan wrote a great deal about the plight of women and children in the sex trade in London, and much as her words are uncomfortably tinged with her often insulting language around class and high ideals of femininity, they offer insight into a subject left alone by many another author. The topic of gin palace and brothel were rare in Victorian writing, even among reformers. Tristan at least focuses on the larger economics and politics of gender, even as she crams in every detail she can manage in a flowery language of ideals. She writes:

I have never been able to look at a prostitute without being moved by a feeling of compassion for her place in our societies and without experiencing scorn and hatred for the rulers who, totally immune to shame, to respect for humanity, and to love for their equals, reduce God’s creatures to the lowest degree of abjection!–to be valued below brute beasts!

She describes Waterloo–this area that we as women are now allowed to walk without fear at all times of day was once somewhere no woman could go alone without fear of men, whether or not she was in the trade:

Accompanied by two friends armed with canes, I went as an observer between seven and eight o’clock in the evening to visit the new quarter next to Waterloo Bridge, an area crossed by the long, wide Waterloo Road. This quarter is almost entirely peopled by prostitutes and agents of prostitution. It would be impossible to go there alone in the evening without risking imminent danger. It was a warm summer evening. The girls were at the windows or were seated before their doorways, laughing and joking with their pimps. Half-dressed, several bare to the waist, they were shocking and disgusting, but the cynicism and crime on the faces of the pimps was frightening.

In general the pimps were handsome men–young, tall, and strong; but their vulgar, gross manner reminded one of animals whose only instincts are their appetites.

Several of them accosted us, asking if we wanted a room. As we responded negatively, one bolder than the others said menacingly, “Then why have you come to this quarter if you do not want a room to take your lady to!” I confess that I would not have wanted to find myself alone with this man.

In that way we crossed all the streets adjacent to Waterloo Road and went to sit on the bridge to observe another spectacle. There we watched the girls of Waterloo Road district go by; in the evening between eight and nine o’clock, they go in bands into the West End of the city, where they practice their profession during the night and go home at eight or nine o’clock in the morning.

The girls stroll through the streets where the crowds are, those that terminate at the Stock Exchange, at the times when people go there, and along the approaches to theaters and other public attractions. At the hour of the half-price they invade all the shows and take possession of the lounges, which they make their reception rooms. After the performance, the girls go to the “finishes.” These are disgraceful cabarets or else vast, sumptuous taverns where one goes to finish out the night.

These sound more like the kind of girls to be found in some of the boarding houses written about by Mary Higgs, but there follows a fascinating description of a gin palace with a rather different dynamic. Much as I dislike some of her language, I do not know that I would have painted much of a different picture in her position. These scenes show the uses to which the wealth of the Empire were put to use, and the degradation of poor women that they demanded. These are not the things you will read in walking through the door of a revived gin palace, now becoming part of the hip London scene.

It was a sight to see, one that makes the moral condition of England better understood than anything one might say. These splendid taverns have a very special character. It seems that their frequenters are dedicated to the night; they go to bed when the sun begins to light up the horizon, and they get up after it has gone down. On the outside these carefully shut-up palace-taverns (gin-palaces) betoken only sleep and silence; but the porter has hardly opened the little door where the initiates enter than one is dazzled by the lively, brilliant lights escaping from a thousand gas jets. On the second floor there is an immense salon divided into two parts lengthwise. In one part is a row of tables separated by wooden partitions, as in all the English restaurants. On two sides of the tables are sofa-benches. Opposite, on the other side of the room, is a stage where richly costumed prostitutes are on display. They provoke the men with glances and words. When someone responds to their advances, they take the gallant gentlemen to one of the tables, all of which are loaded with cold meats, ham, poultry, cakes, and every kind of wine and liqueur.

The finishes are the temples that English materialism erects to its gods! The acolytes are richly dressed servants. The industrialist owners of the establishment humbly greet the male guests who come to exchange their gold for debauchery.

Toward midnight the habitués begin to arrive. Several of these taverns are meeting places for high society where the elite of the aristocracy assembles. At first the young lords recline on the sofa-benches, smoking and joking with the girls, then after several drinks, the fumes of champagne and the alcohol of Madeira rise to their heads, and the illustrious scions of the English nobility, and Their Honors of the Parliament, take off their coats, unknot their ties, and remove their vests and suspenders. They set up their own boudoirs in a public cabaret. Why should they restrain themselves? Are they not paying very dearly for the right to display their scorn? And as for the one they incite–they make fun of her. The orgy is steadily rising to a crescendo; between four and five o’clock in the morning, it reaches its peak.

There are all sorts of amusements in the finishes. One of the favorites is to make a girl dead drunk and then make her swallow some vinegar mixed with mustard and pepper; this drink almost always gives her horrible convulsions, and the jerkings and contortions of the unfortunate thing provoke laughter and infinitely amuse the honorable society. Another divertissement greatly appreciated in these fashionable assemblies is to throw glasses of anything at all on the girls who lie dead drunk on the floor. I have seen satin dresses that no longer had any color; they were a confusing mixture of stains; wine, brandy, beer, tea, coffee, cream, etc., made a thousand fantastic designs on them–a variegated testimony of the orgy; human beings cannot descend lower!

This may not, perhaps, have described every gin palace. Dickens provides a remarkably healthy version of a gin palace in Sketches by Boz, but he does note that

 Although places of this description are to be met with in every second street, they are invariably numerous and splendid in precise proportion to the dirt and poverty of the surrounding neighbourhood. The gin-shops in and near Drury-Lane, Holborn, St. Giles’s, Covent-garden, and Clare-market, are the handsomest in London. There is more of filth and squalid misery near those great thorough-fares than in any part of this mighty city.

There are more quotes to be found on the Victorian London site, all of them seem to describe the scene at a gin palace in the early evening, people popping in and out and nothing at all out of the ordinary and definitely nothing sexual at all, oh no. But all agree they abound in the neighbourhoods of greatest poverty.

This desperate and terrifying poverty Tristan herself describes at length with such ring of truth shows more than enough reason why women would chose this kind of route, any fucking route, to a different kind of life. Or perhaps just to forgetting. But there was more than enough evidence of women and children forced into prostitution, often lured from the countryside and from Europe with the promise of one kind of work only to find themselves forced into another.  In 1838 the committee of the Society for Juvenile Prostitution filed charges against brothel owner Marie Aubrey, for the following, which Tristan quotes at length:

The house in question was situated In Seymour Place, Bryanston Square. It was an establishment of great notoriety, visited by some of the most distinguished foreigners and others and carried on in a style little short of that observed in the richest and noblest families. The house consisted of twelve or fourteen rooms, besides those appropriated to domestic uses, each of which was genteelly and fashionably furnished. The saloon, a very large room, was elegantly fitted up: a profusion of valuable and splendid paintings decorated its walls, and its furniture was of a costly description… a service of solid silver plate was ordinarily in use when the visitors required it, which was the property of Marie Aubrey. At the time the prosecution was instituted, there were about twelve or fourteen young females in the house, mostly from France and Italy. There was a medical practitioner In the neighbourhood who was employed as agent. It was his duty to attend the establishment. He was frequently sent either to France, Italy or the villages near London, to procure females … Marie Aubrey had lived in the house a number of years, and had amassed a fortune. Shortly after she left, the inmates were sent away and the house is now shut up and the furniture disposed of. Upon receiving a fresh importation of females, it was the practice of this woman to send a circular, stating the circumstance to the parties who were In the habit of visiting the establishment.

At the present time there are in the metropolis a great number of young females from France and Italy, and other parts of the continent, a large proportion of whom have been decoyed from their homes, and introduced into the paths of iniquity by Marie Aubrey, or her infamous agents. There are a number of houses of this description at the West End now under the cognizance of the Society, and whose circulars are in its possession, who adopt this plan, and, by means of the Court Guide and twopenny post, are forwarding notices of their establishments indiscriminately to all.

Your Committee desire to lay before this meeting the means adopted by the agents of these houses. As soon as they arrive on the continent they obtain information respecting those families who have daughters, and who are desirous of placing them in respectable situations; they then introduce themselves, and by fair promise induce the parents to allow their children to accompany the stranger to London, with the understanding that they are to be engaged as tambour workers, or in some other genteel occupation. A sum of money is left with the parents, as a guarantee for the due performance of the contract, with an agreement that a certain amount shall be forwarded quarterly. While they remain in the house they were first taken to, the money is duly forwarded, and their parents are thus unconsciously receiving the means of support from the prostitution of their own children; if they remove, Ietters are sent to the parents to apprize them that their daughters have left the employ of their former mistress, and the money is accordingly stopped: they fail not to inform the parents that they have obtained other respectable situations, and are doing
well.” (96-97)

She devotes some space to the terrifying numbers of boys and girls abducted, raped, forced into service as the playthings of the wealthy. This section broke my heart, and is full of references to the groups and societies documenting these abuses, and trying to put a stop to them.

This is all that comes of poverty, vast inequality, the impunity and power of empire. We have won so much, but I am sometimes afraid of what our economic future holds in store, and I know that for many men, women and children around the world, too much has stayed exactly the same.

For more on similar things…

The Early Desperation of Bethnal Green and Shoreditch

Perhaps no city in the world presents more desolate a spectacle than the parishes of Bethnal Green and Shoreditch, which together contain 70,000 people. A large part of the land here has retained its original name of gardens, where landlords and speculators have raised a multitude of wooden shacks. mostly of one storey, for housing poor families. The appearance of these gardens is indescribable: there are no streets or drains running between the miserable hovels surrounded by their rotting wooden fences; the ground has not even been Ievelled; in some places there are mounds of earth and piles of rubbish, in others there are hollows full of stagnant water; heaps of pig manure lie in front of the hovels; there is nothing but filth, stench and decay everywhere. The abominable quarters are abandoned without protection or surveillance. The city authorities do not reach this far: in fact they are nowhere in evidence. The hovels are crumbling and rotting away; there is no drainage, no lighting, no regular collection of rubbish – in short, not a sign of urban civilisation. It is the supreme example of laissez faire! This quarter is totally outside the law, outside humanity; none of the rules and regulations of civilised society apply here!

These are the words of Eugène Buret, a French journalist and economist, and the essay they are found in (later made into a short book) won a prize for best research paper from the Academy for Moral and Political Sciences in Paris. I myself found them as extensive quotation in Flora Tristan’s London Journals, but Marx also quoted from them in his 1844 Manuscripts, apparently without citation.

”A back garden in Nichol Street, Bethnal Green” illustration for "More Revelations of Bethnal Green" in The Builder, vol. XXI, no. 1082 (31 October 1863)
”A back garden in Nichol Street, Bethnal Green” illustration for “More Revelations of Bethnal Green” in The Builder, vol. XXI, no. 1082 (31 October 1863)

Thy embody for me a whole host of issues that the social writing of this period put forward most starkly — the level of horror to be found in the conditions in which people lived, the judgmental gaze of the reformer that placed these ‘hovels’ and people within them ‘outside humanity’, the challenge that I think this raises for people working along more Foucauldian lines that does not erase the evils of surveillance and inspection, but points to the fact their absence might be worse. How then do we ensure no one ever again is forced by poverty under capitalism to live like this?

To quote from ‘Dwellings of the Poor in Bethnal Green’, in The Illustrated London News, 24th October 1863:

That public attention has at last been directed to the condition of the poorer neighbourhoods of Bethnal-green is attributable to the evidence of the medical officer who, at an inquest held on the body of a child, declared that death had been caused by “blood-poisoning,” through the impure state of the dwellings in a certain locality. That a wide and populous district has for years been subject to all the foulest influences which accompany a state of extreme filth and squalor may be due to the fact that private moneyed interests have had little to fear from parochial authority, even when they have not been represented by the same individuals…But “threatened men live long;” and even now the owners of the putrid sties in the purlieus of Friars-mount, in Thorold-square, in Twig-folly, and other centres of pestilence may well believe that neither board, nor commission, nor sanitary officer will trouble them if they can only let inquiry itself die, and so contrive to hush up the whole matter until the passing excitement is directed to some new object.

Eugène Buret’s words are so eloquent I have quoted as much as Tristan quotes (that things have not changed by 1863 you can see from reading the whole article in The Illustrated London News), and my heart breaks for those who suffered the ravages of the Industrial Revolution without the protection of industrial action and unions.

It is on record that many workers in the manufacturing towns of England do not attend church because they have no clothes.

On 31 May 1840 I visited the district of Bethnal Green in the company of the parish officers responsible for distributing relief
in this part of the city of London….

Among the wooden hovels scattered all over the “gardens”  we noticed one which stood out from the rest by reason of its even more wretched appearance. It might have been taken for a pile of rotting timber thrown upon a dunghill; the fence separating it from the other hovels consisted of broken planks interspersed with scraps of iron and metal all in an indescribable state off filth  and dilapidation. In one room on the ground floor – the only room in the house – with its floor a few inches lower than the pile of rubbish in the yard outside, lived a family of ten. This hovel which measures less than ten feet square by seven feet high has a rent of 1s. 6d a week. It is even more difficult to convey an idea of the state of the family than to describe their dwelling. The man, the head of the family, was shaking with fever; illness and hunger had reduced him to extreme emaciation, and nothing about him seemed alive except his gaze. transparent and animated by the heat of his fever; it was impossible to endure his anguished expression. This man, thirty-seven years of age, English by birth and a silk-dyer by trade, told us that he could earn up to 15s. a week when employed, but that he had been unable to find work for five months. The relief officer confirmed that he had always been of good character, and that neither laziness or vice had brought him to this state. His wife, crouching by the broken hearth, held an infant to her breast, and three more barefoot young children were outside. Their father confessed to us that the other children had gone out “In the hope of finding something, either by begging or otherwise”. For five months he had had no other means of existence than what the parish allowed him and what the children brought home. Despite the extreme destitution of this family, they refused to take refuge in the workhouse.

In another yard of this abominable quarter we found a family which seemed to us even more wretched than the first, if that is possible. They were living in one upstairs room. quite spacious and light. but approached by a dark and dirty staircase where every stair shook beneath our feet. This family consisted. of eight people, all present at the time of our visit. The head of the family was a weaver of velvet, still young and English by birth. He earned 7s. 6d per week, but he was not continuously employed. His lodging cost him 2s. 6d. per week, and for nearly two months he had been unable to pay his rent. The only article of furniture in the room was his loom; there were no chairs, no table, no bed. In one corner was a big heap of straw, half hidden by a scrap of cloth, and in it were buried three children, stark naked like animals, with not a single rag between them. The woman had her back turned to us and was vainly trying to fasten about her what remained of her clothing so that she would be fit to be seem. The man was wearing a blue coal with two or three shining engraved buttons still on it; he had no shirt. He received us with courtesy, and sadly yet calmly told us the full horror of his plight. When we entered he was holding a Bible, and when the parish officer asked him why he did not go to church, he pointed to his bare chest, to his wife standing motionless with shame in the comer, and his children hiding one behind another to avoid our gaze, and replied that soon he would not even be able to go out looking for work. This family was accounted honest and the officer had already distributed clothes to them several times, but lack of work had forced the father to trade these gifts of charity for bread. And this is not the only part of London privileged to suffer such wretchedness. Shoreditch, Whitechapel, Shadwell, St Giles and St Olaf would provide us at every step with scenes similar to those we have just described.
Eugène Buret – De la misère des clases laborieuses en Engleterre et en France (Paris, 1840)

As always there is the uncomfortable clarity of the reformer’s distinction between deserving and undeserving poor — where it seems to me the undeserving poor were simply those who did not allow themselves to die slowly and without murmur or fight. The limitations of parish relief and ‘charity’ are clear. Even at this extreme, families refused to resort to the Workhouse. Mary Higgs writing sixty years — and a number of reforms — later of the terrible conditions offers a good understanding of why in the very practical sense, giving explanations of how the workhouse might kill you even faster than starvation in the open air, without even taking into account pride or lack of space.

Room occupied by a military tailor and his family, at No. 10 Hollybush-Place. The Illustrated London News, 24th October, 1863.
Room occupied by a military tailor and his family, at No. 10 Hollybush-Place.
The Illustrated London News, 24th October, 1863.

Reading such things I am always made so furious, it is so vital we never look back on these times as the good old days. Looking at Bethnal Green and especially Shoreditch now, I also wish there were some memory preserved of so much misery and death that formed part of the construction of these picturesque narrow alleys and quaint old corners and buildings. That this translated into a commitment to maintaining a large portion of these areas as quality social housing so that our society might reflect a vision of neighbourhoods and the conditions of the people living within them improved over time, rather than an improvement of infrastructure that forces people out.

There is a lot more written about Bethnal Green, especially the Old Nichol, of course, to be explored further.

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Victorian Gas Works

Gas lighting transformed London, it is hard to imagine now just how much. I think the only way to begin to understand it, as much as we can from this vantage point, is through literature.

1305530Flora Tristan’s London Journal is wonderfully evoctive of the beauty of gas lighting, the magical effect it had on London:

But it is especially at night that London should be seen: then, in the magic light of millions of gas-lamps, London is superb! Its broad streets stretch to infinity; its shops are resplendent with every masterpiece that human ingenuity can devise; its multitudes of men and women pass ceaselessly too and fro. To see all this for the first time is an intoxicating experience. Then again, in the daytime, the beautiful streets, the elegant squares, the austere iron gates which separate the family mansion from the common run of humanity, the vast expanse of gracious rolling parkland, the beauty of the trees, the number of superb carriages and magnificent horses which parade the streets — all this seems magical and blurs the judgment, so that no foreigner can fail to be entranced when he first enters the British capital. But I must warn you that the spell fades like a fantastic vision, a dream in the night; the foreigner soon recovers his senses and opens his eyes to the arid egotism and gross materialism which lurk behind that ideal world (17).

I’m not sure that something hasn’t been lost now, the texture of the light changed and the last remaining shadowy places illuminated with electricity. There are still a few streets where you can experience gas lighting, you can find them here. It’s something well loved and well studied, a short description of how and when it came to illuminate London’s streets can be found here, or more at length in Liza Picard‘s work on Victorian London. The way it transformed how people could walk through the city at night, especially women, is so self-evident yet often forgotten.

Gas_Light_&_Coke_CompanyAlso often forgotten, I think, is the labour and technology that made is possible. One of the most powerful passages of Tristan’s journal describes the gasworks at Horseferry Road. There is nothing at all left to show that a gas works once stood here but a plaque.  Tristan’s words give a vivid sense of the working conditions:

One of the largest gas-works is in Horseferry Road. Westminster; I have forgotten the name of the company. You can not visit it without a ticket of admission: In this palace of industry the abundance of machinery and iron is quite overwhelming; everything is made of iron — platforms. railings, staircases. floors, roofing etc.; plainly no expense has been spared to ensure that buildings and equipment alike are made of the most durable materials. I saw cast-iron vats with the dimensions of a four-storey house. I wanted to know how many thousand tons they hold, but the foreman with me was just as uncommunicative as the foreman at the brewery, and preserved an absolute silence.

We went into the big boiler-house: the row of furnaces on either side were burning brightly; the scene was not unlike the descriptions the poets of Antiquity have left us of Vulcan’s forges, save that the Cyclops were animated with divine activity and intelligence, whereas the black slaves of the English furnaces are sullen, silent and impassive. There were about twenty men present, going about their work in a slow, deliberate fashion. Those with nothing to do stood motionless, lacking the energy even to wipe away the sweat streaming down their bodies, Two or three turned their blank gaze towards me; the rest did not even raise their heads. The foreman told me that only the strongest men were selected as stokers; even so, they all developed chest diseases after seven or eight years of the work, and invariably died of consumption. That accounted for the misery and apathy depicted on every countenance and apparent in every movement the poor wretches made.

This language is so emblematic of the odd politics of her solidarity with, and yet low opinion of, the working classes. She is offhand about their early deaths, but it breaks my heart to think of it.

The work demanded of them is more than human strength can endure. They wear nothing but cotton drawers; when they leave the boiler-house they merely throw a coat over their shoulders.

Although the space between the two rows of furnaces must have been fifty or sixty feet, the floor was so hot that the heat penetrated my shoes immediately and made me lift up my feet as if I had stepped on live coals. I stood upon a large stone slab, but even this was hot, although it was well off the ground. I could not stay in this veritable hell; the heat was suffocating, the smell of gas was making me dizzy and my chest felt as if it would burst. The foreman took me to a gallery at the end of the boiler-house where I could see everything in relative comfort.

We made a complete tour of the establishment; I was lost in admiration for all the machines, for the meticulous care that marks every stage of the work; but in spite of all precautions there are frequent disasters in which men are injured and even killed. 0 God! Can progress be bought only at the cost of men’s lives?

She is not, and I could hardly expect her to be, interested in the geographies of light, that this is gas produced to light up the expensive shops of the West End at the cost of workingmen’s lives and environment:

The gas produced at this factory is taken by pipes to light the Oxford Street area as far as Regent Street.

The air is horribly tainted: at every instant you are assailed by poisonous fumes. I emerged from one building, hoping to find the air purer in the yard outside, but everywhere I went, the foul exhalations of gas and the stench of coal and tar pursued me.

Not only is this killing the men who work here, it surely must also be killing all those who live around it, albeit more slowly. Her lack of interest in how this is affecting the poor people and dock workers living in the area is in its own way a testament to what communities fighting for environmental justice have been able to achieve.

It also makes me wish that she were not writing from such a position of privilege, that she had trudged here from wherever she was staying, for surely then the effect of the fumes and the housing of the workers would have also figured in this description. As it was, Tristan was there only briefly and already felt dizzy and sick. Odd then, and oddly Victorian, that she focuses in on the dirt.

What is more, the entire premises are very dirty. The yard — with its pools of stagnant water and piles of rubbish — testifies to a total neglect of hygiene. It is true that the materials used to produce gas are of such a nature that it would require vigorous measures to keep the place clean, but two men would be sufficient for the task, and for a trifling increase in outlay, the entire establishment would be healthier.

Returning once more to the working conditions suffered:

Retort House, Great Central Gas Works, Bow Common, London. It was here that Croll introduced the burning of incandescent coke as fuel immediately it had be taken from retorts. 10% saving. Wood engraving, 1866
Retort House, Great Central Gas Works, Bow Common, London. It was here that Croll introduced the burning of incandescent coke as fuel immediately it had be taken from retorts. 10% saving. Wood engraving, 1866

I was on the point of suffocating and could not wait to escape from such an evil-smelling place when the foreman said, ‘Stay a moment longer, there’s something very interesting for you to see; the stokers are just about to remove the coke from the ovens.’

I returned to my perch in the gallery; the sight that met my eyes was one of the most appalling that I have ever seen.

The furnaces are above ground level. with a space below to catch the coke. The stokers, armed with long iron rakes, opened the ovens and raked out the coke, which fell in blazing torrents into the chamber below. Nothing could be more terrible or majestic than the sight of so many mouths all pouring forth flames, nothing more magical than the cavern suddenly illumined with living fire, descending like a waterfall from a rocky height, only to be swallowed in the abyss: nothing more terrifying than the stokers, their bodies streaming as if they had just emerged from the water, lit on both sides by the dreadful braziers that thrust out their fiery tongues as if to devour them. Oh, no! a more frightful spectacle it would be impossible to imagine!

South Metropolitan Gas Company's works, East Greenwich, London: Quenching coke.
South Metropolitan Gas Company’s works, East Greenwich, London: Quenching coke, wood engraving published Paris, 1891.

When the furnaces were half empty, men perched on vats in the four corners of the lower chamber threw water on the coke to extinguish it. The scene changed; there arose a dense hot whirlwind of black smoke which ascended majestically through the open skylight. Now the furnaces were visible only through this haze, which made the flames seem even redder and the fire more menacing; the stokers’ bodies turned from white to black, and the unfortunate wretches were swallowed up like demons in some infernal chaos. I was caught unawares by the smoke, and barely had time to make a hasty descent.

I awaited the end of the business, anxious to see what would become of the poor stokers. I was astounded that not one woman appeared. Dear God! I thought, have the men no mother, sister, wife or daughter waiting at the door as they emerge from that hell, to wash them in warm water, to wrap them in shirts of flannel; to give them something nourishing to drink; to greet them with friendly words that would give them heart and help them to endure their cruel lot? I was in a fever of anxiety; not one woman appeared. I demanded of the foreman where these men, soaked in sweat, would go to take their rest. ‘They’ll lie down in this shed.’ he replied, quite unconcerned, ‘and in a couple of hours they’ll go back to their stoking,’

I find this simultaneously horrific in what men were forced to suffer to earn a wage, and almost laughable in terms of her horror at the absence of women occupying such middle-class Victorian roles as mopping their husband’s brow and inspiring him with hope and bringing him nourishment. I imagine these wives, sisters and daughters were all both hungry and hard at work themselves keeping households together or taking in laundry, cleaning the homes of the wealthy, working in factories themselves.

But again, we return to another of the reasons men died so quickly in this work:

This shed, open on all sides to the wind, was really no more than a shelter from the rain, and inside it was as cold as ice. A sort of mattress lay in one corner, almost indistinguishable from the coal around it. I saw the stokers stretch out on their stony bed, with no covering but a greatcoat so stained with sweat and coal-dust that it was impossible to tell its original colour. ‘There,’ said the foreman, ‘that’s how these men get consumption; they don’t look after themselves, going straight from the heat into the cold like that.’ (72-75)

You like Tristan better when she says she left in a huff after that remark.

A few more things on gas — in A Match to Fire the Thames, there is a brief description of the workers organising for the first time at the Beckton Gas Works — owned by the same company — under the leadership of Will Thorne. They won an eight hour day (it is impossible to imagine working in these conditions at all, much less from 10 to 14 hours), with fewer retorts to fill and all for the same daily wage. Long live the union.

"Watson House, Gas Light & Coke Company in Londen (1933)" by Willem van de Poll - Nationaal Archief. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
“Watson House, Gas Light & Coke Company in Londen (1933)” by Willem van de Poll – Nationaal Archief. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The other is that in addition to the poisoning of air and ground, the construction of gas works was also a part of the steady destruction of gardens supplying the city, from Old and New London: Volume 4:

The works belonging to the Gas Light and Coke Company, which occupy a considerable space of ground between Peter Street and Horseferry Road, stand partly on the site of what was, at the beginning of the present century, the residence of a market-gardener, known as the “Bower” ale-house and tea-gardens—a name still perpetuated in that of the adjacent public-house—”The White Horse and Bower,” in the Horseferry Road. These gasworks (one of the three earliest stations established by the first gas company in the metropolis, which received its charter of incorporation in 1812) owe their origin to the enterprise of a Mr. Winsor, the same who, on the evening of the King’s birthday, in 1807, made a brilliant display of gas along the wall between the Mall and St. James’s Park. It may be worth while to note here that the general lighting of the metropolis with gas began on Christmas Day, 1814. A branch establishment in connection with these gas-works has since been erected further westward, close by Millbank Prison, and more recently a larger establishment has been opened at North Woolwich, where the works henceforth will mainly be concentrated, so that latterly very little business has been actually carried on here.

The later history of these gas works is also rather fascinating, and described on the Subterranea Brittanica site:

The ‘Rotundas’ consisted of three buildings, two of three storeys and one of two (originally five), all linked together and occupying a site in SW1 bounded by Great Peter Street to the north, Marsham Street to the east, Horseferry Road to the south and Monck Street to the west. The site had previously been occupied since c.1877 by the gas works of the Gas Light and Coke Company. The two gas holders were demolished in 1937 leaving two very large circular holes in the ground. During the blitz a large bomb fell on the gas works which blew four workmen into these holes, unfortunately only two survived.

A government contract was issued to construct various protected buildings in London, these included Montagu House in Whitehall for the War Office, Curzon House in Curzon Street for the Army, The Admiralty Citadel on Horseguards for the Navy and the Rotundas, all designed to withstand the impact of a 500lb bomb. With their 12 foot thick concrete roof the latter complex was equipped to house several thousand Government officials in complete safety from enemy attack for up to three months.

The Rotundas were built in the holes left by the gas holders, each of three storeys with one and a half floors above ground and the same below. They were identified as the North Rotunda at 59-67 Great Peter Street, the South Rotunda at 18/19 Monck Street. The complex was completed by the five storey Steel Frame Building, with one level below ground at 17 Monck Street. The upper three stories were later removed.

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Field Lane and larceny, then and now

Field lane was once a narrow alley that led to Saffron Hill (once fields and gardens belonging to Ely Place and filled with actual saffron), and formed part of a tangle of the narrow lanes and courts that contained some of London’s most desperate poverty. Flora Tristan describes it thus in 1842:

Quite close to Newgate, in a little alley off Holborn Hill called Field Lane, which is too narrow for vehicles to use, there is absolutely nothing to be seen but dealers in secondhand silk handkerchiefs.’ I am sure I do not need to warn any curious traveller who might be tempted to follow in my footsteps, to leave at home his watch, purse and handkerchief before he ventures into Field Lane, for he may be sure that the gentlemen who frequent the spot are all light-fingered! It is particularly interesting to go there in the evening, as it is then thronged with people – which is easy to understand: buyers and sellers alike are anxious to preserve their anonymity for, after his purse. nothing is more precious to anyone in business than the mask of respectability he has been at such pains to acquire.

The shops are in fact stalls which project into the steet, and this is where the handkerchiefs are displayed: they hang on rails so that intending purchasers can recognise at a glance the property they have had stolen from them! The men and women dealers, whose looks are in perfect harmony with their trade, stand in their doorways and hector the customers who come under cover of the night to buy dirt cheap the spoils of the day. There is a bustle of activity in the street as prostitutes, children, and rogues of every age and condition come to sell their handkerchiefs (175).

I found a picture or two (with a jarring one in contrast, to bring us into the present):

Field Lane, c. 1840. (Old and New London)
Field Lane, c. 1840. (Old and New London)

What Was Field Lane

Near Field Lane c. 1844 Houses with the open part of the Fleet Ditch before rebuilding (Print: D. Bogue, Fleet Street)
Near Field Lane c. 1844. Houses with the open part of the Fleet Ditch before rebuilding
(Print: D. Bogue, Fleet Street)

They are described by Dickens of course, in Oliver Twist. I was so pleased to have accidentally been reading that at the same time as Tristan’s London Journal, and to have connected the two together on my own. Of course, I found out that is no big thing. This is from Dickens, describing one of Fagins’ haunts:

Near to the spot on which Snow Hill and Holborn meet, there opens, upon the right hand as you come out of the City, a narrow and dismal alley, leading to Saffron Hill. In its filthy shops are exposed for sale huge bunches of pocket-handkerchiefs of all sizes and patterns, for here reside the traders who purchase them from pickpockets. Hundreds of these handkerchiefs hang dangling from pegs outside the windows or flaunting from the door-posts, and the shelves within are piled with them. Confined as the limits of Field Lane are, it has its barber, its coffee-shop, its beer-shop, and its fried fish warehouse. It is a commercial colony of itself—the emporium of petty larceny, visited at early morning and setting-in of dusk by silent merchants, who traffic in dark back parlours and go as strangely as they come. Here the clothes-man, the shoevamper, and the rag-merchant, display their goods as sign-boards to the petty thief, and stores of old iron and bones, and heaps of mildewy fragments of woollen-stuff and linen, rust and rot in the grimy cellars.

Here is a map showing the maze of streets and courts:

By John Rocque (John Rocque's 1746 Map of London) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By John Rocque (John Rocque’s 1746 Map of London) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
But these were to become a thing of the past, 1844 ushered in efforts to rebuild the area, 1869 saw the construction of the Holborn Viaduct, by the time Charles Booth was making his second set of poverty maps in 1898-99, it looked rather different (in both, field lane is the bottom left), though the black sections show that poverty and crime abide:

Screen Shot 2015-02-13 at 09.05.25

Today crime clearly still abides, at least, loitering does along these steps that lead down from Charterhouse.

What Was Field Lane
And it feels part of the City, the banking industry and corporate London has ever been a hotbed of crime I think.

Further down becoming Saffron Hill proper (though Field Lane has been wiped from memory through signage alone), it regains something of the feel for what was:

What Was Field Lane

What Was Field Lane

I love this area, despite the creep of the City, the expensiveness, the smart suits walking briskly to and fro. There are still a scattering of normal people, some estates not yet demolished or turned into luxury apartments perhaps. Still a sound of accents that make me feel at ease, still a raffish air to it. I don’t mourn the loss of the desperate poverty, the cold, damp and overcrowded housing,  or the picturesque views of stolen goods. What I hate is that our people were simply swept away for the most part, to build a cold corporate environment of nearly empty echoing alleys. Buildings that are a monument to greed and thievery of a different kind, often, though not always, a legitimated one.

People with money desire curious things.

For more on Victorian cities or Dickens…

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Flora Tristan’s London Journal

1305530Flora Tristan (1803-1844) is half vile aristocrat and half tireless feminist fighting in the face of tremendous odds — I know, I know those aren’t exclusionary things, but their combination left me continuously unsettled. It explains why this book is strongest in its description of conditions, weakest in its exposition. Her life, too, makes for alternate feelings of pity, admiration and a spitting reflex.

When I say vile aristocrat, I mostly mean in some of her views when she wasn’t being a socialist or feminist, but she was the illegitimate daughter of an aristocratic and very wealthy Peruvian family and a French woman. After a trip to Peru she was not recognised as a legitimate heir, but was made an allowance. Admirably, this did not stop her public criticism of them — yet I couldn’t help feeling that was a bit mad as well. Part of me feels as though perhaps it is bourgeois to be that impractical about these kinds of money matters. Deborah Epstein Nord wrote:

The tension between Tristan’s intrepid, defiant nature and her horror of social ostracism pervades her written work and gives particular force to her London journal.

I think this is part of it…perhaps I would say a theatrical personality and a deep insecurity on a range of levels. I’m deeply skeptical of the way she saw change, and the way that she worked for it. From the lovely introduction by translator Jean Hawkes comes this revealing quote from a letter she wrote to Charles Poncy, recent recruit to her cause:

I’m very interested … in taking possession of your soul, your heart and your mind, because I want to use everything that is fine and good in you to help achieve my great and beautiful work (xxxv-xxxvi).

A bit vomitous. Did I say she was also beautiful? You can really tell. Throughout.

She had a strange messianic belief in herself and her role to reveal the goodness and cooperative spirit in humankind and lead them to a socialist future. Like Joan of freaking Arc. That kind of movement isn’t really one I’m interested in being part of, myself, but she was by no means unique in that idea of struggle. A peculiar mix of supreme self-centeredness and insecurity and belief in a better future. That she thought deeply, however, occasionally shines through in reasoned argument:

However, take care that you look upon political rights as only the means which will enable you to strike, through the law, at the evil roots of society and at the abuses which dominate the social order today: abuses in the organization of government and politics, commerce and agriculture, the family and religion. It is the social system, the base of the structure, which must concern you, not political power, which is but an illusion, supreme one day and overthrown the next, restored in a new form only to be overturned once more (3).

I don’t fully agree of course, and it’s curious that the economic is entirely missing here. What I loved most were her descriptions of England, her inability to escape a French nationalist fervour and her confidence in making snap judgments can be immensely amusing, but also quite perceptive:

England’s important position in the world makes one wish to know the country better, but as it is not at all an agreeable place to live in, most travelers are satisfied with a superficial glimpse, and, dazzled by the luxury of the wealthy and by the might of England’s industrial power, they never suspect the wretchedness of the poor and the hypocrisy and selfishness of the upper classes, or the price paid for the immense riches they have acquired (8).

What an enormous city London is! Its huge size, out of all proportion to the area and population of the British Isles, simultaneously calls to mind the commercial supremacy of England and her oppression of India! (16)

This is quite brilliant…I am writing this blog at the end of just such a day in fact, they still hang heavy I think:

In London melancholy is in the very air you breathe and enters in at every pore. There is nothing more gloomy or disquieting than the aspect of the city on a day of fog or rain or black frost. Only succumb to its influence and your head becomes painfully heavy, your digestion sluggish, your respiration laboured for lack of fresh air, and your whole body is overcome by lassitude. Then you are in the grip of what the English call “spleen”: a profound despair, unaccountable anguish, cantankerous hatred for those one loves the best, disgust with everything, and an irresistible desire to end one’s life by suicide (22).

There is the most extraordinary section where she dresses as a Turk to attend the House of Commons (women not being allowed). Part of me applauds, but then she writes this:

Although the Turk and I outwardly maintained the calm bearing of the true Ottoman, they must have guessed how distressed and embarrassed we were feeling. Yet without the slightest respect for my status as a woman and a foreigner, or for the fact I was there in disguise, all these so-called gentlemen passed in front of me, staring at me boldly through their lorgnettes and exchanging remarks about me in loud voices (60).

Her comments are choice on the old House of Commons (that one what burned down):

In appearance nothing could be meaner or more commonplace; it puts one in mind of a shop (60).

Old_House_of_Commons_chamber,_F._G._O._Stuart
House of Commons; A. D. White Collection of Architectural Photographs, Cornell University Library (Accession Number: 15/5/3090.01024)

 

Her comments seem a bit harsh. Then she heads over to the House of Lords and writes:

I saw that I was in the presence of true gentlemen, tolerant of a lady’s whims and even making it a point of honour to respect them. The English nobility, despite its aloofness, possesses an urbanity of manner, a politeness one seeks in vain amongst the overlords of finance — or in any other class (63).

We all know which side of the barricades she will be on come the revolution. She did visit a brewery though, which I applaud her for:

Beer and gas are the two main products consumed in London. I went to see the superb brewery of Barclay Perkins which is certainly well worth a visit. This establishment is very spacious: no expense has been spared in its equipment. Nobody would tell me how many litres of beer it produces each year, but to judge from the size of the vats, it must amount to an extraordinary quantity. It was in one of these vats – the largest, it is true – that Messrs Barclay and Perkins once invited a member of the English royal family to a dinner at which more than fifty guests were present. This particular vat is 30 metres high! (72).

A Birds Eye View of the Brewery of Messrs Barclay, Perkins & Compy, Park Street Southwark
A Birds Eye View of the Brewery of Messrs Barclay, Perkins & Compy, Park Street Southwark

But again and again you butt up against the prejudices of her character, as in this description of the inmates of Newgate Prison (I will say that she was very thorough in her investigations, and these descriptions are fascinating):

Nearly all the women I saw there were of the lowest class:
prostitutes, servants or country girls accused of theft. Four on charges carrying the death penalty for crimes classified as felonies under English law. Most of them seemed to be of low intelligence, but I noticed several whose tight thin lips, pointed nose, sharp chin, deep-set eyes and sly look I took as signs of exceptional depravity. I saw only one woman there who aroused my interest. She was confined with six others in a dark, damp low-ceilinged cell; when we entered they all rose and made us the customary servile curtsey which had embarrassed and irritated me from the moment I set foot in the prison. One alone refrained and it was this sign of independence which attracted my attention. Picture a young woman of twenty-four, small, well-made and tastefully dressed, standing with head held high to reveal a perfect profile, graceful neck, delicate well-formed ear, and hair a model of neatness and cleanliness. My readers have already had occasion to remark the effect that beauty has upon me and will readily understand my feelings at the sight of this pretty creature; my eyes filled with tears and only the presence of the governor prevented me from going up to her and taking her hand so that she might understand my interest in her fate and so that my sympathy might calm for a few moments the sufferings of her heart (115).

Such descriptions infuriate me, inflected as they are with intense class prejudice and the equation of beauty with goodness. I can have no sympathy with her from this point on.

Still, I did enjoy reading things like this, on England’s stand on the slave trade:

So the great act of humanity that the English have boasted about for thirty years was nothing but a carefully calculated financial transaction — and for thirty years the whole of Europe has been deceived! The fraudulence of the honourable members of the English Parliament has persuaded us to put our trust in the philanthropy and altruism of a pack of traders! (161)

Ha, her disgust at a pack of traders! I’ll be coming back to her marvelous descriptions however, putting them alongside other narratives and photographs old and new, this book is truly a marvelous resource for such things as the Horseferry gas works, the Irish quarter off Oxford Circus, Holborn, Field Lane, and interestingly, pockets. Look for upcoming blog posts. The final interesting fact is that Paul Gaugin was Tristan’s grandson…I’m not sure if this helps explain him at all, but it just might.

Another post examining her brilliant descriptions of the gasworks in Horseferry Road can be found here.

([1842] 1982) Virago Press

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Walking the Victorian Streets

1396370Walking the Victorian Streets: Women, Representation, and the City
Deborah Epstein Nord
1995, Cornell University Press

It opens: ‘In the literature of the nineteenth-century city, the figure of the observer–the rambler, the stroller, the spectator, the flaneur–is a man’ (1). This is a study of how Victorian women, particularly literary women who were themselves observers,  walked the streets. They did so not as prostitutes, yet always their gender ensures that they are  more observed than observer and their presence in public spaces alone links them in the mind with the ‘streetwalker’ as prostitute. Nord writes:

If the rambler was a man, and if one of the primary tropes of his urban description was the women of the streets, could there have been a female spectator or a vision of the urban panorama crafted by a female imagination? And if such a vision were possible, under what conditions and with what distinctive features might it have been created? These are questions of history, about who was on the street in which urban neighborhoods and at what times of day and night, and questions of representation, about the cultural meanings ascribed to men and women in the context of urban literature and analysis (3).

What a great question, and one hard to answer, particularly going back to the 1840s through the 1880s. It’s memoirs or fiction to get any understanding at all, but as Nord continues ‘We have the overwhelming sense, however, that women alone on the street in the mid-nineteenth-century city were considered to be, as one American historian [Ryan – Women in Public Places] has put it, “either endangered or dangerous” (3).

In the introduction she captures some of the discomfort I have with the ideal of the rambler, with de Quincey and Baudelaire and similar others, so common now in psychogeography:

Whether by the anonymous and transitory act of sex itself or by the suddenness of her appearance from and evaporation into the crowd, the sexually tainted woman (or the woman found and lost) serves to represent the experience of the masculine spectator. These women themselves gaze at the crowd, Baudelaire remarks [in ‘The Painter of Modern Life’], “as at a river which reflects their own image. In truth, they exist every much more for the pleasure of the observer than for their own.” The poet, exemplifying so much of the literature of urban spectatorship, cancels out the subjectivity of the woman of the streets. Paradoxically, by suggesting that she is a Narcissus who can see the streets only as a reflection of herself, he makes her into the spectator’s mirror and the masculine observer’s spectacle (6).

For others of a different morality, such as Wordsworth, women of the street represent an alien distance, an unsettling encounter. I’ve never liked Wordsworth, but I find both of these accounts frustrating, stripping women of agency, equality and a right to freely encounter others in public space. In the late 18th century, Nord argues, the discourse shifts again to women as source of disease and contamination, and one capable of reaching the most respectable home, through Blake, Dickens and others. The main argument of the book looks at both women as writers and women as they observe the city:

the particular urban vision of the female observer, novelist, or investigator derives from her consciousness of transgression and trespassing, from the vexed sexuality her position implies, and from her struggle to escape the status of spectacle and become a spectator. The ‘respectable’ middle-class woman creating her own city spectacle had to come to terms with women’s place in a well-established literary tradition of urban description as well as with her relationship to the poor women, the female beggars, the factory workers, and the prostitutes she observed on her own very tentative rambles. Associated by gender with the very emblems of poverty, disease, and fallenness in urban panoramas created by novelists and social reformers, women writers had to contend with split identifications: they wrote with the cultural (and class) authority of the writer and with the taint of their sex’s role in the urban drama  (12).

The main sections:

  1. ‘Stroller into Novelist’: as awareness of city space shifts from the sense of stage or panorama to a social web and the city of crisis and subject of investigation
  2. ‘Fallen Women’: Focus on Flora Tristan and Elizabeth Gaskell and women as spectacle and spectator
  3. ‘New Women’: End of 1800s, rise of new possibilities for women and new social questions on their relationship to the city

So a few of the points I particularly liked, they are more or less in chronological order so here is the 1820s, city as theater:

What distinguishes the rambler’s or the flaneur’s stance from that of the social investigator or reform-minded novelist is this identification with and delight in the privileges of the poor. The flaneur sees the poor and the prostitute not as victims or objects of pity but as urban actors free from the constraints of bourgeois life (43).

Precisely what makes me most angry about some of these accounts is their inability to see structural constraints, but this is a reminder that the power of these accounts is perhaps in how they recognise agency, which is more respectful in the end than the reformer’s views. But I like too, this reminder of the ways these earlier texts did not impose narrative structure, how they employed a different set of tools in the depiction of the city that gets at some insights but clearly fails to uncover others:

De Quincey declines to tell or invent the story of what he sees, to give to urban experience or to his own narrative what one critic has called its own ‘discursive interpretation’. He does not “read” the city as we try to read his narrative (46)…For all these shapers and observers of the London scene regarded the social reality of the city as part of a natural order, a system of social relations that was fundamentally organic and not to be challenged or radically transformed (47)…the people of the street are signs to be read only for the edification of the spectator, or left unread as part of the unraveled urban mystery…(48).

On to the 1830s, and a look at early Dickens to a sense of the growing middle-classes and their urban sensibilities:

focus on two crucial elements of the literary creation of a middle-class city: first, the continuing sense of distance from the “lower orders,” now juxtaposed with a new awareness of possibilities for sympathizing, if not identifying, with the poor; and second, the development of a middle-class discourse about the presence on the streets of the sexually tainted and victimized woman (50).

I like thinking through this idea about the nature of the city and our understanding of it (via Dickens):

Writing about the Sketches, F.S. Schwarzbach notes that Dickens’s unique contribution consists in the “unifying vision…of the urban milieu as an eternal here and now.” Invoking Carl Schorske’s notion that the modern city’s essential characteristic is a permanent sense of transience, Schwarzbach writes that in Dickens we find an early version of this distinctly modern sensibility, and that unlike Hunt, for example, Dickens embraces the contemporary city and ignores or belittles the past (58).

I’m not so sure I agree with any of that, but it’s interesting, and things I haven’t really thought through before. As is this, both in possibly disagreeing and wanting to think through:

Whereas the urban observers of the 1820s converted the everyday scene to theater, Boz transforms theater into the ordinary and unremarkable. Spectacle itself is demystified and the distance between spectator and the city diminished (63).

There follows a chapter on Dombey and Sons — which I have not yet read — and Bleak House, which I have. This is much more focused on female sexuality, and I didn’t get as much from this. This is my own failing I think, I am not as interested in more psychoanalytic approaches or sexuality and sexualisation as subjects. Though this book has convinced me (though I didn’t really need convincing) of their importance — particularly in this focus on a sexuality foisted upon women or internalised by them. I thought it possibly slightly unfair to strip any eroticism or romance from Gaskell’s writing, but I did love thinking through these intersections between gender and the city and writing.  I think Nord is right on ‘how powerful, how unavoidable, was the sexualization of woman’s entry into urban space and into the social conflicts that circulate within that space’ (176).

Both Tristan and Gaskell as subjects of the following chapters are fascinating — and finally we get to women writers! Tristan is sitting on my shelf right now, will I agree that ‘The tension between Tristan’s intrepid, defiant nature and her horror of social ostracism pervades her written work and gives particular force to her London journal (116)’? [You can read the answer here]. It is definitely curious, though to see how Nord explores the tension between writers and other women on the street.

The female social investigator or reformer finds the prostitute a particular challenge to her sympathetic eye. This is especially true for the urban spectator, the female rambler, whose street walking cannot necessarily be distinguished from that of other “public” women (123).

On Gaskell, who again, I haven’t yet read apart from a collection of short stories:

Gaskell’s was a double labour: she set out to claim as a woman the authority of urban spectatorship and interpretation and to work through the taint of exposure that was traditionally and powerfully associated with woman’s public role (138).

Gaskell took up issues of women’s labor that were a matter of public controversy and made them the subjects of her urban fiction. Responding to the sexual ideologies that inform Faucher’s and Engels’s accounts, she used her novels to ruminate on the linked potential for danger and power inherent in women’s participation in the public domain of industrial life (142).

Manchester’s streets made her a novelist not only because of what they taught her about the working people she encountered but also because of what they suggested to her about herself, her potential cultural authority, and her sexual vulnerability (144).

From the 1880s there were a host of texts I was unfamiliar with — just one of the beauties of this book!

As Woolf understood, the decade of the eighties was a pivotal time in the public lives of women, and the work they produced reflects a certain precariousness or tentativeness in their social positions and, as a consequence, in their own notions of themselves (182).

There is a fascinating period where a network of women living on their own, many of them writers, established itself. Eleanor Marx was tangentially part of it, they were connected to the Socialists and social reformers like Octavia Hill, all of whom I am still exploring. But while I knew of Beatrice Potter Webb, I had no idea of her cousin Margaret Harkness, poet and novelist Amy Levy, or novelist Olive Schreiner. I like how their works are contrasted with those by women engaged in social investigation, Helen Bosanquet, Florence Bell, Maud Pember Reeves (hey ho Lambeth!) and Mary Higgs‘s fascinating account of going on the tramp and its comparison with books by Orwell or London. A woman taking on the clothing of another class makes her more visible rather than less in a crowd, more vulnerable, more at risk…this may be first on my enormous to-read list inspired by Nord.

There is a lot more here, but I think I will end there. I am still new to thinking about this and reading these texts, but I loved this book as an introduction. This is hardly a criticism, but one thing that struck me was the presence of amazing illustrations without much critique, Dore for example, from his illustrations of his travels in London, and Cruikshank, who drew brilliant cartoons for both Pierce Egan and Dickens, as well as many well-read magazines and journals. It would be great to think through how pictorial depictions of women (and by women?) fit into all of this, working together with, and independent of, text. But that would undoubtedly be a whole new book, and possibly one already written.