- Dirt in Victorian Literature and Culture: Writing Materiality by Sabine Schülting
Sabine Schülting’s project in Dirt in Victorian Culture: Writing Materiality is to destabilize a simple opposition—made explicit in John Ruskin’s “Fiction—Fair and Foul,” [End Page 519] (1880) but widely assumed to be embedded in Victorian culture as a whole. This is the opposition between the beautiful and the morally desirable, on the one hand, and dirt, which signified ugly, decomposing matter, on the other. Upending this understanding, Schülting argues that the Victorians related to dirt in much more complex ways. They did, of course, find in dirt the means of perpetrating cultural and biological segregations. Equally, though, dirt drew them as it drew Charles Dickens with “the attraction of repulsion” (John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens [Dutton, 1927], 14). Moreover, it also produced sympathy and sexual attraction, while remaining the object of that quintessential nineteenth-century fantasy of recycling discarded material back into the economy. Schülting works with some recent ideas developed by historians, sociologists, and philosophers and with a wide (perhaps too wide) range of newspapers, visual material, sanitary committee reports, and novels to argue that the relationship between dirt and the Victorians was varied and often generative. In addition, Schülting’s book offers several interesting insights into the ways in which dirt deprived the poor of their individuality and about its role in reviving the idioms of the gothic and mid-Victorian print and visual culture. Despite these strengths, Schülting’s ideas and research seem to be spread too thinly across an unnecessarily large terrain. Schülting is not always able to maintain the same level of originality and scholarly depth even in her first four chapters, which work with the novels of Charles Kingsley, Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Henry James, Arthur Morrison, and George Moore, as well as with a whole range of non-fictional and visual material. When she moves, in her fifth chapter, to India and to E. M. Forster and Ahmed Ali, her argument becomes seriously flawed by the propensity to bring together historical developments that are not really comparable.
Schülting’s best arguments are worked through her second chapter. This chapter demonstrates the many ways in which metaphors of dirt and disease were deployed to transform the poor into a grotesque, undifferentiated mass—one that needed to be structurally separated from the distinctive, properly human individuals who constituted the community of respectable Victorians. Middle-class forms such as novels, newspapers, and sanitary committee reports often refused to differentiate between dirt, on the one hand, and people who were compelled by poverty to live in dirty surroundings, on the other. Thus, even a novelist as sympathetic to the poor as Dickens did not hesitate to deploy the metonymic extensions always available to the novelist to transform the poor, compelled to live in the filthy slums, into mere vermin who writhe in and out of crumbling tenements. And Punch found visual equivalents of the contamination in London’s drinking water in a set of grotesque images that resemble the dirty unwashed bodies of slum dwellers. Moreover, drawing on Susan Sontag’s well-known distinction between the cultural connotations of tuberculosis and cholera, Schülting shows that while tuberculosis was oriented toward individuating the patient, cholera tended to reduce victims into a filthy and undifferentiated mass—“the veritable fusion of flesh and trash” (56). The connection that Schülting makes between dirt, poverty, and the absence of interiority in representations of the poor uncovers an important and relatively unexplored strand within nineteenth-century culture.
But Schülting’s point of departure is not the revulsion with which Victorians responded to filth but rather “the surprising presence of dirt in Victorian urban writing” [End Page 520] (5). Indeed, Schülting is most interested in the generative aspects of dirt in Victorian culture: in its capacity to engender sympathy, sexual desire, and a whole alternative economy based on deodorizing, repairing, and recycling discarded refuse. Again, Schülting...