Metropolitan Miscreants

Matthew Bevis

  • Victorian Bloomsbury by Rosemary Ashton
    Yale, 380 pp, £25.00, July 2012, ISBN 978 0 300 15447 4
  • Metropolitan Art and Literature, 1810-40: Cockney Adventures by Gregory Dart
    Cambridge, 297 pp, £55.00, July 2012, ISBN 978 1 107 02492 2

‘The test of poetry which professes to be modern’, Arthur Symons wrote in 1892, is ‘its capacity for dealing with London, with what one sees or might see there.’ And what the poets see is a transformation of the human face. In the country, ‘The face of every neighbour whom I met/Was as a volume to me,’ Wordsworth recalled in The Prelude, but neighbours were harder to read in London: ‘The comers and goers face to face,/Face after face’. Blake’s Londoner can only ‘mark in every face I meet/Marks of weakness, marks of woe’. In The City of Dreadful Night, James Thomson’s narrator prowls ‘lonely streets/Where one may count up every face he meets’. This is what the metropolitan insomniac does instead of counting sheep. For J. Alfred Prufrock, faces are masks – ‘there will be time/To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet’ – and in The Waste Land these masks can’t be looked straight in the eye: ‘each man fixed his eyes before his feet./Flowed up the hill and down King William Street’.

This sampling outlines a familiar story about the modern city: it’s the place where the strength that was meant to come in numbers has been hollowed out or fractured. Carlyle saw London as ‘a huge aggregate of little systems, each of which is again a small anarchy, the members of which do not work together, but scramble against each other’. Henry James would refer to the capital’s ‘horrible numerosity’ and a ‘bigness … fatal to amenity’. But James also saw London as ‘the biggest aggregation of human life’, which – unlike Carlyle’s ‘huge aggregate’ – hints at an agency of sorts. Once he had complained about ‘the fogs, the smoke, the dirt, the darkness, the wet, the distances, the ugliness, the brutal size of the place’, he was left with the feeling that it still presented ‘on the whole the most possible form of life’. Just as Symons shifts from ‘what one sees’ to what one ‘might see’, James takes the city not simply as a set of marks and movements to be deciphered, but as an invitation to imagine.

It sometimes seems as though the Victorians couldn’t decide what they wanted the city to be a metaphor for, so instead the city became a way of resisting metaphors that came too readily to hand. H.G. Wells turned to the metropolis to cast a sceptical eye on those who understood ‘evolution’ and ‘progress’ as synonymous terms. The path of life was not ‘some steadily rising mountain-slope’:

The real form of a phylum, or line of descent, is far more like the course of a busy man moving about a great city. Sometimes it goes underground, sometimes it doubles and twists in tortuous streets, now it rises far overhead along some viaduct, and, again, the river is taken advantage of in these varied journeyings to and fro. Upward and downward these threads of pedigree interweave.

Not upwards and onwards, then, but not the predetermined, fixed tread of those who flow up the hill and down King William Street. We can’t be sure where the phylum or the city will end up – or whether the city is making us worse or better.

Rosemary Ashton’s Victorian Bloomsbury offers a less vertiginous outlook on the terrain by surveying one corner of it. Her focus is on ‘the activities of an earlier set of Bloomsbury-based pioneers, men and women of the 19th century who fought against entrenched opinion and vested interests for universal education, from kindergarten to university, and for cultural opportunities for all’. This makes the set sound more unified – and more upright – than the details seem to justify (Ashton’s pioneers were prone to infighting as well as fighting). Still, a general trend is discernable: once the Duke of Bedford decided to allow the fields of his Bloomsbury estate to be developed in 1800, the area became a space for reformist experiment. In the century that followed, more than three hundred educational, medical and cultural institutions were established there, and Bloomsbury was the site of a remarkable series of firsts: the first secular university in England; the first children’s hospital; the first higher education establishment for women; the first teacher-training institute; the first homeopathic hospital; the first organisation for after-school care for the children of working parents; and the first kindergarten in Britain.

It’s not always clear whether Victorian Bloomsbury wants to be a biography of institutions or individuals, although the lack of clarity isn’t displeasing. We learn not only that Dionysius Lardner was the first professor in the country to lecture on the steam-engine, but also that he eloped with the young wife of a Captain Heaviside and cowered under a piano in a Paris hotel while Heaviside tried to thrash him with a cane. Ashton’s discussion of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge – founded in the same year as the university and by the same people – is enjoyably waylaid by William Plate, who contributed to one of the society’s many abandoned projects, the Biographical Dictionary. Among other things, Plate published a map of Asia Minor, recommended Karl Marx in the register of admissions to the British Museum Reading Room and killed himself in 1853 – the death certificate read: ‘Suicide with Oil of Bitter Almonds. State of Mind Unknown’. Ashton’s book – at once detailed and digressive – has something in common with a certain kind of Victorian novel; location is not consistently the focus of attention, but rather the backdrop for other things that catch the eye. Parisian pianos and bitter almonds threaten to steal the show.

In Victorian Bloomsbury, the wacky and the reputable rub shoulders. Mavericks, quacks and chancers aren’t always distinguishable from those who proclaim the gospel of ‘The March of Mind’. John Elliotson, a professor at the University of London, wanted to improve the practice of medicine, but thought this could be done partly by the use of mesmerism, and was exposed in the Lancet as a fraud – or possibly a dupe – in 1838. The high-minded reformers in this book are often intolerably worthy. There’s a great moment when Elisabeth Reid (founder of what became Bedford College for Women) lectures one of Dickens’s children on her delight at being served plum pudding on Boxing Day. Jane Carlyle swoops:

Mrs Reid leaning tenderly over her (as benevolent gentlewomen understand how to lean over youth) said in a soft voice – professedly for its ear but loud enough for mine and everybody else’s within three yards distance – ‘Would not you like that there was such a nice pudding as that in every house in London tonight? I’m sure I would!’ – The shrinking uncomprehending look which the little blowzy face cast up to her was inimitable – a whole page of protest against twaddle! if she could but have read it!

Ashton rebukes Carlyle for having fun at the expense of the ‘humourless yet philanthropic and determined Mrs Reid who forced through real progress’. Yet it’s a relief to have hecklers included – not least because they prompt consideration of what humourlessness might do to philanthropy, and of whether ‘real’ progress has always to be ‘forced’.

Ashton’s city is primarily a venue for civilisation rather than its discontents, and her Bloomsbury stands as a symbol of the age’s need to be good – and to be seen to be good. But the book also conveys an intriguing sense of the uncertain status of the area. In 1825, when Robert Peel complained that ‘if the national gallery were banished to the neighbourhood of St Giles’s and Russell-square it would much lessen the value of the collection,’ he was implying that Bloomsbury was irredeemably dodgy. It bordered a notorious slum, and the university and its partner institutions were built on a wasteland where rubbish had been dumped (the university was nicknamed ‘Stinkomalee’). Later, thanks to its proximity to the new railway stations of Euston, St Pancras and King’s Cross, the area came to seem less unsavoury. By 1894, the Times could describe Bloomsbury as ‘a district neither very fashionable, nor very much the reverse … not so far removed from the centre of things as to become provincial, nor so much immersed in the bustle of life as to kill tranquility of study and repose of soul’. The dukes of Bedford tried to keep things respectable by refusing to allow traders (the gates erected to stop traffic didn’t come down until the 1890s), but the rich and powerful saw the area as beneath them. Henry Brougham stood for Bloomsbury, but he lived in Mayfair.

Several writers lived or lodged in the area before the Bloomsbury Group got there, including Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, Arthur Hugh Clough, William Morris, several of the Pre-Raphaelites, Christina Rossetti, Mary Braddon, Robert Louis Stevenson and J.M. Barrie. Ashton glances at these figures, but they tend to be used as hooks on which to hang the thoroughness of her scholarship, rather than as voices that might complicate her progress narrative. She embellishes a passage from Stevenson’s The Dynamiter to show him ‘singing the praises’ of the area:

Mr Harry Desborough lodged in the fine and grave old quarter of Bloomsbury, roared about on every side with the high tides of London, but itself rejoicing in romantic silences and city peace. It was in Queen Square that he had pitched his tent, next door to the Children’s Hospital, on your left hand as you go north: Queen Square, sacred to the humane and liberal arts, whence homes were made beautiful [by William Morris and ‘The Firm’ at No. 26], where the poor were taught [in the Working Women’s College at No. 29], where the sparrows were plentiful and loud, and where groups of patient little ones would hover all day long before the hospital [the Alexandra Hospital for Hip Disease, located at No. 19 on the west side].

Perhaps the plentiful sparrows are there to sing praises, but the detail is meant, I think, to come across as archly, unnervingly twee. Ashton stops quoting just as Stevenson drops the guided tour and takes us round the back: ‘Desborough’s room was on the first floor and fronted to the square; but he enjoyed besides, a right by which he often profited, to sit and smoke upon a terrace at the back, which looked down upon a fine forest of back gardens, and was in turn commanded by the windows of an empty room.’

The back gardens and empty rooms are not exactly – or not only – cultivated spaces. As in Dickens, an abode is sometimes an alibi (the houses of the great and the good in Little Dorrit are all ‘like unexceptionable Society … very grim with one another … all approachable by the same dull steps, all fended off by the same pattern of railing’). Virginia Woolf puts in a brief appearance when Ashton quotes from a story in which a character imagines that ‘if one lived here in Bloomsbury … beneath the pale green of umbrageous trees, one might grow up as one liked.’ This is meant to encapsulate Woolf’s vision, a vision towards which Ashton’s book increasingly tends, of ‘airy, green, respectable, middle-class, intellectual Bloomsbury’. But Woolf’s writing also makes space for something other than eulogy. In Mrs Dalloway, Bloomsbury is where the latest proponents of the March of Mind come to lecture others on how to get on in life, where Mrs Filmer’s doctor, Holmes, briskly informs her neighbour Septimus that he has ‘nothing whatever seriously the matter with him’. ‘There remained only the window, the large Bloomsbury lodging-house window, the tiresome, the troublesome, and rather melodramatic business of opening the window and throwing himself out.’ The airiness and respectableness are part of the problem. Septimus’s final act is, in part, a riposte to those who pride themselves on the neatness of borders and boundaries: ‘“I’ll give it you!” he cried, and flung himself vigorously, violently down onto Mrs Filmer’s area railings.’

*

Gregory Dart’s Metropolitan Art and Literature, 1810-40: Cockney Adventures charts, not the consolidation of a district, but the restless motion of a figure. London becomes the place where it’s difficult to know one’s place. In the relatively short period covered by this book, it grew by more than 20 per cent, so the question ‘What does the city mean?’ also involved the question ‘Where does the city end?’ The Cockney doesn’t so much inhabit the metropolis as try to keep up with it. The man and his milieu share an inability to sit still, and mobility brings both anxieties and pleasures. Sam Weller’s confusion in The Pickwick Papers is a good translation of spatial concern into social terms: ‘I wonder vether I’m meant to be a footman, or a groom, or a game-keeper, or a seedsman. I looks like a sort of compo of every one on ’em.’ Dart goes beyond the use of Cockney as a class insult to a wider, more supple sense of what the term might signify: ‘Cockneyism, in short, could be about speech, and was always about attitude, but it was never the preserve of a specific rank or class.’ Seen in this light, the figure becomes key to the aesthetics of modernity, someone who ‘gestures towards everything that is most amphibious and uncertain about early 19th-century metropolitan life’. The Cockney, then, is not just a category. He’s a way of raising questions about the things categories miss out or evade.

The writers for Blackwood’s were having none of it. In the attacks on Leigh Hunt’s ‘Cockney School of Poetry’, a Cockney was simply what the upstanding called the upstart: ‘Your vulgar vanity, your audacious arrogance, your conceited coxcombery, your ignorant pedantry, – all the manifold sins and iniquities of Cockneyism lie spread before me as in a map.’ But the map soon turns into a maze. Dart turns to other kinds of writing and painting – to Keats, Hazlitt, Lamb, Pierce Egan, John Martin, John Soane, Benjamin Haydon and Dickens – and shows how attempts to fix the Cockney were resisted by this figure who in many ways had no fixed abode. God made the country, and man made the town, but the Cockney made the suburbs. While Hunt was celebrating the breakdown of distinctions between town and country in an attempt to chip away at distinctions between culture and nature, others were dwelling on, without ever fully dwelling in, a related set of elusive arenas: the tea-garden, the lodging-house, the debtors’ prison. If Cockneyism was a language for what Dart terms ‘an eclectic city, a city of the mind’, then it spoke for a mind that kept changing its mind.

Sometimes Dart’s hero appears impossibly protean. It’s not always apparent why certain things are conceived as Cockney – or, rather, it’s hard to see what isn’t Cockney. But the venturesomeness of the book is in keeping with its subject, and the study often finds original ways to get topography and text to shed light on one another, and to conceive the Cockney’s challenge to boundaries in relation to experiments with genre. The periodical essayist is seen as one of the Cockney’s unstable doubles, and Dart is excellent on Hazlitt, who unexpectedly found himself warming to his man in the act of writing about him. There’s a good discussion of the way Egan’s journal Life in London hovers between the popular and the polite, and of how its flash style registers ambivalence about social and professional ambition. Hybrid forms are illuminatingly read as embodiments of the Cockney’s uncertainty about where he fits in, although what emerges most powerfully from Cockney Adventures is the feeling that there might be better things to do with your time than to fit in.

This isn’t to say that the book sentimentalises the misplaced or the displaced. When Dart calls the Cockney a ‘metropolitan miscreant’, he’s wary of what might happen when criticism is recast as compliment, noting that Cockneyism ‘gradually stops being used to abuse pretentious upstarts and comes increasingly to be a term of affection for those content to remain low’. By the time we get to Dickens – in many ways the archetypal Cockney – the pressures of shapeshifting and living on the edge are felt as a trauma that needs to be covered up. In Sketches by Boz, Cockney dandyism is ‘an escapist fantasy of the lower middle class, a performative distraction from everyday social reality, a brief pantomime of belonging’. And, as so often in Dickens, the pantomime has bite. Dart ends by envisaging Dickens’s lower-middle-class characters as foils for his bourgeois protagonists; they become his way of registering unease about some aspects of Victorian improvement, pointing not to progress, but to arrested development. The Cockney, it would appear, is the bit-part who doesn’t know when he should leave the stage. While he is subject to fantasies of self-betterment, he’s also a disquieting parody of those fantasies – and a reminder of what they might cost.

In Sketches by Boz, ‘progress’ is used in a Hogarthian, not a Victorian sense: ‘one of our principal amusements is to watch the gradual progress – the rise and fall – of particular shops.’ The modern city is a development site, which is not quite the same thing as a site of development, for what gets done also gets undone. ‘Developmental’, ‘developmentally’, ‘developable’, ‘developer’, ‘developmentarian’, ‘developist’: all these words, according to the OED, are 19th-century coinages. Many of them are related to evolutionary theory, and to a progressive form of that theory about which Dickens and others had their doubts. By 1885, ‘development’ also meant ‘the act or process of developing a mine, site, estate, property or the like’ (OED), and the city was the most visible sign of the age’s attraction to this. Ashton and Dart both read the city as a work in progress, but Dart has more to say about the vagaries and ironies of development. Theodore Hook’s assessment in 1835 says a lot:

Let the readers recollect the huddled mass of wretched streets and houses which twenty years ago covered the site of Regent Street, the Quadrant and Waterloo Place; let the reader recollect the still more wretched courts and alleys, dens of infamy and haunts of thieves, which maze-like spread themselves from St Martin’s Church to the neighbourhood of Covent Garden; let him now look upon the range of buildings and the handsome streets which occupy their places.

The slide from plural to collective singular – from ‘let the readers’ to ‘let the reader’ to ‘let him’ – is a way of making a certain kind of metropolitan gentleman feel confident that he can speak for others who may share (or compete with) his space. City life is a joint enterprise, but one collective noun is bad (a ‘mass’), and another is good (a ‘range’). What Hook means when he says that those wretched streets ‘covered the site of Regent Street’ is that Regent Street was really there first; it was just necessary to get rid of the rubbish on top of it. Undesirable areas ‘spread themselves’: desirable ones merely ‘occupy their places’.

Arguments over what – and who – the city is good for aren’t about to get less contentious. Ashton and Dart both teach at UCL (once referred to as the Cockney College, sneered at by Hook for its ambition ‘to instruct butchers in geometry, and tallow-chandlers in Hebrew’), and both books end by pointing to the present. Ashton refers to ‘certain modern developments’ in Bloomsbury, Dart to the ‘characteristic discrepancies and disproportions of modern life’. Last year, there were protests against UCL’s plans to build a new campus in East London, thus causing the demolition of the Carpenters council estate. Meanwhile, the £500m Bloomsbury Masterplan, approved by the college council in 2011, wants to turn Malet Place into a ‘teaching and learning “high street”’. The GP surgery on the UCL campus is to be closed, but there will be a ‘student hub’ and a Starbucks. ‘Upward and downward these threads of pedigree interweave,’ Wells might have observed.