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Reviewed by:
  • Subterranean Cities: The World Beneath Paris and London, 1800–1945
  • Andrew Lees
Subterranean Cities: The World Beneath Paris and London, 1800–1945. By David L. Pike ( Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2005. xviii plus 355 pp. $65.00).

Advertised on its back cover under the headings "History/Europe" and "Cultural Studies," this volume can best be described for social historians as an ambitious, wide-ranging, and spirited example of mainly literary analysis that casts a sometimes bright but also somewhat uneven light on the subjects announced in its title. Examining urban history both from on high, via representations by leading writers (among a multitude of other observers) and from below (in the sense that the perspectives he analyzes overwhelmingly focus on settings and experiences [End Page 760] beneath street level), Pike has produced a stimulating and challenging book. It takes a prominent place in what has become, during the past few decades, a substantial corpus of writing about ways in which urban life has been refracted through the lenses of contemporary witnesses. In comparison, however, with earlier works, such as ones by Raymond Williams and Burton Pike,1 this one is likely to prove rather taxing for historians who are unaccustomed to reading literary criticism, and even if one takes it as a given that the author is doing cultural rather than social history it leaves major questions unclearly answered.

Zeroing in on what were incontestably the two most significant cities in nine- teenth-century Europe (with populations around 1870 of nearly 3.9 and 1.9 million inhabitants, London and Paris greatly exceeded Vienna and Berlin, each with a population of only a little over 800,000), Pike examines the British and the French capitals as places whose images were deeply marked, in the eyes of many onlookers, by what lay under their surfaces. Three types of spaces claim pride (or shame!) of place in Pike's account: underground transit systems; burial places, particularly catacombs; and sewers. But although each of the first three chapters ostensibly focuses in turn on images of one of these three sorts of areas, along the way Pike branches out in various directions. He thus extends his analysis of burial places to include depictions of mines, despite the fact that they were located outside cities. In the chapter that focuses mainly on sewers, he also dwells on prostitution, the justifications for this move being that public health reformers such as A. J. Parent Duchâtelet sought to combat it as well as fecal pollution and that prostitutes' bodies were sometimes described as "seminal drains." In addition, toward the end of the book, he surveys renderings of trench life in war-time.

Concentrating on the nineteenth century but also considering documents from the quite recent past as well as from the first half of the twentieth century, Pike casts his own gaze primarily on literary works. He treats not only such well-known classics as Victor Hugo's Les misérables and George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier but also a host of less familiar writings, among them books with titles such as The Wild Boys of London, or the Children of the Night (1866) or Marie: A Story of the Morgues and Catacombs of Paris (1893). In addition, Pike makes extensive use of visual images, providing 125 illustrations. Many are engravings from nineteenth-century publications such as The Illustrated London News and Le journal illustré, both of which depicted a wide assortment of situations, whereas others come from publications with a more specific focus, such as Emile Gérard's 1908 book Paris Souterrain. Most were ostensibly descriptive, but some, among them designs by Le Corbusier, indicate hopes and plans for the future. Then too there are numerous still shots from films, a fair number of which originated elsewhere than in Britain or France (e.g., the German "Metropolis" and the1995 film made in Yugoslavia, "Underground.").

Although Pike refers to tensions between fear and hope, which reflected competing emphases on disorder and order and on chaos and control, the book as a whole largely strengthens one's sense of the first element in each of these polarities. The view...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-1897
Print ISSN
0022-4529
Pages
pp. 760-762
Launched on MUSE
2007-04-05
Open Access
No
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