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Victorian Babylon: People, Streets and Images in Nineteenth Century London. (Reviews).

Victorian Babylon: People, Streets and Images in Nineteenth Century London. By Lynda Nead (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000. ix plus 251 pp.).

It is Paris that has captured the title of the capital of the nineteenth century, the city of light, the ultimate source of consumer pleasure, of artistic and romantic fulfillment. Walter Benjamin provided a vivid montage of mid-century Paris as an 'ironic utopia' whose fashionable and progressive image masked acute social contradictions. London in the same period has lacked any such bold or singular profile either in popular or critical representation then or since, its dominant historical signature as the great world city and imperial metropolis yet to bloom in the later years of the century. In this excellent book Lynda Nead awards London between 1855 and 1870 an arresting new label as the Victorian Babylon, a city of great wealth and social licence disturbed by the disfigurements of its own modernity and intimations of self destruction.

In Paris, Haussmann and Baudelaire represent the competing yet complementary poles of modernity, the Prefect inscribing order and efficiency in the rebuilt city centre, the poet celebrating the pleasurable disorder of the crowd that swarmed intoxicatingly in the rationally reconfigured yet anarchic new streetscape. In transcribing this model to mid Victorian London, Nead discovers something of the same dialectic at work but challenges the formulaic orthodoxy into which it has congealed. Combining theoretical and textual acuity with narrative elan and the strong visual sense of the art historian, the author demonstrates a multipolarity of competing agendas pitting 'improvement' against inertia in a London burdened by the great material and political weight of its past. Nead tellingly reconstructs the social and sensory economy of modem public space, discovering numbers of middle class women confidently negotiating the city streets. She reintegrates women more fully into the history of modernity, rejecting the narrow typology of the flaneur and the whore in which male omnipotence is challenged only by female deviancy.

Organised in three sections, the book deals first with Mapping and Movement. In London, Haussmannisation as projected in the tidy schemes of the surveyor-cartographer was compromised by the city's aberrant topography and its parochial guardians. Successful modernisation was mostly piecemeal or subterranean (the new sewage system and beginnings of the underground railway). Yet the planners' ideal of more efficient circulation remained unattainable, while the increasing human traffic on the street produced a ceaseless mobility that transformed the patterns of everyday conduct and encounter. Nead recognises the greater plasticity of modern urban space, reanimating what she terms 'a narrative of footsteps' including that of its itinerant women.

To many visitors the intensity of London's working life seemed to have extinguished any great taste for pleasure, a myth readily disposed of in part two: Gas and Light. With its expansive gas industry, London rather than Paris was the true city of light in this period. Yet this conspicuous realisation of the Enlightenment project exacted a heavy toll in explosions, urban blight and pollution. So too, for moralists, the benefits of gas lighting were fatally compromised by the new temptations it bestowed on the night. As Nead compellingly demonstrates, the volatile magic of gaslight lent enchantment and vitality to the pursuit of pleasure after dark, recreating the city as a vast stage set or Benjaminesque phantasmagoria. The Cremorne pleasure garden in Chelsea is examined as a 'mini metropolis' of gaslit delights, mixing the respectable and the risque, in the feverish melee of its great dancing platform.

The proliferation of guidebooks to London at night was part of a clamorous barrage of cheap literature hailing a mass public of urban pleasure seekers. To the guardians of cultural probity, this spawn of modem print technology and a more insistent commercialism not only evidenced the low taste of a new democracy of leisure but descended to the viciously obscene. In her final section, Streets and Obscenity, Nead unpacks the moral panic focussed on Holywell St, a literary rookery that thrived on the display and sale of cheap erotica, attracting a mixed crowd of browsers that included horribile dictu respectably dressed women. In the Obscene Publications Act of 1857, the state sought to regulate a more overtly sexualised citizenry, though Holywell survived as a transgressive site in the path of official modernity till its demolition in the late century for the enlarged thoroughfare of the Strand.

The great strength of Lynda Nead's work is her ability to think through the dynamic connections between the material and spatial articulations of the city and the everyday social and psychic excursions of its citizenry, much of this reinforced by the adroit reading of visual texts. There is a growing body of scholarship reconnoitring similar territory, but Nead builds imaginatively and substantially on the promptings of others in a book of notable originality. (One surprising omission in this company is Stallybrass and White.) Feminist scholars of the later century are discovering bourgeois women as active citygoers realising more fully the pleasure quotient in the pleasure/danger nexus. In identifying an earlier generation of confident women Nead not only provides a more accurate regendering of the historical townscape but enriches our understanding of modern urban experience. To claim a cultural revolution for her period is more debatable, given the new elongated chronology awarded the history of modern cul tural consumerism and modernity itself, yet Nead's evidence does vividly demonstrate the high ferment of popular culture in the 1860s. She enlarges perceptively upon the primacy of the visual in the shifting sensorium of the modern urban subject, though we still need more appreciation of other neglected dimensions, notably of sound and touch. Meanwhile Victorian Babylon provides its own vividly instructive tissue of sensations.
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Author:Bailey, Peter
Publication:Journal of Social History
Date:Sep 22, 2002
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