City Lights

Tristram Hunt’s Building Jerusalem is an erudite and elegant account of the rise and fall of the Victorian city, and an eloquent plea for the return of the pride and civic consciousness that he sees as the great achievement of those who shaped urban life in nineteenth-century Britain. Its focus, then, is resolutely British—its territory the Manchester of Engels, the London of Dickens and Mayhew, and the Birmingham of Joseph Chamberlain—but its larger polemic contributes to the debate about the way we live now. It urges us to use the Victorian achievement in order to tackle concerns about contemporary anomie, privacy, and “social disengagement” expressed in works like Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone of 2000, and to reinforce the attack on modernist urban planning and the triumph of suburbanization embodied in the “sidewalk” school of criticism begun in the 1960s by Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The notion that a dose of Victorian values offers a cure to the ailments of postmodern urban living may seem counterintuitive, not to say unpalatable—and certainly there are times when Hunt sounds like the Victorian doctor telling his patient that he should swallow the medicine for his own good—but he pleads eloquently for us to learn from the experience of nineteenth-century Britain. The historical picture he presents is well executed but also quite familiar. The novelty of Building Jerusalem lies in its contemporary polemical edge, and its success stands or falls by the effectiveness of the link it posits between past experience and present-day policy.

Talk of Victorian values and anti-modernism conjures up images of a conservative nostalgia less concerned to change the world than to flee from it. But this is far from Hunt’s position. His mix of history and policy is very much of a piece with his aspirations to be a public intellectual on the left in Britain. Hunt has been a conspicuous presence not just in the academy but on television, radio, and in the press. He has worked for the Labour Party, advised government ministers, worked with the Institute for Public Policy Research, and is a trustee of the Heritage Lottery Fund, which dispenses an annual budget of about £330 million for projects preserving the local, regional, or national heritage. Building Jerusalem, then, seems intended not just to enlighten the general readers about the eminence of their Victorian forebears, but to persuade those in power to pursue policies that “re-engage a notion of civic patriotism or civic pride with an individualistic society with only the loosest of affiliations to nation, region and class let alone to the city.” The project is not without ambition.

At first sight the nineteenth-century city does not seem a propitious place to find urban felicity. The burgeoning manufacturing towns of the Industrial Revolution were the “New Hades.” As Hunt vividly reminds us, the great leap forward of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was achieved at a terrible human cost. The …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.