Walking the Victorian Streets: Women, Representation, and the City
Deborah Epstein Nord
1995, Cornell University Press
It opens: ‘In the literature of the nineteenth-century city, the figure of the observer–the rambler, the stroller, the spectator, the flaneur–is a man’ (1). This is a study of how Victorian women, particularly literary women who were themselves observers, walked the streets. They did so not as prostitutes, yet always their gender ensures that they are more observed than observer and their presence in public spaces alone links them in the mind with the ‘streetwalker’ as prostitute. Nord writes:
If the rambler was a man, and if one of the primary tropes of his urban description was the women of the streets, could there have been a female spectator or a vision of the urban panorama crafted by a female imagination? And if such a vision were possible, under what conditions and with what distinctive features might it have been created? These are questions of history, about who was on the street in which urban neighborhoods and at what times of day and night, and questions of representation, about the cultural meanings ascribed to men and women in the context of urban literature and analysis (3).
What a great question, and one hard to answer, particularly going back to the 1840s through the 1880s. It’s memoirs or fiction to get any understanding at all, but as Nord continues ‘We have the overwhelming sense, however, that women alone on the street in the mid-nineteenth-century city were considered to be, as one American historian [Ryan – Women in Public Places] has put it, “either endangered or dangerous” (3).
In the introduction she captures some of the discomfort I have with the ideal of the rambler, with de Quincey and Baudelaire and similar others, so common now in psychogeography:
Whether by the anonymous and transitory act of sex itself or by the suddenness of her appearance from and evaporation into the crowd, the sexually tainted woman (or the woman found and lost) serves to represent the experience of the masculine spectator. These women themselves gaze at the crowd, Baudelaire remarks [in ‘The Painter of Modern Life’], “as at a river which reflects their own image. In truth, they exist every much more for the pleasure of the observer than for their own.” The poet, exemplifying so much of the literature of urban spectatorship, cancels out the subjectivity of the woman of the streets. Paradoxically, by suggesting that she is a Narcissus who can see the streets only as a reflection of herself, he makes her into the spectator’s mirror and the masculine observer’s spectacle (6).
For others of a different morality, such as Wordsworth, women of the street represent an alien distance, an unsettling encounter. I’ve never liked Wordsworth, but I find both of these accounts frustrating, stripping women of agency, equality and a right to freely encounter others in public space. In the late 18th century, Nord argues, the discourse shifts again to women as source of disease and contamination, and one capable of reaching the most respectable home, through Blake, Dickens and others. The main argument of the book looks at both women as writers and women as they observe the city:
the particular urban vision of the female observer, novelist, or investigator derives from her consciousness of transgression and trespassing, from the vexed sexuality her position implies, and from her struggle to escape the status of spectacle and become a spectator. The ‘respectable’ middle-class woman creating her own city spectacle had to come to terms with women’s place in a well-established literary tradition of urban description as well as with her relationship to the poor women, the female beggars, the factory workers, and the prostitutes she observed on her own very tentative rambles. Associated by gender with the very emblems of poverty, disease, and fallenness in urban panoramas created by novelists and social reformers, women writers had to contend with split identifications: they wrote with the cultural (and class) authority of the writer and with the taint of their sex’s role in the urban drama (12).
The main sections:
- ‘Stroller into Novelist’: as awareness of city space shifts from the sense of stage or panorama to a social web and the city of crisis and subject of investigation
- ‘Fallen Women’: Focus on Flora Tristan and Elizabeth Gaskell and women as spectacle and spectator
- ‘New Women’: End of 1800s, rise of new possibilities for women and new social questions on their relationship to the city
So a few of the points I particularly liked, they are more or less in chronological order so here is the 1820s, city as theater:
What distinguishes the rambler’s or the flaneur’s stance from that of the social investigator or reform-minded novelist is this identification with and delight in the privileges of the poor. The flaneur sees the poor and the prostitute not as victims or objects of pity but as urban actors free from the constraints of bourgeois life (43).
Precisely what makes me most angry about some of these accounts is their inability to see structural constraints, but this is a reminder that the power of these accounts is perhaps in how they recognise agency, which is more respectful in the end than the reformer’s views. But I like too, this reminder of the ways these earlier texts did not impose narrative structure, how they employed a different set of tools in the depiction of the city that gets at some insights but clearly fails to uncover others:
De Quincey declines to tell or invent the story of what he sees, to give to urban experience or to his own narrative what one critic has called its own ‘discursive interpretation’. He does not “read” the city as we try to read his narrative (46)…For all these shapers and observers of the London scene regarded the social reality of the city as part of a natural order, a system of social relations that was fundamentally organic and not to be challenged or radically transformed (47)…the people of the street are signs to be read only for the edification of the spectator, or left unread as part of the unraveled urban mystery…(48).
On to the 1830s, and a look at early Dickens to a sense of the growing middle-classes and their urban sensibilities:
focus on two crucial elements of the literary creation of a middle-class city: first, the continuing sense of distance from the “lower orders,” now juxtaposed with a new awareness of possibilities for sympathizing, if not identifying, with the poor; and second, the development of a middle-class discourse about the presence on the streets of the sexually tainted and victimized woman (50).
I like thinking through this idea about the nature of the city and our understanding of it (via Dickens):
Writing about the Sketches, F.S. Schwarzbach notes that Dickens’s unique contribution consists in the “unifying vision…of the urban milieu as an eternal here and now.” Invoking Carl Schorske’s notion that the modern city’s essential characteristic is a permanent sense of transience, Schwarzbach writes that in Dickens we find an early version of this distinctly modern sensibility, and that unlike Hunt, for example, Dickens embraces the contemporary city and ignores or belittles the past (58).
I’m not so sure I agree with any of that, but it’s interesting, and things I haven’t really thought through before. As is this, both in possibly disagreeing and wanting to think through:
Whereas the urban observers of the 1820s converted the everyday scene to theater, Boz transforms theater into the ordinary and unremarkable. Spectacle itself is demystified and the distance between spectator and the city diminished (63).
There follows a chapter on Dombey and Sons — which I have not yet read — and Bleak House, which I have. This is much more focused on female sexuality, and I didn’t get as much from this. This is my own failing I think, I am not as interested in more psychoanalytic approaches or sexuality and sexualisation as subjects. Though this book has convinced me (though I didn’t really need convincing) of their importance — particularly in this focus on a sexuality foisted upon women or internalised by them. I thought it possibly slightly unfair to strip any eroticism or romance from Gaskell’s writing, but I did love thinking through these intersections between gender and the city and writing. I think Nord is right on ‘how powerful, how unavoidable, was the sexualization of woman’s entry into urban space and into the social conflicts that circulate within that space’ (176).
Both Tristan and Gaskell as subjects of the following chapters are fascinating — and finally we get to women writers! Tristan is sitting on my shelf right now, will I agree that ‘The tension between Tristan’s intrepid, defiant nature and her horror of social ostracism pervades her written work and gives particular force to her London journal (116)’? [You can read the answer here]. It is definitely curious, though to see how Nord explores the tension between writers and other women on the street.
The female social investigator or reformer finds the prostitute a particular challenge to her sympathetic eye. This is especially true for the urban spectator, the female rambler, whose street walking cannot necessarily be distinguished from that of other “public” women (123).
On Gaskell, who again, I haven’t yet read apart from a collection of short stories:
Gaskell’s was a double labour: she set out to claim as a woman the authority of urban spectatorship and interpretation and to work through the taint of exposure that was traditionally and powerfully associated with woman’s public role (138).
Gaskell took up issues of women’s labor that were a matter of public controversy and made them the subjects of her urban fiction. Responding to the sexual ideologies that inform Faucher’s and Engels’s accounts, she used her novels to ruminate on the linked potential for danger and power inherent in women’s participation in the public domain of industrial life (142).
Manchester’s streets made her a novelist not only because of what they taught her about the working people she encountered but also because of what they suggested to her about herself, her potential cultural authority, and her sexual vulnerability (144).
From the 1880s there were a host of texts I was unfamiliar with — just one of the beauties of this book!
As Woolf understood, the decade of the eighties was a pivotal time in the public lives of women, and the work they produced reflects a certain precariousness or tentativeness in their social positions and, as a consequence, in their own notions of themselves (182).
There is a fascinating period where a network of women living on their own, many of them writers, established itself. Eleanor Marx was tangentially part of it, they were connected to the Socialists and social reformers like Octavia Hill, all of whom I am still exploring. But while I knew of Beatrice Potter Webb, I had no idea of her cousin Margaret Harkness, poet and novelist Amy Levy, or novelist Olive Schreiner. I like how their works are contrasted with those by women engaged in social investigation, Helen Bosanquet, Florence Bell, Maud Pember Reeves (hey ho Lambeth!) and Mary Higgs‘s fascinating account of going on the tramp and its comparison with books by Orwell or London. A woman taking on the clothing of another class makes her more visible rather than less in a crowd, more vulnerable, more at risk…this may be first on my enormous to-read list inspired by Nord.
There is a lot more here, but I think I will end there. I am still new to thinking about this and reading these texts, but I loved this book as an introduction. This is hardly a criticism, but one thing that struck me was the presence of amazing illustrations without much critique, Dore for example, from his illustrations of his travels in London, and Cruikshank, who drew brilliant cartoons for both Pierce Egan and Dickens, as well as many well-read magazines and journals. It would be great to think through how pictorial depictions of women (and by women?) fit into all of this, working together with, and independent of, text. But that would undoubtedly be a whole new book, and possibly one already written.