Chapter 2: Space and Place
Unlike the country with its idyllic broad vistas of greenery, broad landscapes and ‘huge conical masses of hill’ (Eliot, 1859, p.19), the generic city is proportionally smaller compared to the population that inhabits it. It could be considered overly obvious when stated that the city is smaller than the surrounding country and that the density of habitation is greater in the confines of a city. However, it is the act of confining and restricting space that provides a far richer snapshot of human civilization, encapsulated in the industrial prison of the city structure. The city, an almost independent world of its own engineering, encompasses a range of cultural diversity within its maze of streets, alleys, and walkways. Like the convoluted package of a human brain, the network of passages and locations build upon and behind each other in such an intensely folded pattern, that the city is impacted within itself, and is a veritable hub for the differentiation of lifestyle. It is perhaps ironic that the structurally introverted nature of the city gives rise to the explicitly extrovert natures of Victorian society which will be discussed in this chapter.
The previous chapter considered the country as effeminised and subordinated to the masculine empowered city that governs the surrounding pastoral landscape. As such, the city is fundamentally a masculine construction, designed and predisposed to cater for the industrious workingman’s daily needs. As Eliot found the attributes of pastoral landscape enthralling and directly connected to the power of God’s creation, authors similarly found the power of man’s own engineering quite awe-inspiring. Raymond Williams’ socio-historical study of city and country life defines this admirably:
For look at the sites, the facades, the defining avenues and walls, the great iron gates and the guardian lodges. These were chosen for more than the effect from the inside out; where so many admirers, too many of them writers, have stood and shared the view, finding its prospect delightful.
(Williams, 1973, p.106)
Williams evokes a mock-awe in his displeasure of the imposition of industrial enclosures over the previously enamoured landscapes of nature. As country vistas were dissected and their beauty analysed piece by piece by the likes of Wordsworth and Eliot, Williams similarly dissects the mechanical devices of the city, such as the ‘walls’ and ‘iron gates’ that contain and restrict movement, upholding the preservation of select spaces and contained enclosures within the city. It is the act of containment and order that the features symbolise which Williams suggests evoke a sense of power and domination over the residential society. These restricting and containing architectural spaces are powerful, encompassing devices; a physical substitute for nature. Within the city, it is predominantly the engineering of route structure that governs the movement of minions throughout its many spaces. Dickens is one of these ‘too many’ writers who observes the selectivity of spaces and regions as a powerful force:
From the streets beyond the high wall and the strong gate, there came the usual night hum of the city, with now and then an indescribable ring in it, weird and unearthly, as if some unwonted sounds of a terrible nature were going up to Heaven.
(Dickens, 1859, p.257)
The allusion to the wall that is ‘high’ and the gate which is ‘strong’ evidently presents an almost indestructible force, a retaining prison inhabited by a society of disciplined inmates. The indigenous population of the city is confined to that of a ‘hum’, an unseen ‘indescribable’ presence behind the structures and inhabitations like resting bees within a gigantic honeycomb. The structural ‘wall’ and ‘gate’ preserves and ‘regulates movements; it clears up confusion; it dissipates compact groupings of individuals wandering about the country.’ (Foucault, 1979, p.480) Space is distributed and inhabitants of the city are allocated to the specific regions to discipline and diminish the united power of the population as a united mob. Dickens taps into this power, presenting the sleeping city of Paris in terms of its strength as a structure, most of it invisible to the naked eye yet manifested through ‘unwonted sounds’ in the distant streets that are lined with the throbbing life force of community. Indeed, it is this huge and unseen subdued presence of mankind, as populated in the space of the city, which generates the indefatigable awe of ‘terrible nature’ through the form of imposing manmade structural spaces, as well as the disciplined army of occupants housed within them. As Williams suggests, the structure of the city and the spaces between is a ‘visible stamping of power’ that attempts to induce the effect of ‘overawe’. (Williams, 1973, p.106) For Dickens, the city as a synthetic landscape sculpted by man is infinitely more powerful through its condensed arrangement of people into a terse repository of society, than the comparatively diluted and spacious greenery of pastoral landscapes.
According to Christopher Hibbert, a youthful Dickens would experience the city through regular visits to the London metropolis from his new home in Camden Town, where a vast range of culture was imposed upon his young mind. In later life as a novelist, he relates that Dickens was ‘an untiring investigator of every aspect of London life, seeking out the city’s every secret, its every pleasure and vice, walking its streets by day and by night until he knew it as well as any man could hope to.’ (Hibbert, 1969, p.95) Hibbert passionately places Dickens at the centre of the city here. Indeed, he literally solders Dickens within the centre of one of his own novels as a fictional character. Although it is plausible to consider that Dickens experienced a diversified scope nineteenth-century city society, it does not necessarily translate that his fiction is a documentary recording of that period, as it is essentially a fictional work. Interestingly, Williams states, ‘It does not matter which way we put it: the experience of the city is the fictional method; or the fictional method is the experience of the city,’ (Williams, 1973, p.154), thereby assuming that the method of city experience is singularly fictional to any other persona other than the person who directly experiences it. William’s materialist analysis of the city could be considered a far more reliable source of literary study than Hibbert, who in his own work seems to be so closely engaged with Dickens’ novels on a humanist level that the literary city is affected by a predetermined reading of Dickens as the reliable historian. As such, Dickens’s cities have only one reliable function, that of a literary device; it can inform anxieties and ideologies of the period, but cannot present a reliable representation of the city as a whole. Thus, the space that the city fills within Dickens’ novels is not only the role a background landscape, but also of a colourful foreground character. The city vocalises a temperament and voice of its own, which is as powerful and evocative as any of his memorable caricatures in his work. Hibbert’s revelation of Dickens’ investigation into ‘every aspect’ of the city is comparable to how an author studies the composition of human manner in the aim of integrating an element of that figure into a character of fiction. It is well known that numerous characters in Dickens’ work are adapted from real life figures from his own life experience, yet it could be argued that the most influential character that is transcribed from Dickens’ own experience is the living, pounding life-force of the city itself. A Christmas Carol presents a character that watches omnisciently with god-like powers:
They scarcely seemed to enter the city; for the city rather seemed to spring up about them, and encompass them of its own act. But there they were, in the heart of it.
(Dickens, 1843, p.59)
As the ‘ghosts’ transport Scrooge through aspects of his life, it is the city which haunts him more than the spectres themselves. Here the city has powers and is sentient, making decisions of ‘its own’ with a scale large enough to ‘encompass’ its minions. It has a depth of field, an intrinsic density and ‘heart’ that also infers a massive life-force like that of predatory animal, prepared to ‘spring’ upon any of the inhabitants who are its prey. Throughout A Christmas Carol the city is used to similar effect and is as much the socially redeeming force for Scrooge as the spirits that haunt him. Dickens plies the physical construction of the city and its spaces as an almost supernatural force, shaping it into a character of many emotions. It is geodesic, composed of different sides, alternate faces, varying spaces and spheres. As an engineered construction of man, it is effectively made in his image, assuming all aspects of human nature in its design, reflecting both the virtuous and corrupt social trends in the spaces it provides.
Although Dickens effectively rejects the country and embraces city life, there are instances throughout his writing which adopt the familiar pastoral spirit of tranquillity that is evident in Eliot’s work. The home of the Manettes in A Tale of Two Cities, for example, is presented in a quietly secluded region of the city:
A quainter corner than the corner where the Doctor lived, was not to be found in London. There was no way through it, and the front windows of the Doctor's lodgings commanded a pleasant little vista of street that had a congenial air of retirement on it.
(Dickens, 1859, p.98)
Dickens notes that it is a ‘harbour from the raging streets’ (Dickens, 1859, p.98), that the public space is easily accessible yet the home, the domestic space, is also comfortably distanced from it. In a curious intertwining of the pastoral and the industrial, Dickens relates that ‘forest trees flourished, and wild flowers grew’ in this region, circulating ‘country airs’. (Dickens, 1859, p.98) The significance of this is twofold; country living is very much subordinated and primitive compared to city living, yet a city which has the attributes of pastoral life is embraced in the urban domestic space. To accommodate the street, yet distance it at arms length, allows it to be easily accessible for commerce yet also prevents it from imposing on the private, domestic lodgings that is assumed to be the region of rest and ‘retirement’.
The assumption that the home should be the locus of serenity was perpetuated through the essays of John Ruskin, who assumed that the domestic space was attended and maintained by women while men frequented the public space:
By her office, and place, she is protected from all danger and temptation. The man, in his rough work in the open world, must encounter all peril and trial.
(Ruskin, 1864, p.121)
Associating the private space as feminine and the public space and masculine, Ruskin assumes that the public sectors of the city are terrains of dangerous ‘temptation’ for women and the ‘open’ space is a region that men are forced to penetrate, despite the dangers, in order to sustain a wage to maintain the upkeep of the domestic sphere. A typically middle-class conjecture, indeed, when considering that working-class proletarian women were forced into the public space in order to gain employment by whatever means. When a middle-class woman penetrates the public space, it is seen in Victorian fiction as a dangerous, almost transgressive act. When Dinah transports herself to the city of Leeds in Eliot’s Adam Bede, Mr. Poyser indignantly states she shouldn’t be ‘going preaching among strange folks’ (Eliot, 1859, p.387), alluding to the possibility that she may well be affected by ‘strange’ influences. Similarly in Dickens’ Dombey and Son, Florence takes flight on two separate occasions, initially becoming trapped in a filthy slum and secondly swept up in the crowds, ‘carried onward in a stream of life’ into a sea of ‘wealth, poverty, good, and evil.’ (Dickens, 1848, p.759.) Again it is the public place, the eclectic mix of character, that is presented as an indiscernible force that cannot be identified as either friend or foe, for it has duplicitous facades. It is perhaps an ideological assumption that the Victorian feminine mind could not distinguish between the two, and that the domestic sphere, as Ruskin believes, is the safest place to confine the feminine mind from corruption. Once could possibly trace this back to the theological metaphor of Eve’s leaving Adam’s side, conversing with the snake in the Garden of Eden, to be tempted to eat the forbidden fruit that dissipates her virtuous innocence. (Genesis, 3.3-13.) In evaluation, nineteenth-century ideals of male and female space infers how middle-class values and gender relations were proposed by critics and writers as a way of protecting women from temptation, whilst also subjecting them to an almost imprisoned domesticity, hidden away from the public space.
The public space, as discussed previously, is seen to be catered for the workingman. The foremost important public region is predominantly the streets and roads, which are controlled by cabbies and labour workers. The public space of the metropolis is utilised and penetrated by the upper-middle classes, often as a means of transport from one point to another. A Tale of Two Cities provides a fine example of the transport of higher classes through metropolitan, public spaces:
The carriage dashed through streets and swept round corners, with women screaming before it, and men clutching each other and clutching children out of its way. At last, swooping at a street corner by a fountain, one of its wheels came to a sickening little jolt, and there was a loud cry from a number of voices, and the horses reared and plunged.
(Dickens, 1859, p.115)
Monsieur the Marquis is seen here to pass through the street and effectively bisect the public space inhabited by an eclectic mix of men, women and children of working-class distinction. Dickens aggressively transports the Marquis through this region protected in his carriage, acting as a mobile bubble or sphere, which sustains his higher-class position in the act of transport out of his private mansion. The carriage also acts as a restrictive barrier between the Marquis and the public mob, visually defining his status over the mix of public street dwellers. Consequently, the act of running over and killing a child in the public space is seen as less of a devastating loss of life, but more as an inconvenience; a soiling of the Marquis’ carriage wheels. The public reaction to this is defined in a singular term, where the public is associated as part of the city when Dickens states ‘the street opened, where it was, into a space some ten or twelve yards square.’ (Dickens, 1859 p.115) The ‘street’ is an all encompassing term used to denote the people of the public space, dehumanised by their assimilation with the structure of the city, yet also unified in strength as one force, one mob. In this case Dickens is presenting the crowd as a wave of automatons in a unified struggle. Engels refers to this as the ‘dissolution of mankind into nomads’ (Engels, 1845, p.109), a tribe following each other with no single direction. This is essentially a proto-Marxist stance, a theorisation of city space and the individuals who happen to be there. Dickens directly associates the crowded public space as solely the region of the working class proletarians, a space of industry, where proletarians become part of the city structure; abusively dehumanised and assimilated into the architecture. In the comparatively small space of the city, Dickens uses eighteenth-century revolutionary Paris as a vivid distinction of how city spaces and their inhabitants vary as widely in their relationship between each other, as the city does to it counterpart, the countryside.
In truth the public space was utilised as much by the higher classes as the working classes in Victorian London, becoming the universal hub of sociability in diverse classes as well as the integration of sexes. Indeed, it was often the public space of the street that provided an escape from the private space of the home, an opportunity for men to suffice, for example, their sexual desires in the company of female and male prostitutes. Hibbert argues that in order to study this aspect of the city in nineteenth-century literature, ‘we cannot turn to Dickens or, indeed, to any reputable Victorian novelist.’ (Hibbert, 1969, p.93) On the whole, this is a misguided assumption on the validity of Dickens’ work. Steeped a period where sexuality was asserted, but only behind closed doors, the reader cannot expect such references of public debauchery to be explicitly detailed in mainstream fiction of the period, especially the moralist work of Dickens. There exists, however, subtle evidence to the contrary of what Hibbert states, in Dickens’ Dombey and Son, as Mr. Carker is observed by two women on the street:
‘See where he goes!’ muttered the old woman, watching her daughter with her red eyes; ‘so easy and so trim, a-horseback, while we are in the mud –‘
‘And of it,’ said her daughter impatiently. ‘We are mud, underneath his horse’s feet. What should we be?’
(Dickens, 1848, p.725)
Similarly, Carker rides high on horseback in the same manner as Monsieur the Marquis is heightened by his carriage. Both act as visual symbols of how gentry, or at least gentlemen, divide themselves from the crowds that festoon the common ground at street level. Here the two women, mother and daughter, are regarded as ‘mud’ of the streets, literally the filth of society beneath the hooves of Carker’s horse. They are not individual citizens, but part of the city structure; the slurry between the cobbles. It isn’t difficult to assume that the daughter is a practicing prostitute while the mother was perhaps once in likewise service herself, referred to collectively as ‘we’ and latterly stating, ‘“Will you let him go like that, when you can wring money from him?”’ (Dickens, 1848, p.725) The mother assumes that Alice, in her youthfulness, has sufficiently sensual attributes to procure revenue from the gentleman for a service he undoubtedly requires. While Hibbert believes that ‘Dickens’ prostitutes are mere creatures of melodrama’ (Hibbert, 1969 p.93), it is possible to argue strongly to the contrary as regards the presentation of Alice, the silent women standing in the mud of the street. The figure subverts common constructions of nineteenth-century sexual discourse through existing as the antithesis of melodramatic, unequivocal prostitutes, representing a far more plausible business woman, who doesn’t conflict with polite public culture or rattle the rigid ‘barrier against sexuality’ (Foucault, 1976, p.689) which was prevalent in the period. In all likelihood, it is plausible that a genuine common street prostitute, such as Dickens’ Alice, would be less audacious than Hibbert assumes, as Walkowitz states that prostitutes ‘could and did pass as respectable’ in her investigation, City of Dreadful Delight. She continues by starting that, conversely, respectable virtuous women, ‘often found themselves accosted as streetwalkers.’ (Walkowitz, 1992, p.50) This similarity between two contrasted categories of femininity, the archetypal ‘Angel of the House’ and the fallen woman, presented in the same space and ultimately confused through similarity, is presented in Dombey in Son when Alice is mistaken for the presumably virtuous Edith, Dombey’s fiancée. Upon the meeting, ‘Edith recognised enough that was quite like herself’ in Alice and ‘saw upon her face some traces which she knew were lingering in her own soul.’ (Dickens, 1848, p.662) It is perhaps worthwhile reconsidering how Dickens constructs aspects of Victorian London as the ‘truth’ or not, as the presentation of street prostitution that Dickens constructs seems far more viable in its subtlety towards how perceived notions of virtuous femininity is asserted in the public space. For Dickens is seems to oscillate between two versions of womanhood. This brings to question as to weather a woman in the public space seems, by the assertion of her femininity, a commercial product to be hired by the Victorian man. Space, as presented in nineteenth-century fiction, plays an essential role within the shaping of the city and society, by enforcing classes and sexes into a position which is considered as conforming to the common good of society. Developing further with this conjecture, it is the influence of industry, the value of trade and significance of the city as an industrial body, which constitutes the area of investigation in the following chapter.
Theatre Manager, Writer, Film Photographer & Printer, Reviewer, Reader. Secular biped mammal with own views. © Samuel Payne 2016