[Thanks to James Heffernan, founder and editor-in-chief of Review 19 for sharing this review with readers of the Victorian Web. Thackeray created the illuminated “A” for Vanity FairGeorge P. Landow.]

Illuminated initial A

his well-written, historically rich study is a fascinating addition to the growing body of critical work on Victorian suburbia, which includes Annette R. Federico's Idol of Suburbia: Marie Corelli and Late-Victorian Literary Culture (2000), Roger Webster's edited collection Expanding Suburbia: Reviewing Suburban Narratives (2000), Lynne Hapgood's Margins of Desire: The Suburbs in Fiction and Culture, 1880-1925 (2005), and articles by Kate Flint, Gail Cunningham, and Tamara Wagner. Focusing in particular on the history and literature of the second half of the century, Whelan examines what she sees as a shift in responses to the suburbs. Between the 1850s and the '80s, she contends, "writing about the suburbs maintains a fairly consistent confidence that the space can be controlled and/or reclaimed by the middle class" (3). After that period, she argues, literary responses to both the suburbs themselves and the people who inhabited them become increasingly negative. Furthermore, gesturing beyond the period, Whelan suggests that the failure of the suburban ideal at the end of the nineteenth century paved the way for modernism's engagement with urbanism and, perhaps more importantly, its concern for "culture and the interior life over the Victorian emphasis on propriety and the material reality of physical space" (158).

In the service of this argument Whelan examines and quotes from a fascinating array of documents — periodicals, pamphlets, sanitary reports, letters, guidebooks, autobiographies, poetry, fiction. She has a fine eye for the remarkable, and anyone searching for lesser-known stories exposing the dark heart of middle-class propriety will find plenty of striking examples here. "Behind the Shade," a short story written by Arthur Morrison at the turn of the century, is one of the best. Morrison, at the turn of the century, narrates the arrival of two seemingly respectable ladies into a suburban space fiercely policed by its occupants for evidence of the improper or "low." The new ladies have "a well-dusted shade of fruit in the front window," and the watchful neighbors are mostly content; however, when the two women fail to appear for a while and the house is broken open, it turns out that every stick of furniture has been sold to raise money for food (62). The women themselves are dead on rude coffins, and only the dusted fruit remains, to the last, in the window.

Middle-class anxiety is what Whelan identifies again and again. Anxious about what they are seeking so resolutely to maintain - "What kind of people have we become?" stories such as Morrison's seem to ask - middle-class residents are likewise anxious about what might happen if the palpable class-mixing of the suburbs is allowed to continue. After all, for all the hype, bourgeois residents of the suburbs knew quite well that their neighborhood could become, in a matter of years or even months, a slum: if a sewer failed or refuse piled up, if buildings disintegrated or a factory opened nearby. The boundaries between slums and suburbs were constantly in flux, and middle-class concern about the threat of 'filth' was routinely articulated. One particularly interesting genre of suburban narrative that Whelan identifies is the suburban ghost story, best exemplified in the work of Mrs. J.H. Riddell. In Riddell's ghost stories, Whelan argues, the ghosts that haunt suburban homes are spectral manifestations of the poor or otherwise unrespectable, constantly threatening the social homogeneity of the middle-class suburb; at times they even drive middle-class residents out. But the arc of the ghost story is to "normalize" the domestic space; ghosts are reasoned with or otherwise eradicated, so that ultimately the threat is raised only to be laid to rest.

Given "the tenacity of the suburban ideal," why did Victorian literature treat the suburbs so harshly? Or to put the question another way, why did Victorians continue to build and live in the suburbs if they caused so much anxiety and concern? Here Whelan argues, in a chapter on the "Sublime Suburbs," that the development of "a suburban gothic" was a means of "coping with some of the ideological problems elicited by the disjunction between expectations about the suburb and lived experience of it" (120). Yet Whelan also notes that "any given suburb was likely to be fairly quiet and regulated on most days of the year" (ibid). While even the most well-to-do suburbs were disfigured by filth and refuse, we must assume that for many Victorians this was far less remarkable than for most readers in America or Britain today. Whence then came the anxiety provoked by Victorian suburbs? Whelan contends that it sprang from their "sublimity." While it may seem strange to classify the man-made suburbs in this way, she argues that for contemporaries the seemingly endless vistas of the suburban landscape justified the term [see, for example, in Surbiton pictured below].

Houses along St. Andrew's Square, Surbiton. 1860-90. Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames, Greater London. Photograph and caption by Jacqueline Banerjee. [Click on image to enlarge it.]

"In many senses," Whelan writes, "the suburbs presented the observer with the kind of limitless and frighteningly monotonous vistas that Burke and Kant attribute primarily to natural scenes. However, the man-made vistas of suburban space still had the power to call to the subject's mind a dissonance between what was within and what was outside of the subject's control" (127).

This is an engaging idea, yet it does not quite, perhaps, explain the continued growth and pull of the suburbs. It rather forms another means of articulating what was striking yet strangely appalling about them, and Whelan moves at this point in her argument back into descriptions of how dreadful they really were. Her pertinent observation that for many in suburbia, on many days, life continued without daily interactions with ghosts and ghouls, seems at odds with these passages; this is one area of the book that needed more flesh on the bones. In the introduction Whelan observed that she would treat "periodicals, pamphlets and other sources about suburban living . . . [as texts that show] what it meant to live in a 'real' Victorian suburb" (11). The scare quotes around "real" suggest Whelan's recognition that the texts might not offer such easy access, but generally she does treat her material as simple evidentiary documents. Yet it is surely possible that there was a gap between hand-wringing about the suburbs in the periodical press and the lived reality, not least because there are more positive articulations of suburban living that Whelan does not discuss: Emily Eden's bestselling novel The Semi-Detached House (1859) and the burgeoning genre of suburban gardening texts are the most obvious examples. No doubt many Victorians simply liked the suburban homes they inhabited; the tremendous pull of the suburbs across many decades was more than just an illusory ideal. To that end, we may suspect that just as forceful as the gap Wilson explores — between ideal and awful reality —, was another gap unexplored here: between the awful, dramatic, anxious projection and the humdrum reality of everyday life.

The humdrum, when it appears in Whelan's book, is located at the very end of the century in its most negative form — "the suburb as trivial, dull, bourgeois, pretentious without reason, an object of mockery by those who considered themselves above the petty concerns of the world of mid-level clerks and accountants" (140). It is a little surprising that Whelan does not spend more time discussing the literature of this period, given that it forms the second phase of her argument; perhaps she was keen to avoid treading in the footsteps of Hapgood's excellent Margins of Desire (although Whelan does not explicitly position her work in relation to Hapgood's scholarship). Nonetheless, her brief examination of the decline of the suburban ideal is suggestive. At the end of the century, Whelan argues, all the worst anxieties about the suburbs were perceived as having come, at last, to fruition. With the suburbs were now felt to be heterogeneous, culturally dominated by the working- or lower-middle-classes, and thus spaces that the cultural elite disdained, the cities now came into their own as places of intellectualism and civilization. This explanation is highly portable, of course, and Whelan herself uses it to illuminate early twentieth-century texts such as Forster's Howard's End (1910). Yet again there are clear counter-examples that do not find a space in the book. As Federico has argued, the privileging of the urban space at the fin de siècle by many (male) writers was effectively a privileging of the male sphere of action, in which the denigration of suburbia was a trivializing of the world "associated with feminine domesticity, homogeneity, and the delights of nature (or at least of a small garden)" (Idol of Suburbia 66-7). Surely, then, we must be careful of ignoring the gender politics at play in vilifications of the suburban; certainly, in the work of female writers, we may find a rather different approach to the suburban world and its preoccupations, particularly at a time when aestheticism attuned many to the rich possibilities for the decorative in the suburban home space.

While a broader investigation of men's and women's differing responses to the suburbs would have been welcome, Whelan is always attentive to the tremendous differences among suburban spaces themselves. To this end, she generally tries to explain the predominant class constituency of any suburb mentioned in her quoted passages, in addition to its location and whether it was on the way up or down at the time of writing. At the back is an appendix, with the location of major stories fixed on a map of the city. This is likely to make the book useful not only for specialists in the field but also for students working on the urbanization of Victorian London. Moreover, the book is not overly technical; Whelan's prose is accessible, and she has a habit of outlining the next phase of her argument in crystal clear terms. Thus while there are some oversights in the book, these are largely outweighed by the energy of its writing, its clear construction, and the fascinating array of documents Whelan employs. For a long time investigations of the centers were fixed at the heart of critical interest in nineteenth-century urban development; this book is another welcome sign that the suburban is coming into its own.

Related Material


Whelan, Laura. Class, Culture and Suburban Anxienties in the Victorian Era. Routledge, Taylor and Francis, 2009. 176 pp.

Last modified 21 June 2014