Grandeur and Filth

The Victorian City: Images and Realities

edited by H.J. Dyos, edited by Michael Wolff
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 2 vols., 957 pp., $85.00

The Victorian Working Class: Selections from the Morning Chronicle Service (Portland, Oregon)

edited and introduced by P.E. Razzell, by R.W. Wainwright
Frank Cass (London), distributed by International Scholarly Book, 400 pp., $20.00

The Real Foundations: Literature and Social Change

by David Craig
Oxford University Press, 318 pp., $8.95

The Victorians by the Sea

edited by Howard Grey, edited by Graham Stuart
St. Martin’s Press, 132 pp., $12.50

Engels, Manchester, and the Working Class

by Steven Marcus
Random House, 271 pp., $8.95

Millions of us still live in Victorian cities; “the structures outlast the people who put them there,” as Messrs. Dyos and Wolff observe in the epilogue to their stunning book, “and impose constraints on those who have to adapt them later to their own use.” Their contributors offer some striking images of these constrains. Take, for example, Sybil Baker’s cool, minute, and frightful account of Victorian Belfast:

Belfast’s a famous northern town,
Ships and linen its occupation,
And the workers have a riot on
The slightest provocation—

the provocation being, usually, an attempt to repress their sectarian and ethnic “walks.” Just the situation of Bloody Sunday in Londonderry not so long ago; and on Miss Baker’s map there, embattled as now, are Shankhill and the Falls Road.

Other cities, if they have shorter memories and less religion, are still in large part nineteenth-century structures. London, though already in the previous century what Morris called “the horrible muckheap in which we dwell,” took on its modern randomness and enormity. Bagehot, in a famous passage twice quoted in this book, compared it to a newspaper: “everything is there, and everything is disconnected.” All possible worlds coexist in contiguous but discontinuous columns; life and death, wealth and poverty, instantaneously and pointlessly associated. The new city partook of no familiar order, had no apprehensible structure.

Mr. Craig quotes a song called “I can’t find Brummagem”—the trouble was not that Birmingham was small or elusive, but that it was everywhere and nowhere. Engels had to work to get some idea of where Manchester was; even now “the shortest way out of Manchester” is a euphemism for strong drink. And in London he memorably registered the brutal indifference of a city crowd, people not looking at one another, mankind dissolved into monads. That sense of ricocheting off thousands of meaningless urban objects, identified by Walter Benjamin in the experience of Baudelaire, is part of the consciousness of all modern city-dwellers.

L’immonde cité: nothing is better documented than the filth of Victorian cities, unless it is their grandeur. That filth and grandeur should coexist seemed to many the inevitable consequence of Political Economy., of laws as invariant as Newton’s. The grand municipal centers celebrated and exploited a system which necessarily packed the poor into slums; the roads and railways required for the conveyance of the middle classes away from such areas occasionally ripped right through them, tearing up the homes and graveyards of the poor, and for a moment offending the newly refined senses of the rich. Meanwhile the sewage of a vast population fell untreated into the rivers. In the summer of 1858 the House of Commons had to suspend its sittings because of the stench from the Thames.

The Victorians took much interest in all these developments; they loved statistics, and complied them tirelessly; and, as The Victorian City sumptuously shows, they also recorded the scene, in all its black majesty, with pencil and camera. They were …

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