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.

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