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Reviewed by:
  • Class, Culture and Suburban Anxieties in the Victorian Era, and: Semi-Detached Empire: Suburbia and the Colonization of Britain, 1880 to the Present
  • Richard L. Stein (bio)
Class, Culture and Suburban Anxieties in the Victorian Era, by Lara Baker Whelan; pp. xi + 177. London and New York: Routledge, 2010, £80.00, $125.00.
Semi-Detached Empire: Suburbia and the Colonization of Britain, 1880 to the Present, by Todd Kuchta; pp. viii + 264. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2010, $59.50, $24.50 paper, £53.50, £21.95 paper.

For over half a century, led by such scholars as A. J. Dyos, British urban history has enlarged its scope to include British suburban history, particularly by charting—to borrow from the title of Donald J. Olsen's classic study—the "Growth of Victorian London" in developments around the shifting margins of the expanding city. The questions posed by this tradition remain vital: how much of what we think we know about Victorian London belongs to the city itself? Precisely what was that city, and where was it? How should its historical boundaries be drawn? What evidence provides the best measure of its changing character or the changing characters with whom it was identified? How much of its legacy survives? Both books under review address such questions through parallel if distinct approaches.

In Class, Culture and Suburban Anxieties in the Victorian Era, Lara Baker Whelan describes what might be termed the psychic geography of London suburbanization in a historically grounded literary survey that gives equal weight to the facts and fantasies of the city's late-nineteenth-century expansion. Todd Kuchta's Semi-Detached Empire examines the same phenomena over a longer period and with a wider lens, remapping suburbanization in relation to the dialogue of city and country and, especially, the history of British colonization, an imperial growth fundamentally (if paradoxically) linked with suburban growth at home.

The main outlines of Whelan's story are familiar: incomes rose, people moved, villages developed into something less picturesque. As the size and idea of London shifted, material places gave rise to hopes and fears. Escape from the inner city, once the cherished dream of a rising middle class, produced a social return of the repressed when undesirables joined the march of bricks and mortar out of town. Suburban dreams turned to nightmares; once-placid communities like Lambeth or Chelsea provided backdrops for the gothic drama of sensation novels. By the beginning of the twentieth century the urban exodus reversed as cultural elites like the Bloomsbury Group returned to inner London. Whelan's penultimate sentence sums this up provocatively: "Could Modernism have existed without the Victorian suburb and all it engendered?" (158).

As that sentence suggests, this is primarily a literary study, focusing on fiction by numerous well- and lesser-known writers, from Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins to Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and Charlotte Riddell. One of its strengths is to treat their work (and that of others) as suburb-specific. Rather than invoke such familiar categories as "Dickens on railway construction," Whelan considers works in relation to their locales, which in turn are placed on a detailed map of social mobility. Hence, Dombey and Son (1846-48) is read in relation to developments in and around Camden Town, episodes like Florence's encounter with Good Mrs. Brown in the context of Victorian anxieties about a migrating "residuum" that found its way into respectable suburbs (45). As Whelan's use of the term "anxieties" in her title suggests, these concerns are grounded less in demographic realities than cultural fantasies, generated (in a notable [End Page 745] example) by the "most titillating sketches" in Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor (1851-62) (49), among other sources. Whelan's emphasis on fiction reveals how such fantasies were formed and circulated; her detailed account of class measures the distance between fantasy and fact.

If Whelan is at her best evoking material environments, she is less successful in distinguishing such subgenres as suburban gothic, suburban mysteries (which are, she acknowledges, a category of the former), or (in the least convincing section) suburban sublime. The treatments of fictional plots and settings...


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