Tag Archives: George Gissing

Housing as Character in Edwardian Writing

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 citiesThey’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…

Gissing’s Camberwell

Having just read In the Year of the Jubilee (there is some repetition here between posts, apologies), I thought it might be fun to wander over from Brixton to Camberwell and to see just how much was as Gissing described, how much had changed. Brixton these days smells much more of fried chicken or curry than fried onions — for someone like myself who gave up the fried chicken I love to avoid industrially raised chickens, rancid oil and a growing waistline, this is fairly tortuous it must be said. I don’t know where Beatrice lived when she moved off on her own, sadly for me, but I do love Coldharbour Lane, and I think it still has much the same feel of picturesque, somewhat industrial decay as it long ago did due to absentee landlords (now cashing in of course):

Before his admission to a partnership in Mr. Lord’s business, Samuel Barmby lived with his father and two sisters in Coldharbour Lane. Their house was small, old and crumbling for lack of repair; the landlord, his ground-lease having but a year or two to run, looked on with equanimity whilst the building decayed.

IMG_9938 IMG_9948 (you can tell I need a new lens as this falls out of focus sometimes, but that will have to wait until the long-awaited day when this PhD pulls me a job instead of poverty)IMG_9947 IMG_9951

Arriving in Camberwell I am always happy to see this:

Gissing's Camberwell

and then we arrived at this particular corner, which is worth a smile:

Gissing's Camberwell

And finally back to Gissing, as we came to De Crespigny Park, one side of which is still full of homes ‘unattached, double-fronted, with half sunk basement and a flight of steps to the stucco pillars at the entrance’. I also now have proof that those regularly-seen tall arched spaces that are almost always bricked up were actually once windows.

Gissing's Camberwell

Gissing writes:

De Crespigny Park, a thoroughfare connecting Grove Lane, Camberwell, with Denmark Hill, presents a double row of similar dwellings; its clean breadth, with foliage of trees and shrubs in front gardens, makes it pleasant to the eye that finds pleasure in suburban London. In point of respectability, it has claims only to be appreciated by the ambitious middle-class of Camberwell. Each house seems to remind its neighbour, with all the complacence expressible in buff brick, that in this locality lodgings are not to let (loc 56).

But now the south side is part of the massive complex making up King’s hospital — and some buildings to the north as well, breaking up the solidly respectable line of homes that once stood there. This lead to Grove Lane, where Nancy lives and of which Gissing says:

Grove Lane is a long acclivity, which starts from Camberwell suburban dwellings. The houses vary considerably in size and Green, and, after passing a few mean shops, becomes a road of aspect, also in date,–with the result of a certain picturesqueness, enhanced by the growth of fine trees on either side. Architectural grace can nowhere be discovered, but the contract-builder of today has not yet been permitted to work his will; age and irregularity, even though the edifices be but so many illustrations of the ungainly, the insipid, and the frankly hideous, have a pleasanter effect than that of new streets built to one pattern by the mile. There are small cottages overgrown with creepers, relics of Camberwell’s rusticity; rows of tall and of squat dwellings that lie behind grassy plots, railed from the road; larger houses that stand in their own gardens, hidden by walls.

It was difficult, no, impossible, to take decent pictures, I’m afraid. Some of what was there when it was described this way is, I think, gone, but it has retained that piecemeal feeling of Gissing’s Camberwell which is fairly charming.

Gissing's Camberwell

We walked up Grove Lane to the top of Champion Hill: ‘From the top of the Lane, where Champion Hill enjoys an aristocratic seclusion, is obtainable a glimpse of open fields and of a wooded horizon southward.’

No longer I’m afraid, but it is a lovely view:

Gissing's Camberwell

And Champion Hill remains fairly ‘aristocratic’. We started back down the LaGissing's Camberwellne’s ‘more formal neighbour Camberwell Grove’, finding fairly terrible decorative statues and much larger homes. While some sections had clearly been built by a single builder here, there was still  a great deal of difference — no real jerry builders were allowed up here. Perhaps the nicest thing to find on this road was council housing — Lettsome Estate for example. The dream of neighbourhoods containing people of all income levels living side by side and enjoying the amenities of beauty and elegance is one of my favourite post-war efforts to make a reality.

Gissing's Camberwell Gissing's Camberwell

We followed Camberwell Grove back down to Camberwell’s centre, where we sought out the new abode of the Barmby’s:

Samuel’s good fortune enabled them to take a house in Dagmar Road, not far from Grove Lane; a new and most respectable house, with bay windows rising from the half-sunk basement to the second storey. Samuel, notwithstanding his breadth of mind, privately admitted the charm of such an address as ‘Dagmar Road,’ which looks well at the head of note-paper, and falls with sonority from the lips (loc 2596).

Gissing's Camberwell
A  nice street. Writing this I’ve realised there must be an immense respectability that comes with half-sunk basements as Gissing never leaves that out of his descriptions. Best of all to see, though, was the new vibrance and color infused into what can only be described as a once stifling middle class area (because my god the Barmby’s, horrible people):
Gissing's Camberwell
And that was the end. It was very cold and so we did not linger. It was probably the cleaning-out-the-canal work I did a couple of days later that has bequeathed the terrible cold I am currently suffering (this one is already at two-tissue-box strength), but I might still blame it on Gissing because he’s rather a miserable bastard after all. Still, I enjoyed this walk a great deal.

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