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The Visual Dickens Professor Nancy West Lecture #2: Dickens and the City January 29, 2008

Useful terms: literary geography, urban picturesque, flaneur, urban realism, urban novel, vestinomie The city is a major subject in our understanding of Dickens. Among the very broad questions we need to ask in this course are the following: How is the city being read? Who is reading? And how does Ds reading of the city relate to the epistemology and politics of representation at a turning point in English cultural history? It was largely because of Dickens that the terms urban realism and the urban novel came about; in fact, a contemporary reviewer in 1846 first identified Dickens and Thackeray as urban novelists. About London: London was being made over as fast as writers could register their sense of what was passing before their eyes. It grew steadily through the course of the eighteenth century, reaching over half a million in 1700, a million in 1800 and over two million by the middle of the nineteenth century. This population growth was the result of migration by young men and women drawn to the capital by opportunities for work and leisure. As a result, the demographic make-up of the city was characterized by its youth and the preponderance of women within it. In addition, Lascar and Chinese communities sprang up among the docks, while the Irish population grew to number hundreds of thousands. In 1841 less than two thirds of the capital's inhabitants had been born there. Jews, Blacks, Chinese, Indians, Poles, Frenchmen and Italians were common figures on the streets of London. Internal regional migration also continued at relatively high levels until the middle of the century, before dropping dramatically during Victoria's reign. London was distinct from other cities in that, while it was a center of money and power, it was not a manufacturing center like Manchester. Rather, it was a city of leisure and consumption. We might want to think this week about how these two phenomena relate to vision and visibility in Sketches. London also possessed a combination of newness and inheritance; it offered, in other words, what seemed like a semi-permanent but ever-changing built environment or milieu. From the middle ages on, and well into the nineteenth century, much of London was also violent and squalid. During the eighteenth century, the poor and the unemployed frequently occupied themselves, as Hogarth demonstrated, by drinking themselves into insensibility; one doctor reported that one of every eight Londoners drank themselves to death. London epitomized the process of social stratification that took place in Great Britain. As the city grew in size, the poor became increasingly crowded into the filthy slums in the eastern part of the city while the merchant and the professional classes and the gentry established themselves in the fashionable suburbs in the west. By the time Dickens died in 1871 the population of London was well over 3,000,000, and the spread of the prosperous middle classes into suburban areas surrounding the city proper was well underway. Less than a century later, the population of metropolitan London would be over 8,000,000.

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One of the places in London that appears most frequently in literature and art is St. Giles, particularly the Seven Dials. Seven Dials was a district in the parish of St. Giles, a crowded, squalid area; it became a literary stereotype of savage destitution in London after Sketches. Writings about London: Writings about London between the 1780s and the time of Sketches reveal a new visuality and visibility in the city. During this time period, for example, there came into being a new and wide circulation of popular prints that combined text and image, such as Pierce Egans London Life (1821, and for which Cruikshank did the illustrations) or Robert Seymours visual contributions to Bells London (1823). There was also a turn to a more pictorial journalism, particularly in such venues as the Morning Chronicle, which offered imaginative illustrations of everyday incidents. At work in both these illustrated books and newspapers was an exposure of the underside of London and its sensationalized mysteries. Numbering among these texts, in addition to Egans and Bells works, are the following: Charles Knights London (1841-44), an encyclopedic, multivolume history of London; G.W. M. Reynolds popular penny serial, Mysteries of London (1944-46), a melodramatic work which fed on the demand for lurid descriptions of voluptuous women in their boudoirs, gentlemen trapped in decrepit houses infested by criminals, etc; and Dion Boucicaults comedy of manners, London Assurance (1841), which satirized the urban aristocracy living off credit Thus, as Efraim Sicher argues, Dickenss descriptions of the city must therefore be placed in the cultural and historical context of the countless contemporary images of the city circulating in Victorian England, rather than matched to some single experience that claims to be representative (4). Even though London has changed, the rhetoric has stayed much the samewitness Muriel Spark, Ian Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd, Martin Amis, and Graham Swift; these writings, according to many critics, are all haunted by an urban trace that begins in the 19thc. The City and Victorian Art: As abundant as popular representations of the city may be, the city as a subject is relatively invisible in the work of great artists of the period. Neither Turner nor Constable, for example, painted urban material during their long careers. Moreover, those painters who did evince an interest in the city were never very successful in selling their city work. This is true of William Mulready, George Scharf. Throughout most of the century, according to the editors of Victorian Artists and the City, it was generally artists of second-rate literary and painterly talent that were excited by urban subjects (xv). Given the changes in the city, how can it be that artists responded in such a limited way? Why was it that public taste, and that of critics and art dealers as well, cared so little for incursions of the contemporary urban scene in the art they viewed, patronized, wrote about, and bought? These questions are well worth pursuing on Tuesday or Thursday. Artists of the city include the illustrator Thomas Rowlandson, William Hogarth, Frank Holl, W.P. Frith, A.E. Mulready, William Daniels, Gustave Dore, and Thomas Miller (Picturesque Scenes of London, 1851). Many of these artists adopted what historians now term the urban picturesque. From its inception, the picturesque was uniquely directed toward the task of transforming poverty into art (in literature, the clearest examples of this picturesque interest in poverty are Wordsworths Lyrical Ballads, I think). To see something as picturesque, explains William Gilpin (a late 18thc. Artist and the first to theorize about the picturesque), all one had to do is select a view featuring irregular shapes and highly textured surfaces. Equally important is his idea that objects that are rustic, dilapidated, worn, rugged, and old yield such a

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surface. An emphasis on these kinds of subjects makes it possible to reduce what we see to a variety of little parts; on which the light shining shows all its small inequalities, and roughness. According to many critics, most notably Nancy Armstrong, photography brought the principles of the picturesque into the city streets, breaking down the complex and fluid social life transacted there into purely visual components. If this is true of photography, its certainly true of Dickens (the statement provides a lovely way of characterizing Sketches by Boz, no?). An attention to surface texture meant, in photography, that poor people became equated with rough objects (she points to a photo of a butchers shop in which the butchers slovenly and impoverished appearances are somehow aligned with the slabs of meat they stand in front of). We can see this same tendency in Dickens use of metonymy in Sketches by Boz (this might make a fascinating paper topic: that is, the question of whether we might read Dickenss infamous use of metonymy in light of photographys picturesque tendency to align impoverished subjects with rough and decayed objects. As I write this, I recall that Dickenss use of metonymy is almost always directed toward his poor or villainous characters, rarely at his virtuous or middle-class ones. Armstrong also notes, however, that this project of photographysthat is, the picturesque tendency to look at rough objects and people as a source of fascination for middle-class viewershad its complications. By the 1850s, viewers looking at dilapidated buildings couldnt help but think of the cholera epidemics that had spread through London in the 40s; similarly, a study of working-class faces and bodies in photographs, by 1850, inevitably recalled the Chartist uprisings that had so shook the nation a decade before. Thus, a new picturesque came aboutwhat Malcolm Andrews calls the metropolitan picturesque. Exploiting the picturesque appeal of urban poverty, any number of photographers now began to make slum life safe for middle-class observers. The photographs after 1850 or so strip working-class subjects and the objects they carry of their use value, somehow rendering their labor and poverty charming. These post 1850 photographs monumentalized the poor rather than portrayed them as vital to the city. I wonder if such a shift in photographic and picturesque representation might somehow be paralleled with a shift in Dickenss own writingdoes his representation of the poor, in other words, become safer as his novels progress? Whatever its form (urban or rural), picturesque variety and individuality (in the social context) was thought to have survived only outside the culturally dominant middle classes, and particularly among the poorer classes. That is, according to the logic of the picturesque, only the poor embodied picturesque appeal because, after all, they were the ones so clearly associated with dirt, decay, and antiquated forms of labor.. Theorizing the City: The urban writer is not only a figure within the city; he or she is also a producer of a city. The writer adds other maps to the city atlas Deborah L. Parsons, Streetwalking the Metropolis.

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These random thoughts below come largely from Walter Benjamin and Deborah L. Parsons To study representations of the city necessarily involves focusing on the figure of the flaneur. Flaneur: someone who loiters in the city, shopping and watching the crowd. There is a key difference between the dandy and the flaneur: the latter observes while the former sets himself up for observation. The flaneur is frequently described as someone with spectatorial authoritybut how can this be? For the habitat of the flaneur was being destroyed just as he was becoming a recognizable typethat is, much in London was either being demolished or being redone as he became a common figure in literary and artistic culture. Parsons argues the following: that the Flaneur is a wanderer, whose habits result from a mixture of reaction against, dependency on, and anxiety in, bourgeois culture. This implies an instability in his sense of superior, masculine identity (22). Any traces of this instability in Boz? The city has been habitually conceived of as a male space. In what ways is Boz himself gendered as male? How do we get the sense that he is male? Benjamin once wrote, The flaneur walks idly through the city, listening to its narrative. He translates the chaotic and fragmentary city into an understandable and familiar space. Benjamin consciously uses he, identifying the flaneur with a leisured, upper middle class, educated man. But is the flaneur always bourgeois? Always masculine? Always authoritative? Can heor shebe a vagrant, marginal? Is heor she-- within or detached from the city crowd? In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certau makes what he considers a crucial distinction between the urban observer as voyeur and as walker. Well discuss this on Tuesday in more detail, but why might this distinction be important? And how does Boz fit into this distinction? Benjamin also once remarked that Walking in the city is at once an encounter with modernity and with the past, with the new and unknown but also with haunting ghosts. This statement speaks brilliantly, I think, to Sketches. Where in this work do we see such ghosts appear? Benjamin describes surrealism as the new art of strolling. . . the street leads the strolling person into a vanished time. I thought of Jess comment about how Sketches descriptions are often surreal. How might Benjamins comment help us flesh out the notion of Dickens surrealism? To get back to our discussion of physiognomy on Thursday of last week: Parsons also observes that Physiognomy is ideological, categorizing and familiarizing the urban crowd into a coherent, readable, and thus harmless phenomenon (81). What do you think of such an observation? Do you find relevance here for our reading of Sketches? Dickens and the City: In Sketches, D. declared his aim to be the drawing of pictures of life and manner as they really are. Yet, as Efraim Sicher points out, Despite the naming of streets and the wealth of incidental detail, D. can be notoriously vague in locating places. Sometimes he refuses to name in order to universalize and to render locations more topical. Nevertheless, the 19thc. Novels evocation of place, in particular its connection of character and plot with atmosphere and setting, has been thought of as the embodiment of

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realism (xiii). What in Sketches, if anything, strikes you as especially vague or perhaps even allegorical? D.s roaming reporter feels no shock at the citys monstrosity but assimilates into his urban experience its hetereogeneity and the starkest contrasts of starvation and eccentricity, of poverty and occupations unqiue to the metropolis, argues Sicher. Would you agree with this observation? Do you think that Bozs writing does not express shock at what he sees? If not, how would you characterize his responses to Londons more appalling sites? If so, where do these moments of shock occur? Selected Readings on Dickens and the City: Streetwalking the Metropolis : Women, the City, and Modernity. Deborah L. Parsons. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2000. Sicher, Efraim. Rereading the city, rereading Dickens : representation, the novel, and urban realism. NY: AMS Press, 2003. Welsh, Alexander. The City of Dickens. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1971. Wolfreys, Julian. Writing London. 4 vols. New York: Macmillan Press, 1997-2003.