I have discovered my dissertation for my BA Honours English Literature degree, written over a decade ago. I present it here in four instalments.
The dissertation is a socio-historical investigation regarding the importance of the city in terms of its representation and structure in Victorian literature by Dickens and Eliot. Initially studying the convergence and contrast of the city and the country, a relationship of binaries between the two presents the placement of an effeminised country subordinated to the masculine, overpowering city. The relevance of the author’s gender identities and the possible relevance of Victorian genders to affinities with country or city life are subsequently revealed from this method. The introduction of the importance of theological representations and church practices in city and country societies displays the vast contrast of difference between authors and also industrial and pastoral viewpoints, which are again related back to Victorian gender identities and the importance of religion in the industrious city lifestyle.
The division of Victorian city space within the novels reveals a regulated region of gender and class zones. A Foucauldian reading implies a regulation of sexual segmentation of genders and a repression of gender identities for women who are stowed in domestic spheres for masculine usage. The dual roles of public spaces for commerce in the day and sexual subversions in nocturnal periods are examined within the texts, leading to discussion of how permeable the barriers are between the disciplinary spaces and the consideration of how gender oscillates between them.
The industrial aspects of city life are examined through literary representations, noting the importance of transportation via rail as a factor in breaking down the rigidity of gender entrapping spaces as well as the impenetrability of the country and city relationships. Marxist readings in the texts regarding the city as a productive capitalist device to abuse the inhabitant proletariat, reveals the city to be a large factory mechanism with smaller bodies maintaining the system within.
The Gothic revival of city architecture in the Victorian city is assimilated in the representation of literary cities for particularly gothic modes of writing. The Gothicised city represents a subversive version of society, harking back to an anarchic past. The city is presented as a panoptic region of observation and the Victorian representations of domesticated horror intimates the birth of the Urban Gothic genre, where the familiar becomes the foe.
The associations between Victorian London and the novels of Charles Dickens have been instilled in generations of readers as vividly charismatic settings, an endured backdrop which is laced throughout the author’s literature, acting as a prominent character in its own right. In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens confesses that upon entering a ‘great city by night’, he finds ‘that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret.’ (Dickens, 1859, p.21) It is a creative inspiration, a repository for secrets, characters and narratives to be tapped and employed in his work. Similarly, George Eliot’s romanticised novels of the distant countryside with reverberations of pastoral echoes, equally resonate a nineteenth-century landscape, that of an almost bygone fairy-tale period of country life, ‘in districts far away among the lanes, or deep in the bosom of the hills.’ (Eliot, 1861, p.9) For Eliot, the true energy of her writing, the driving forces of inspiration are fuelled from the naturalistic, pastoral village lifestyle. Consequently for both authors, the geographical settings serve as the catalyst to their work; it is the basis from which the literature grows. Dickens and Eliot are arguably two of the most prominently successful novelists of the Victorian era, yet both writers have a most distinct agenda as regards the settings of their novels, particularly the deployment of the country and the city. Attraction is met with repulsion; the pastoral is subordinated by the industrial; the industrially productive is seen as the morally corruptive. Contemporarily, these social issues of the nineteenth-century are but a few of the mass of anxieties expressed with the imagining of the literary city alone.
Investigating the novels of the aforementioned authors, adopting New Historicist perspectives of analysis and various social theories, such as the Marxist criticism of Raymond Williams, this study seeks to investigate the importance of the city in terms of its representation and fictional form in Victorian literature. The literary construction of the city in terms of its physical structure, as well as the political, social and industrial affects upon the cultures which reside within it, will be examined contextually in terms of gender identities and anxieties of the period. Drawing on primary sources of the period from a series of critics and public speakers, such as Friedrich Engels, the literary works of Dickens and Eliot will be scrutinised in terms of the authors’ literary representation of the metropolis as both a fictive device of narrative and a living, contemporary hub of activity in the Victorian epoch.
Chapter 1: Town and Country
To fully comprehend the composition and role of the city in nineteenth-century texts it is perhaps prudent to initially study the relationship of the city with that of its distanced yet encompassing partner, the countryside. It has been a long-favoured tradition among the legacy of writers in the English literary canon to remark upon the evident polarization of the city and the country, both counterpointed against each other by their separate geographical orientations, industrial advancements and architectural composition. As such the city is placed in a binary relationship with the country, almost aggressively opposed to each other through their unique differences as a dislike for the unlike. A traditional humanist analysis presents the city as composed and orchestrated ultimately by man, whilst the country is essentially born of God and controlled by the power of nature, conversely presenting the country as an extension of Eden, which is opposed by the industrially engineered city. It is a notion that is carried through a number of nineteenth-century writings, no doubt inherently influenced by Romanticism, a movement which was effectively the antithesis of industrial advancement in that period. Primarily concerned in addressing the wonder of nature through echoes of the pastoral, Wordsworth’s ‘The Prelude’ acted as an inspirational force of new thought against a civilisation that was distracted by technology to the extent of ignoring the awe of nature:
Whate’er its mission, the soft breeze can come
To none more grateful than to me; escaped
From the vast city, where I long had pined
A discontented sojourner: now free,
Free as a bird to settle where I will.
(Wordsworth, 1850, p.37)
Wordsworth sees the ‘vast city’ as an imprisoning region, distinguishable only through its ‘vast’ scale of dominance over inhabitants like himself, who ‘pined’ to escape. ‘The Prelude’ is loaded with allusions to Christian morality, where nature is defined by its beauty and power through its creation by God. To have the freedom of a ‘bird’ transported from the confines of the city, is indicative of Noah’s released raven and dove from captivity (Genesis 8. 6-13), while the breeze that carries him is even said to have a ‘mission’ of a presumably divine nature. ‘The Prelude’ is indicative of how the country, wildlife, humanity and nature are all united through Christian theology, with an ideological disregard for the city and city life as something perverted from nature. The melodic, accessibly lucid charm of Wordsworth’s epic critique on life resultantly had far reaching effects upon the reading public and heavily influenced literature that preceded it. As a consequence, it is of paramount importance to consider the influence of religion when examining George Eliot’s depiction of the country and the city, as contextually her religious orientation and engagement with Romanticism had more than a casual bearing on her writing.
Eliot’s popular novella, Silas Marner, is exemplary in its adherence to Wordsworth’s concepts of how the pastoral was a more wholesome, spiritual location in which to seek solitude from the industrialised city. Complete with an epigraph from Wordsworth’s ‘Michael’, Silas Marner is very much the product of an author who is almost an apprentice to Wordsworth’s ideals. Eliot clearly has an affinity towards Wordsworth’s association of fleeing the city to retreat to the sanctuary of nature:
In old days there were angels who came and took men by the hand and led them away from the city of destruction. We see no white-winged angels now. But yet men are led away from threatening destruction; a hand is put into theirs, which leads them forth gently towards a calm and bright land.
(Eliot, 1861, p.160)
The intimation to the past, a bygone era where one could escape constriction from the ‘city of destruction’ into a ‘calm and bright land’, is indicative of Wordsworth’s analogy from ‘The Prelude’. Excised as a metaphor for an escape from location as well as escape of mind, the employment of the image of a corrupt city to entrap and devastate humanity is crucial to the plot of Silas Marner. The protagonist, convicted of a crime he did not commit, transports himself from Lantern Yard to the secluded and comforting sanctuary of Raveloe, a country village, ‘nestled in a snug well-wooded hollow.’ (Eliot, 1861, p.11). Evidently Eliot presents the city as a malevolent force, an abhorrence opposed to the venerated ‘bright land’ of the countryside. To escape the city is to escape evil; to enter the country is to access nature and find sanctuary. It is perhaps of no surprise to discover that in Leslie Stephens’s biographical study of Eliot, it is related that Eliot apparently felt Silas Marner would have been more suitable to metre than to prose (Stephens, 1902), as the tone and form of her personal interjections in the work bear a remarkable similarity to the Romantic poetry which proceeded it.
As Eliot draws upon the differences between the country and the city, Charles Dickens similarly positions the city and the country into binary positions. Indeed, it is extremely difficult not to do so when taking into account the vivid contrasts between the two. However, Dickens’ opinion is evidently not formulated through the influence of Romanticism; the comfortable ludic poetry that so convincingly converged with religious faith, which had the effect of forming Eliot’s own judgement. Dickens’ acknowledgment of the opposition between the country and the city is formed, perhaps quite predictably, from him looking out of his residential city to the country beyond. As Schwarzbach states in his study, Dickens and the City, ‘Dickens could not – in his profoundest imagination – ever conceive of meaningful life lived outside of the city.’ (Schwarzbach, 1979, p.177) For Dickens, the country is very much the ‘other’, a mysterious continent that is objectified and dominated by the city that governs it. In relation to the city, the country is a surrounding feature and subordinate region which merely separates one city from another. The country is effectively effeminised through its domination by the masculine city, and by way of conjecture, can be presumed that Dickens aligns himself with the masculine city while Eliot aligns herself with the feminised country, through an affinity with nineteenth-century sexual binary positions. Indeed, it could be suggested that aligning two authors to two gendered regions is a massive imposition and also a grand assumption of two authors’ gendered identities. However, it is undeniably evident that the gendering of setting can be traced, on this occasion, with the gender of the authors in the primary texts employed within this study. The country displays a setting of picturesque beauty and natural passivity, whilst the city extols the virtues of technological practicality and consumerist activity, and as such, in a socio-historical perspective, both ideals could easily be related to examples of nineteenth-century stereotypes of gender in the Gentleman and Lady. The man is the pillar of strength, the producer of wealth, whist the woman is the figure of domestic comfort and object of desire. Like the country, she is an object to be used as much as to be admired, whilst the city is a solid entity that is impenetrable by the flora of the countryside; only the city can penetrate nature through architectural expansion. The gendering of settings, the positioning of the city and the country into familiar gender positions, is a vivid representation of stereotypical Victorian ideals of sexual inequality.
Whilst Eliot transcribes the country as lush, often painting colourful idealised landscapes to advocate beauty, Dickens sees the country as disadvantaged, primitive, underdeveloped and almost savage compared to the advanced civilization of inner city life. Composed at an emotionally erratic period in Dickens’ own life, A Tale of Two Cities presents a unique version of country and city life in the late eighteenth-century, yet contextually it is critically engaged in Victorian discourse. Dickens’ presentation of the French countryside is particularly enlightening:
Far and wide lay a ruined country, yielding nothing but desolation. Every green leaf, every blade of grass and blade of grain, was a shrivelled and poor as the miserable people. Everything was bowed down, dejected, oppressed, and broken. Habitations, fences, domesticated animals, men, women, children, and the soil that bore them – all worn out.
(Dickens, 1859, p.225)
Initially this could be read as a sympathetic reflection upon a crushed and abused society, as is the context of Dickens’ narrative regarding the French Revolution in Paris. However the style of writing infers more of a distanced repulsion towards the basic undeveloped civilisation of which the country offers. The ‘desolation’ is presented with an air of detached insouciance and there is little compassion for the obliterated abodes of country inhabitants. Broken down homes are simply regarded as ‘habitations’, little more than dehumanised places of refuge, while pets are ‘domesticated animals’ and families are objectified as ‘men, women, children’, as if Dickens is classifying the habitual components of a new species. The scene is inferred in strictly agricultural terms; further distancing the villagers from human recognition, as they are ‘shrivelled’ like the withered ‘grain’, ‘yielding nothing’ they are the same as the blighted ‘soil’. The whole scene is effectively parcelled and labelled as one entity, that of the country. It is decayed yet all uniformly decayed at the same time as one unit and thus presents a notion that the primitive countryside produces primitive society. In Darwinian terms; like produces like.
Sanctuary is found when Silas Marner escapes to the country. Similarly, the tyrannical Monseigneur finds refuge in egress from the city of Paris, anticipating his life is endangered less he should conceal himself on the outskirts. While Marner’s flight is seen as an act of goodness through his assimilation into a wholesome village society, Dickens’ presentation of Monsieur the Marquis escaping to the country is seen as a fall from grace, an almost degrading act of dislocating oneself from the higher class of the city, past a desolate village, retreating to his château. The contrast provided between Monseigneur’s travelling carriage, bisecting the landscape, acts to highlight the depravity of the country village:
The village had its one poor street, with its poor brewery, poor tannery, poor tavern, poor stable-yard for relay of post-horses, poor fountain, all usual poor appointments. It had its poor people too.
(Dickens, 1859, p.118)
Dickens again presents a society which is almost a grotesque parody of well developed community. It has all the attributes of a functional society, yet all are tainted, are ‘poor’, both in the financial and derogatory sense as deficient. Compared to the city, the village is both barbaric and degenerate and a very different presentation of country village to that of Eliot’s idyllic setting. The dishevelled presentation of humanity is almost post-apocalyptic in its formation. It is perhaps the cyclical aspect of nature, the transitory aspect of life, which Dickens is reminded of in a dissolute countryside. Nature consumes life; it absorbs and recycles the dead into the ground. The image of the animal farmer as ‘Death’ (Dickens, 1859, p.14), going about his ghastly task, acts as a vivid reminder to Dickens of the savagery of humanity. The act of killing, feeding, recycling and even slaughtering our own kind is vividly shown in the country, as it isn’t restrained by manners or etiquette. In the city, civilised behaviour masks the true savagery of human nature.
Through the depictions of the country and the city in both Dickens’ and Eliot’s work, it is evident that although the settings are situated in binary opposition, the authors’ representation of city and country life are also incredibly different in the same instant. As such, the binaries are far from fixed and oscillate widely between the works of different authors. The binaries are disrupted when considering where the ‘town’ is located. In Coleman’s study, The Idea of the City in Nineteenth-Century Britain, he states that, ‘Comparisons between city and countryside were inevitable and constant, often excluding any consideration of the smaller towns.’(Coleman, 1973, p.18). In Silas Marner, the town of Lantern Yard adopts the position of the large industrial city compared to Raveloe which Eliot regards as the ‘old-fashioned country’ which is ‘aloof from the currents of industrial energy.’ (Eliot, 1861, p.31) Although Lantern Yard isn’t in itself the locus of industry, it is still regarded as technically advanced and superior to Raveloe, adopting the position of a city when compared to the less advanced countryside it is juxtaposed to. A particularly interesting element which differentiates Raveloe from Lantern Yard is that of religion and the positioning of the region of practice, the Church. Coleman highlights that the influence of the Church and the sustenance of the Christian network of the Church of England’s power ‘lay in rural society, and its spokesmen tended to distrust the cities on many counts.’ (Coleman, 1973, p.17). Consequently, the Church found its most devout communities of attendance in the pastoral regions where debauched activities, such as the distraction of prostitutes in the public space, didn’t exist to the extent as was prevalent in the tightly condensed industrialised city. The country lifestyle very much advocated Christian virtuosity, whilst the city was seen as a subversive breeding ground for sin. Eliot’s Adam Bede presents a Methodist preacher from the industrial mills of Stonyshire as a disruption to the country, attempting to advocate a civilized religion to a naive country folk:
I've noticed that in these villages where the people lead a quiet life among the green pastures and the still waters, tilling the ground and tending the cattle, there's a strange deadness to the Word, as different as can be from the great towns, like Leeds.
(Eliot, 1822, p.91)
The inferred ignorance of religion due to the ‘quiet life’ of the country is seen as ‘deadness’ compared to the public practice of religion in the greater towns. It imparts that a preoccupation of cultivation and ‘tending of cattle’ leaves little time for theological practices. This would seem to suggest that the country is ignorant of any religious culture, however it is revealed that the city life requires a more condensed, prescribed worship because ‘life is so dark and weary, and the soul gets more hungry when the body is ill at ease.’ (Eliot, 1859, p.91) As such, the more prominent and devout religious practices of the city are undertaken solely to counteract the oppressive and depressive effects of ‘great cities’ upon the populous. Eliot is effectively honouring the private, almost subdued religious practice of the countryside as superior to the diseased ‘body’ of the city, which requires a regular remedial dose of spirituality to overcome the symptoms of a faithless malady. The notion of the city as an infectious region is not singularly evocative of seventeenth-century anxiety towards a metropolitan plague, but also indicative of Edwin Chadwick’s investigations of the sanitary condition of the city in 1842. He notes a ‘demoralization of large numbers of human beings, who subsist by means of what they find amidst the noxious filth accumulated in neglected streets and bye-places.’ (Chadwick, 1842, p.368) It is a similar ‘demoralisation’ of humanity for Eliot, who equates a lack of pastoral theological practice as a malady of the ‘soul’ for city dwellers, who are neglected sanitarily as well as spiritually. When devout Christian Dolly Winthrop questions Marner about his own religious believes and practices in Silas Marner, Eliot orchestrates a similar manoeuvre in extolling the harmonies of a religious country village faith:
‘There was churches – a many – it was a big town. But I knew nothing of ‘em – I went to chapel.’
Dolly was much puzzled at this new word, but she was rather afraid of inquiring further, lest ‘chapel’ meant some haunt of wickedness.
(Eliot, 1861, p.102)
The revelation of ‘chapel’ to countrywoman Dolly infers a vast diversity of creed and religion in the metropolis of Marner’s ‘big town’, a contrast to the simple religious practice undertaken in Raveloe by the sole church at the centre of the village. From Dolly’s perspective, the city or ‘big town’ is an alien culture and chapel is a ‘new word’ from a foreign culture, an object that is extended past her comprehension of country life. Diversity of religion and perversity from the conceived norms of the village can be surmised only as ‘wickedness’, a straying from the one true Christian God. In the process of turning Marner to the correct and honourable Christian Church, Dolly provides Marner with lard cakes as a warm gesture, yet interestingly these are branded with ‘IHS’ (Eliot, 1861, p.100), an archaic monogram used for the title of Jesus Christ. As Dolly offers Marner a cake, he is effectively accepting his first communion and taking his spiritual medicine against a city illness. It is through no coincidence that Eliot presents pastoral religion as a greater and purer worship over that of the city; as subsequently Marner is morally rewarded by the return of his stolen money, and also spiritually rewarded in the conclusion of the novel by standing in Raveloe’s church. He is redeemed spiritually from the city and accepted physically in the country church in the eyes of Nature and God.
The power of the countryside and the tensions provided between it and the city cannot be underestimated when considering the importance of the city in nineteenth-century texts, for it was the development of country villages which gave rise the first towns that grew into great cities. The division between city and country life extends far from the pastoral verses the industrial, and branches violently outwards to produce a wide cultural, social and political implications upon the societies who reside there. The effects of such broad variances and the manner in which they are represented in nineteenth-century texts, become the following subject of investigation in regards to how the city becomes the dynamic centre of activity in the Victorian novel.
Theatre Manager, Writer, Film Photographer & Printer, Reviewer, Reader. Secular biped mammal with own views. © Samuel Payne 2016