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London’s Great Starfish: The Construction of Mid-Victorian Suburban Fiction

Tamara Silvia Wagner

Résumé

In Trollope's 1858 The Three Clerks, the coming of commuter railways generates a peculiarly modern image of suburbanised, starfish-like, London: ‘London will soon assume the shape of a great starfish. . . . .The old town, extending from Poplar to Hammersmith, will be the nucleus, and the various railway lines will be the projecting rays.’ It is an outgrowth only to be understood as an otherworldly creature: from some undefined depths of alterity, an exotic animal rises to finger the English countryside. The centrality of changing urban space in Victorian literature and culture has spawned some of the best interdisciplinary research, but precisely this concentration on the city has elided suburbia's significance. In discussions of urban modernity, suburbs are marginalised; clichéd images of bourgeois self-confinement failing to raise more than a passing interest in these margins. What was new and different about Victorian suburbia and how the cultural fictions that have shaped our understanding of what constitutes ‘suburbanism’ were created are rarely addressed issues. At the mid-nineteenth century, however, ‘the suburban’ formed an expanding field for fictional explorations in which the association between urbanisation and ventures into foreign spaces powerfully drew into debate the promotion of ‘suburbanism’ as the ultimate manifestation of the divorce of home and workplace. The construction of suburban fiction operated within a negotiation of domesticity and alterity that brought home the potentials and problems associated with urban expansion. In cutting across subgenres, it engendered some of the most pervasive clichés, but in an ambiguous process of redefinition that impels us to reconsider still current cultural myths. Writers as different as Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and also the little-known domestic novelist Emily Eden made the most of what had become a rapidly evolving space characterised by immense fluidity. They did so in markedly divergent ways that evince the versatility of suburban fiction.

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It is very difficult nowadays to say where the suburbs of London come to an end, and where the country begins. The railways, instead of enabling Londoners to live in the country, have turned the country into a city. London will soon assume the shape of a great starfish. Anthony Trollope, The Three Clerks.

1In Anthony Trollope’s 1858 The Three Clerks, the coming of commuter railways generates a peculiarly modern image of suburbanised, starfish-like, London: ‘It is very difficult nowadays to say where the suburbs of London come to an end, and where the country begins. The railways, instead of enabling Londoners to live in the country, have turned the country into a city’ (21). As the novel traces the starfish’s multiple members along suburban railway-tracks, it speculates on the outcome of suburbia’s spread, while it outlines the temptations of suburban building projects: ‘London will soon assume the shape of a great starfish. . . . .The old town, extending from Poplar to Hammersmith, will be the nucleus, and the various railway lines will be the projecting rays’ (21). The starfish reaches out; the last rural refuges are no longer impervious to the effects of expanding urbanisation nor to the fluctuations of ‘ticklish stock, sir—uncommon ticklish’ (433). Although evoked light-heartedly, it is a monstrous outgrowth, to be understood only as an otherworldly creature: from some undefined depths of alterity, an exotic animal rises to finger the English countryside. As domesticity and alterity emerged as an ideologically constructed duality in nineteenth-century discourses on suburban sprawl, the association between urbanisation and ventures into foreign spaces powerfully drew into debate the promotion of ‘suburbanism’ as the ultimate manifestation perhaps of the divorce of home and workplace. The construction of suburban fiction fascinatingly operated within a negotiation of otherness that brought home the potentials and problems associated with urban expansion and social mobility. In cutting across subgenres, it engendered some of the most pervasive clichés of ‘the suburban,’ but in an ambiguous process of redefinition that impels us to reconsider still current cultural myths.

2The suburban Gothic of the 1860s, a sensationalisation of the middle classes’ endeavour to escape the city, may have made the most of what had by mid-century become a rapidly evolving space characterised by immense fluidity. As early as the 1830s, narratives of suburban growth had begun to question the ideals that underpinned them. Crucial to middle-class self-definition, the creation of ‘Victorian suburbia’ worked through the expulsion and containment of elements declared to be alien to an upwardly mobile, yet self-consciously stable (respectable), class. As Elizabeth Wilson points out in The Sphinx in the City, nineteenth-century planning reports, journalism, and government papers initiated a ‘campaign to exclude women and children, along with other disruptive elements,’ from inner-city spaces, a campaign that created suburbia as ‘this familiar, oppressive ideal of Victorian family life’ (6, 46). The making of suburbanism as a colonisation of cityscapes and minds was at the centre, as it were, of geographical and ideological marginalisation. By the end of the century, suburbia was thought of as confined, all too neatly stratified; condemned and frequently satirised in fiction. The suburban imaginaries of mid-nineteenth-century popular culture, by contrast, constituted a contested and, I shall argue, very differently claimed space that reflected divergent building-developments at the time. As such, they expressed a host of ambiguities in the representation not only of class-differences, but of alterity at large. A new field for fictional explorations, ‘the suburban’ stretched from converted, abandoned, presumably haunted, houses in recently suburbanised country-towns to the construction of ‘an atrophy of skeleton cottages’ (453) as Wilkie Collins was to put it in his sensation novel Armadale (1866).

  • 1 Cunningham re-views the disturbance of mundane suburbia through ‘the distinctively suburban targeti (...)

3Until very recently, this imaginative reconstruction of suburban space has been elided, often shamefacedly, much as orientalist imaginaries had been before Edward Said resituated canonical nineteenth-century novels among imperialist discourses. Whimsical as such a linkage between suburbia and the colonies might seem, it originated in nineteenth-century popular culture. If it quickly became hackneyed, it was precisely because it was a convenient linkage that worked for divergent ideologies. In 1884 an unsigned article on ‘suburbanity’ in The Spectator almost glibly referred to ‘numberless middle-class colonies which encircle London’ (483). It is a deeply claustrophobic image. As Todd Kuchta has pointed out, organisations like ‘The Home Colonisation Society’ or ‘The English Land Colonisation Society’ promoted healthy housing especially for lower-middle-class suburbanites, yet in a twofold bind of colonial metaphors, the majority of journalistic and literary representations envisioned suburbs as a diseased growth (66–67, 173). Most memorably perhaps, in H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898), the Martians’ targeting of London’s suburbs provided a metaphorical vehicle for the emerging space’s disturbingly ‘other’ cartography, as Gail Cunningham has argued in some detail.1 The commuter’s starfish projected in The Three Clerks became eclipsed by more grasping tentacles.

  • 2 Compare Hapgood, (‘Suburbs’ 289; Margins 44-48).

4In its attempt to recuperate suburbia, Trollope’s mid-century novel forms a peculiarly revealing entry into Victorian representations of its sprawl: of the stretching of a starfish of fantastic proportions, of the city’s ‘long brick feeler [thrown] here and there, curving, extending and coalescing, until at last the little cottages had been gripped round by these red tentacles’ (8), as Arthur Conan Doyle was to put it in Beyond the City: An Idyll of a Suburb (1893). Although suburban homes in Doyle’s domestic fiction can nonetheless seem an antithesis to the mysterious London of his detective stories,2 Sherlock Holmes’s suburbia is notably not only an extension of ‘dark London,’ but a marginal space in which crime can be even better concealed. In The Sign of Four (1890), Holmes moreover traces a legacy of colonial riches (and colonial guilt) through ‘the howling desert of South London’ to a ‘forbidding neighbourhood’ reached along ‘monster tentacles’: an entry into suburbia filtered through mid-century sensationalism (89, 88). The door of ‘a third-rate suburban dwelling-house’ (89) is opened by an Indian servant to reveal an orientalised interior. As an imaginary geography, to take up Said’s conceptualisation of discursively constructed spaces, Victorian suburbia is, in fact, surprisingly heterogeneous. Instead of addressing the narrativisation of suburban space novel by novel, in chronological order, I shall therefore draw on a range of mid-century texts by writers as different as Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, and Emily Eden. Their suburban fiction exemplifies shifts in attitudes to suburbs. After a brief overview of the conceptual construction of suburbanism, I shall focus on suburban tropes of mobility and alterity: the commuter, the social tourist, and the spectralised speculator.

1 ‘Miserable Mediocrity’: Fictions of Suburbia

  • 3 Anne Humphery refers to the division into margin and centre that still continues to shape work on t (...)
  • 4 In Julian Wolfreys's words, ‘the very phrase, “Dickens's London” seems to deliver itself as a hiera (...)

5The importance of fragmented urban experience for the period has spawned some of the best interdisciplinary research on Victorian literature and culture, yet this focus on urban modernity has subsumed suburbia’s significance.3 Precisely because its centrality in Victorian ideals of domesticity is often simply assumed, it is just as easily dismissed as an integral, but largely uninteresting, factor in bourgeois ideologies: an empty shell of domestic paraphernalia. What was new and different about suburban life and how the cultural fictions that have shaped our understanding of ‘suburbanism’ were created are consequently rarely addressed. Even recent analyses of the marginal in nineteenth-century urban culture have aimed primarily to penetrate slums, or at best, suburbs turned slum-like. This has pushed aside anxieties about their ‘devaluation’ itself and, conversely, about the meeting of domestic and financial speculation on upgraded, or gentrified, suburban life-styles that have similarly redirected literary representations of the city. The dust-heaps of Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend (1865), articulate best, it has been suggested, pressing issues of urban modernity.4 Their suburban location therein tends to be glossed over, and that even though the eponymous mutual friend is a suburban lodger with a sensational mystery: under a false name, John Harmon resides in Holloway, in a ‘tract of suburban Sahara, where . . . .dust was heaped by contractors’ (35). Yet once he claims his inheritance—made of suburban dust-heaps as it is—Harmon leaves suburbia behind. If such escape admittedly becomes stylised into a favourite trope, it also effectively denotes suburbia as a liminal space created by recent speculative and hence indeterminate, uncertain, ventures.

  • 5 As the OED reminds us, as the ‘country lying immediately outside a town or city,’ suburbs had been (...)
  • 6 Lara Whelan offers a detailed ‘deconstruction’ of what she terms the ‘Victorian suburb ideal’ (n.p. (...)

6Although suburban areas had long been part of London’s literary cityscape, as a conceptualised space, ‘suburbia’ was created by the construction boom of the 1850s.5 It was a concerted effort to offer escape from overcrowded city-spaces. The irony was that the rush in building rapidly devalued land. Over-speculating condemned oversized villas to almost instantaneous conversion into subdivided tenements. Slums formed in their wake, following and unleashing railway-lines, making future developments ‘leap-frog’ them, as H. J. Dyos and D. A. Reeder have put it in their seminal ‘Slums and Suburbs’ (362, 371–72). Suburbanism as a cultural concept might only have been discussed in the last third of the century, but journalism and fiction in the fifties were particularly outspoken about the effects of over-speculating. Printed in Household Words in 1852, George Sala’s ‘Dumbledowndeary’ satirised the impact of the building boom on a fictional Kentish town. The Dumbledowndeareans speculate so ardently on the prospective financial outcome of its suburbanisation that it ‘may be called without much exaggeration a Town to Let’ (312). They throw ‘themselves upon bricks [and] extensive operations and speculations in bricks’ in an apogee of capitalist expansionism, conjuring up ‘one grim brick mausoleum of dead capital’ (Sala 314–15). In practical terms, this meant either demolishment or conversion into lodgings. This did not prevent ruthless speculators from advertising devalued areas as new, quiet, even rural, however. In ‘A Suburban Connemara’ (1851), likewise published in Household Words, T. M. Thomas took up exactly this vexing issue: a clerk searches for a suburban home by drawing a semi-circle on a map to indicate the desired distance from his office. Yet when he views developments in the area, there are only slum-like tenements. What is remarkable is that the article refrains from criticising the living conditions themselves. Instead, it exposes a shocking fraud. The speculators simply have not managed the property in an appropriate way to be able to offer it to the middle classes. The solution is to turn the boggy land to use by building working-class tenements.6

  • 7 Sharon Marcus's study of nineteenth-century Paris and London provides perhaps the most extensive ac (...)

7Slums that anticipated, as it were, ‘leap-frogging’ bourgeois suburbia were soon peppered all over London’s outer-city belt. The self-consciousness bred by a continuous progression from downgraded suburbs only further drove the colonisation of surrounding villages. It correspondingly propelled literary explorations of an, at first, alien space.7 Its transformation into the mundane centrally assisted in the construction of suburbanism, as we know it. Coined in Mary Ward’s 1888 Robert Elsmere, it became a keyword of bourgeois self-confinement (150). When T. W. H. Crosland published The Suburbans in 1905, he consolidated an understanding of degeneration that has proved to be notably persistent: ‘man was born a little lower than the angels and has been descending into suburbanism ever since’ (80). What necessitates a reinvestigation of suburban development is to a large extent this typecasting of suburbia as ‘Victorian’ and ‘middle-class.’ As Robert Fishman has said in Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia, ‘[i]f you seek the monuments of the bourgeoisie, go to the suburbs . . . . Suburbia is more than a collection of residential buildings; it expresses values so deeply embedded in bourgeois culture that it might also be called the bourgeois utopia’ (4). The architectural historian Geoffrey Tyack speaks of the constructed middle-class suburb as ‘perhaps the most original contribution of nineteenth-century London to urban civilisation’ (310). John Hartley has similarly pronounced suburbia ‘a Victorian, and therefore also an imperial invention,’ the ‘habitat of the social class with the lowest reputation in the entire history of class theory . . . .the petit-bourgeoisie, the lower-middle-class, the class for whom it seems hardest (certainly it’s very rare!) to claim pride of membership’ (184, 186). It is ‘the physical location of a newly privatised, feminised, suburban, consumerised public sphere’ (Hartley 182). Yet as Anne Humpherys stresses in a recent review essay on the Victorian city, one needs to be careful not to buy into retrospective value-judgements that as often obscure as highlight nineteenth-century attitudes to new suburbs (604). Many clichés about Victorian suburbia and its inhabitants undoubtedly owe their cultural pervasiveness to representations at the time, and yet most were much more complex and not uncommonly self-critical.

  • 8 Hapgood sees the novel as one of the most enduring testimonies to the popularity of suburban satire (...)

8As probably the best known, self-defined, novel of Victorian suburbia, George and Weedon Grossmith’s 1892 The Diary of a Nobody mercilessly satirises the commuting clerk’s self-confined utopia. Mr Pooter proudly declares: ‘After my work in the City, I like to be at home. What’s the good of a home, if you are never in it? ‘Home, Sweet Home,’ that’s my motto. I am always in of an evening’ (27). His blustering attempts to prove that ‘it was possible for a City clerk to be a gentleman’ (33), the interest he facilely takes in ideologies of self-help that remains limited to domestic refurbishment, to ‘a tin-tack here, a Venetian blind to put straight, a fan to nail up, or part of a carpet to nail down’ (29), his devotion to a ‘life among Ledgers’ (160), his proud profession to embody a ‘homely people’ (53), parody petit-bourgeois domesticity as a middle-class medium. Pooter’s home is a gendered space built along class-alignments, a place of ‘miserable mediocrity’ (246) suitable for the middle classes. By the late-nineteenth century, happily mediocre Pooters had clearly come to be cast as an ageing species.8 So if suburbanism was already notoriously open to sardonic satire in the early-1890s, what had created it? And since suburbs had appeared centrally in fiction decades earlier than fin-de-siècle exploration of suburban invasion or ossification (a getting stuck in ‘miserable mediocrity’), is it not much more important to look at their ambiguous representations at the mid-century? In other words, what had made Pooter’s suburbia with all its attendant fictions?

2 Moving Towards Suburbanism: Commuting in Fiction

9Numerous Victorians undoubtedly longed to be able to say with Wemmick, the suburban clerk of Dickens’s 1861 Great Expectations and perhaps the most memorable commuter of Victorian fiction, ‘No; the office is one thing, and private life is another. When I go into the office, I leave the Castle behind me, and when I come into the Castle, I leave the office behind me’ (193). But it is one of the main ironies of Wemmick’s Castle that his ‘little wooden cottage’ is located among a ‘collection of back lanes, ditches, and little gardens [that] present the aspect of a rather dull retirement’ (193). An increasingly lengthy commute became more and more common as homes within walking distance meant living in slum-like areas. In representations of homecoming, imperialist traveller and commuter consequently became strangely (con)fused. In his study of masculinity in the middle-class Victorian home, John Tosh speaks of the ‘penchant for the exile’s sensibility was reflected in the homecoming rituals of middle-class homes: the waiting wife and daughters on the threshold, the proffered slippers, the armchair ready at the fireside’ (32). In more than one way, slippered City-men at home encompassed the armchair-imperialist within. This was really the most lasting development of suburbia’s colonisation of Victorian culture. The creation of the suburban home as the space of the exile’s desire, the bungalow as the product of a two-way exportation of suburban and colonial consumerism (Hartley 184), and the simultaneity of building speculations and colonial expansion, with the emergence of colonial suburbs (Archer 26–54), pervaded the conception of Victorian suburbia.

10In the figure of the commuter, a new fascination with the City, London’s financial district, met an opportunity for spatial exploration that ambiguously presented suburbia as an evolving place that colonised the countryside. The growth of London’s suburbs demanded an increase in public transportation, although suburban building speculation could not have gone ahead to that extent if basic structures had not been set up earlier in the century. What affected their role in the literary representation of urban—and suburban—modernity was more a change in attitudes to the public transport system than the opening of new routes themselves. The first omnibus was introduced in 1829 with Shillibeer’s Omnibus Service, which ran from Paddington to Bank, and by 1834 there were over a hundred services to South London alone, before they were slowly forced out of business by the railways (Thorns 38–39). The Metropolitan Railway, the world’s first underground railway, opened in London in 1863, yet for suburban commuters the Cheap Trains Act of 1883 was perhaps the most vital milestone. In Crosland’s words, it was ‘that triumph of modern suburbanism, the Twopenny Tube,’ a public conveyance in which ‘you hang on by the sash-strap, inhaling a mixture of tunnel air, condensing steam, and rank tobacco’ (31–33). Yet Crosland also considered omnibuses specifically suburban and consequently at once Victorian and vulgar: ‘whether green, red, yellow, or otherwise, [they] hurt in their lumbering vulgarity, not to say their utter disrespect for class distinction’ (8). It was the very accessibility to different strata of society as well as to ever more (suburbanised) spaces that rendered public transport subject to social criticism and satire.

  • 9 Anthony Vidler suggests that this makes the uncanny a quintessential bourgeois fear (3-4). Compare (...)

11As the commuter shuttled between city and suburb, between social spaces, along the lines of random meetings, or interchanges, he (seldom she) mapped an emerging conceptual and literary landscape. Anecdotal accounts as well as the growing proliferation of serial publication took up the narratives of such movements, as of the sprawling of suburban buildings, to find in them an apt representation of instability and uncertainty. Wilkie Collins’s first sensation novel Basil (1852), for example, starts with a young gentleman’s idle impulse to ride omnibuses as his entry into what he views as exotic lower-middle-class life. The crash of his social tourism paves the way for a suburban Gothic that mediates between eighteenth-century Gothic castles and the ‘architectural uncanny’ of urban modernity.9 Yet representations of the commuter also captured a new, now so familiar, form of stress, an emerging metropolitan lifestyle. It is not so much that domestic space is infiltrated by the world of finance as that building speculation propels a colonisation that rides through traditional structures literally and metaphorically.

3 A ‘colony of half-finished streets’: From Flying Vegetable Produce to Skeleton Tenements

  • 10 As Steven Marcus has put it in ‘The True Prudence,’ their promotion of housekeeping as business is (...)
  • 11 Dombey's second marriage, John Butt and Kathleen Tillotson stress, is ‘the real storm-centre of the (...)

12Dickens, it has universally been acknowledged, is more interested in inner-city spaces, slums, or suburbs in the process of turning slum-like. Suburbia appears a marginalised space, and yet its changing function in his fiction thereby specifically tracks the shifts in attitudes both to the making of suburban space (mainly through building speculation) and a new suburban lifestyle as a defining feature of modernity. Mr Pickwick’s explorations on the omnibus—an anticipation of the social tourism similarly described by George Sala and Wilkie Collins—may at first circle around suburban villages, yet it is in a nostalgia for a quieter time and place. It is appropriately cut short by imprisonment in prison. Oliver Twist enters London through its suburbs, but this is not the memorable London of the novel or indeed of Dickens’s fiction. In his tellingly titled ‘business novel,’ The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, Containing a Faithful Account of the Fortunes, Misfortunes, Uprisings, Downfallings and Complete Career of the Nickleby Family (1839), however, Nicholas’s position at the charitable Cheeryble Brothers comes together with a cottage ‘at something under the usual rent . . . .to preserve habits of frugality, you know, and remove any painful sense of overwhelming obligations’ (457). An old clerk speaks dismissively of this retreat. Inner-city tenements take pride of place: ‘“Country!” (Bow was quite a rustic place to Tim.) “Nonsense . . . .don’t you know that I couldn’t have such a court under my bedroom window anywhere but in London?”’ (506–07) The cottage is part and parcel of the Cheerybles’ fiscal involvement in the domestic arrangements they authorise. There, vegetable produce flies over walls, parodying and additionally making sinister their interest in domestic exchange, including marriage contracts duly approved by Cheeryble Brothers.10 The abundance of produce contrasts positively with the ‘skeleton cottages’ of suburban Gothic, but the souring vegetables are the offerings of a neighbouring ‘old flint’ (539) driven insane by his greed. Most importantly, the Nicklebys, and with them the interest of the novel, return to an ancestral country-home, leaving city and suburb behind. Much has been written on the incursion of the railways into the countryside in Dombey and Son (1848), yet it is in Dickens’s late novels—published during the ‘sensational sixties’—that he engages the most self-consciously with the renegotiation of urban space and what it comes to stand for in the popular fiction of the time.11

  • 12 Contrasting ‘the perils of promiscuous mixing of home and work’ in Dickens's Dombey and Son with Mr (...)

13Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend, novels riddled with speculation on legacies as well as the marriage- or the stock-market, testify to suburbia’s changing cultural significance in the very ambiguity with which they detail the markedly diverse, even unfathomable, residents. Wemmick’s comically cosy ‘Castle’ has even been read as ‘perhaps the most loving and peaceful home’ in Dickens’s fiction (Armstrong 136),12 regardless of the satirical aspect of its fortifications (complete with a diminutive drawbridge). In Our Mutual Friend, suburbs not merely conceal the hero’s double-life and bury inheritance (wills concealed in dust-heaps). Railroad suburbs spawn the suburban stalker Bradley Headstone: a perpetrator of urban violence thinly camouflaged by education, a Bill Sikes put into pepper-and-salt pantaloons. This seemingly respectable schoolteacher emerges from a desolate suburban area ‘where the railways still bestride the market-gardens that will soon die under them,’ forming ‘a neighbourhood which looked like a toy neighbourhood taken in blocks out of a box by a child of particularly incoherent mind, and set up anyhow’ (219).

  • 13 On the connection between the lower classes ‘savage races’ see Athena Vrettos, Somatic Fictions: Im (...)

14Suburban Gothic indeed became so rapidly an established trope that Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s 1864 self-ironic defence of sensation fiction, The Doctor’s Wife, described a ‘neglected suburban garden upon the 21st of July 1852’ (31), set during the speculative building boom of the 1850s and complete with a cursorily sensationalised forger of cheques. It is no coincidence that Collins’s first sensation novel was published in that specific year (1852). Introducing all the hallmarks of the suburban Gothic, Basil invokes suburban development as a colonising process, the social tourist as would-be ethnographer, the seemingly safe spaces of the home redolent with suppressed violence. Basil, a proud squire’s son, pursues a woman he has spotted on an omnibus to a ‘suburb of new houses’ that shocks him in its ‘newness and desolation of appearance’ (32). Yet in an area as ‘desolately silent, as only a suburban square can be’ (34), he envisions a ‘fairy-land architecture of a dream’ (209), an exotic imaginary at once threatening and alluring. London suburbia is a ‘colony of half-finished streets, and half-inhabited houses;’ the omnibus that first conveys Basil to this alien world ‘a perambulatory exhibition-room of the eccentricities of human nature . . . .of all classes and all temperaments’ (158), where he scrutinises a veiled woman’s ‘dusky throat’ and ‘well developed’ figure that exhibits the premature ripeness commonly associated with the lower classes and ‘savage races’ (27).13 After entering into a secret, unconsummated, marriage, Basil appropriately ends his year-long commuting to ‘the scene of [his] daily pilgrimage’ (209) by stalking his wife to a ‘neglected, deserted, dreary-looking’ (158–59), suburban hotel clandestinely to listen as she makes love to her father’s confidential clerk, Mannion. Basil’s bashing up of Mannion, in which newly macadamised roads act out the revenge of building-developments, sets free a specified suburban violence, a suppressed criminality that resides at the margins and makes them a sensational space.

  • 14 In J. Sheridan Le Fanu's ‘Green Tea’ (1872), a mysterious demon appears when an omnibus passes a de (...)

15When Collins’s subsequent novels return to suburbia, it is alternately identified with asylums, prisons, and laboratories as well as foreign spaces. It is on a suburban road that the eponymous Woman in White appears for the first time in his perhaps most popular sensation novel of 1860, and in the genteel suburb St Johns Wood that she is secretly divested of her identity. There, pompously respectable Count Fosco sets up house with a view to obscuring the ends and means of his speculations—speculations that centre on money, but work through domestic exchanges. Anticipating the fully-fledged realisation of metaphors of colonialism in The Moonstone, Armadale describes suburbs in different stages of completion in the year 1851 and poses them against colonial settings and a suspicious sanatorium. Their most extensive delineation is of a degenerating space in which evolution has been aborted: ‘Builders hereabouts appeared to have universally abandoned their work in the first stage of its creation’ (453). Only ‘waste paper float[s] congenially to this neglected spot; . . . .No growth flourished in these desert regions but the arid growth of rubbish’ (453–54). The most lurid scenes of The Law and the Lady (1875) take place in a ‘great northern suburb of London,’ ‘a dingy brick labyrinth of streets,’ where a condemned villa houses a madman who defies the ‘speculators in this new neighbourhood’ (188–89). ‘[N]either town nor country,’ it looks ‘like lost country villages wandering on the way to London; disfigured and smoke-dried already by their journey!’ (188–89). In suburban Gothic, in short, the ruptures effected by building speculation create wastelands that harbour wasted heroes, bring forth a new species of villain, and set loose ghosts of a demolished past, the victims of building booms.14 Emily Eden’s The Semi-Detached House, I wish to suggest in conclusion, forms a revealing early counterpoise to the sensationalisation of domestic space while expressing a similarly ambiguous nostalgia, and I shall therefore conclude with a brief analysis of its self-consciously balanced, but largely satirical, representation of a gendered bourgeois space.

4 Colonising Semi-Detachment and the Ends of Social Tourism

  • 15 After the success of The Semi-Detached House, Eden revised a novel of highlife she had started in t (...)

16The Semi-Detached House (1859) is the first published work of fiction of Emily Eden, a domestic writer of aristocratic background.15 The novel sets out to present a reclaimed Victorian suburbia inhabited by aristocrats on the move and social speculators who turn out to be stock-market swindlers, but the latter is treated as a confirmed cliché that yields no sensational surprise, and the unwilling social tourist eventually returns to her off-stage castle. Lady Blanche, Viscount Chester’s wife, moves into a semi-detached house in Dulham—symptomatically for her ‘confinement’ as she is expecting her first child—while her husband is on diplomatic missions abroad. Blanche is at first reluctant to put up with the Hopkinsons, her ‘semi-detachment, or whatever the occupants of the other half of the house may call themselves’ (237). Conversely, their prejudices against ‘frivolous specimens of fashion . . . .all jewels, and laughter, and levity’ incline them ‘to throw up [their] fortifications against the vices of the nobility’ (243, 246). However, while the suburbanites quickly discover that aristocrats are not what newspapers of ‘a disreputable character’ (245) suggest, they themselves are clownish at best and ruthless speculators at their worst. What is most important for Eden clearly is the recuperation of aristocrats in domestic fiction.

17The reclamation of suburbia is strained. The Hopkinsons confirm all of Blanche’s fears, built on a list of stereotypes as they are: the mother is fat and wears mittens; the daughters ‘actually played the Dead March in Saul’ on the piano, although they move it into the back room ‘for fear [their] noise should disturb’ their noble neighbours (258, 287). The Dead March in Saul, we remember, also accompanies pompous, self-pitying Mrs Wilfer in Our Mutual Friend. The middle classes can be useful in Eden’s novel, but only as long as they mind their place. Mrs Hopkinson even ends up proudly serving as an impromptu midwife. The newly made Baron and Baroness Sampson, by contrast, are vulgar and dangerous as social and financial speculators. The split into staunch Hopkinsons—the John Bull-like father is a captain well-known to navigating aristocrats—and socially indeterminate Sampsons facilitates a defence of certain suburbanites while satirising others. The Baron is a typecast stock-market speculator whose alterity externalises the social mobility that financial speculation facilitates:

The Baron and the sailor were a fine contrast as they stood talking together; the one, sallow, with a broad wrinkled brow, and a keen calculating eye, and having apparently speculated most of his hair off his head, his shoulders bent, his chest contracted, his manner deferential, his voice unnaturally bland, he looked yellow, as if he had never breathed an air that was not tainted with the scent of gold. The other, tall, erect, fresh coloured. (329)

18After a vaguely sketched crash ‘perfectly unintelligible to those who had not been brought up to talk Stock Exchange fluently’ (367), the Baron walks out of his overblown villa and the book. Suburbia is left behind as a dull, only temporarily enlivened, place, a space from which the exotic has been sapped through the double removal of aristocratic social tourists and the speculating Baron. Blanche almost regrets having to return to her castle, yet her wish for a continuation of suburban experience is clearly absurd: ‘It is a pity that Chesterton is not semi-detached . . . .A semi-detached castle would be a novelty’ (363). Undoubtedly it would. What remains is an easily satirised residential area that has no character of its own, pointing forward to the seemingly, eerily, quiet spaces of the suburban Gothic: ‘as at all the suburban villages, the inhabitants lived by, and for, and with London. The men went daily to their offices or counting-houses, and the women depended for society on long morning visits from London’ (244). Suburban Gothic echoes this longing for the centre and renders it excitingly ominous. As it is already put Basil, ‘London was rousing everywhere into morning activity . . . .But the quiet and torpor of the night still hung over Hollyoake Square’ (48–9). But what only masks domestic violence in sensation novels really is a female space ideal for childbirth and neighbourly intercourse among helpful women in Eden’s novel. It is a heavily gendered space restricted to middling classes lacking in ambition. Neither the—however domesticated—aristocrats of The Semi-Detached House nor the heir in Our Mutual Friend can possibly stay in such a place once their need for just such a quiet refuge (for childbirth or as domestic testing-ground) is over. Yet after the exorcism of the speculator, the duly domesticated space is left behind as an off-stage property-investment, so that at the fin-de-siècle, it needs an alien invasion that takes inherited metaphors of suburbia’s alterity further to make suburbs an exciting fictional space. The making of this literary suburbia significantly encapsulates a renegotiation of numerous intriguing complexities and fissures in Victorian culture.

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Notes

1 Cunningham re-views the disturbance of mundane suburbia through ‘the distinctively suburban targeting of the Martian invaders’ (431).

2 Compare Hapgood, (‘Suburbs’ 289; Margins 44-48).

3 Anne Humphery refers to the division into margin and centre that still continues to shape work on the Victorian city (604). Suburbia remains obscure within these binaries or is glossed over quickly as a (failed) project to combine city and country. Compare Richard Stein's ‘Recent Work in Victorian Urban Studies’ (319-31).

4 In Julian Wolfreys's words, ‘the very phrase, “Dickens's London” seems to deliver itself as a hieratic title, already armed with defensive and bullying quotation marks, marking off the subject of the city as one of which we can no longer speak; a subject which is, because of the volumes already spoken and written, ineffable’ (142). Similarly, as Efraim Sicher reassesses Dickens's ‘urban realism,’ he leaves suburbia at the periphery.

5 As the OED reminds us, as the ‘country lying immediately outside a town or city,’ suburbs had been described in English from ca.1380 onwards. Suburbia, however, is a ‘quasi-proper name’ for London's suburbs and largely a nineteenth-century construction. At a time when continental capitals like Paris or Vienna saw redevelopments that revived the bourgeoisie's attraction to inner spaces of the city, Britain's industrial cities—Manchester in their lead—set up models for middle-class suburbanisation.

6 Lara Whelan offers a detailed ‘deconstruction’ of what she terms the ‘Victorian suburb ideal’ (n.p.).

7 Sharon Marcus's study of nineteenth-century Paris and London provides perhaps the most extensive account of the failure of the domestic ideal of single-family houses in Victorian Britain, a failure, she argues, that contrasts with the Parisian apartment-house (4).

8 Hapgood sees the novel as one of the most enduring testimonies to the popularity of suburban satire specifically of the ‘clerk class’ against which aspiring middle- and lower-middle-class readers could define themselves (Margins 189).

9 Anthony Vidler suggests that this makes the uncanny a quintessential bourgeois fear (3-4). Compare Julian Wolfreys's discussion of ‘the spectralisation of the gothic’ (7-10).

10 As Steven Marcus has put it in ‘The True Prudence,’ their promotion of housekeeping as business is undercut by the fact that Dickens has ‘not the slightest interest’ in detailing their business (271). Joseph Childers has fascinatingly argued that a case could be made for the Cheerybles as sinister characters. Their business imbricates commercial and domestic economy, as they merge the filial and the fiscal in order to ‘link themselves to others monetarily’ (59-61).

11 Dombey's second marriage, John Butt and Kathleen Tillotson stress, is ‘the real storm-centre of the novel,’ which overruns business interests, even as it is presented in shape of a business deal: ‘for nearly three years, and three-quarters of the novel, Mr Dombey has neglected Dombey and Son, and Dickens has let private life overrun his “business” novel’ (103, 109).

12 Contrasting ‘the perils of promiscuous mixing of home and work’ in Dickens's Dombey and Son with Mr Wemmick's notorious suburban ‘Castle’ in Great Expectations, Judith Flanders has similarly interpreted the representation of the clerk's split into domestic and official selves as a workable solution rather than simply dismissing it as a satirical stab at hypocrisy (7).

13 On the connection between the lower classes ‘savage races’ see Athena Vrettos, Somatic Fictions: Imagining Illness in Victorian Culture (16-17). Marcus similarly speaks of the ‘conventional comparison’ between London's poor and ‘savages’ and underlines the transposition of this alignment to middle-class Londoners, which showed ‘that their geographic centrality to imperial England belied their economic and political exclusion from the freedom attributed to imperial English subjects’ (Apartment, 110).

14 In J. Sheridan Le Fanu's ‘Green Tea’ (1872), a mysterious demon appears when an omnibus passes a deserted mansion on a late-night ride from the city-centre to the suburbs. In Collins's novel about vivisection, Heart and Science (1883), the enigmatic scientist conducts experiments at the outskirts of London: ‘Nobody seems to know much about him. He has built a house in a desolate field—in some lost suburban neighbourhood that nobody can discover.’ (97) When he blows up his laboratory, it is with the ‘intermittent shriek of a railway whistle in the distance [as] the only sound that disturbed the quiet of the time’ (322-23).

15 After the success of The Semi-Detached House, Eden revised a novel of highlife she had started in the 1830s, and which was eventually published as a self-conscious revision of Regency manners as The Semi-Attached Couple in 1860. Compare Wagner (443-75).

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Référence électronique

Tamara Silvia Wagner, « London’s Great Starfish: The Construction of Mid-Victorian Suburban Fiction »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 69 | 2009, mis en ligne le 05 juillet 2019, consulté le 15 août 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/cve/5854; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/cve.5854

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Auteur

Tamara Silvia Wagner

Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
WAGNER Tamara Silvia lectures at the School of Humanities & Social Sciences (Nanyang Technological University, Singapore). She is the author of Occidentalism in Novels of Malaysia and Singapore, 1819-2004: Colonial and Postcolonial Financial Straits and Literary Style (Edwin Mellen Press, 2005) and Longing: Narratives of Nostalgia in the British Novel, 1740-1890 (Lewisburg: Bucknell UP and Associated University Presses, 2004).

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