- City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London (review)
Even fifteen years after its initial publication, Judith Walkowitz’s City of Dreadful Delight still serves as a major benchmark in the historiography of Women’s Studies, mainly because, as Marianna Valverde conveys, it provides us with “a brilliant cultural analysis integrated with (rather than hovering over) . . . changes in class and gender relations” (Valverde 1994, 224). City of Dreadful Delight presents a sophisticated approach to the [End Page 214] history of culture and the meaning of female experience in late-Victorian England which not only impressed critics such as Ann Higginbotham and Kevin Mumford, but also “managed to make the transition from social history to cultural studies without losing the ‘social’ ” (Valverde 1994, 224). Walkowitz accomplishes this feat by drawing on the theoretical perspectives of Michel Foucault, Michel de Certeau, and Jeffery Weeks to illustrate how narratives of urban sexual danger and “practices of everyday life” redefined the power-infused landscape of late-Victorian Britain—a world where time-honored traditions were being challenged by public scandals, new spaces, and the reconceptualization of sexuality. While Walkowitz’s analysis is clearly limited in terms of time and place, its theoretical framework, as well as its clever use of non-traditional sources such as novels, billboard posters, magazine sketches, music-hall songs, and social reform treatises, deserves the attention of feminist scholars, especially those interested in discourses of power and spatial representations of gender and class.
According to Michel de Certeau (1984), certain practices of everyday life, such as walking, provide personal escape through voyeurism, observation, and the disruption of regimentation (91–110). Moreover, they allow the voyeur, or spectator, the opportunity to create his or her own experiences, which facilitate the formation of urban legends, personal representations, and individual meaning. Walkowitz applies Certeau’s notion of “walking” to her analysis of two very significant Victorian “spaces”: East and West London. She asserts that because of their social mobility, middle-class Victorian men could occupy both of these London spheres. As interlopers or urban explorers, bourgeois men were spectators with two identities who could describe both sides of the city: the “proper” middle-class life of West London and the working class “subculture” of East London. Moreover, they could also occupy both “Londons”: the social and political “utopia” of West London and the counter-site, or heterotopia, of East London, where the real world of “dreadful delight” and the virtual world of sexual fantasy co-existed (Foucault 1999, 239). The fact that this heterotopia was closed for most of bourgeois society, yet available for middle class men seeking pleasure and couples searching for a thrill, made it isolated yet penetrable (11). It fueled the “middle class fascination of crossing the class and gender divide, a fascination which showed a direct continuity between male heterosexual mores and [the sexual subculture of East London]” (Weeks 1981, 112). The everyday practice of walking between these two very different halves of the same city not only permitted bourgeois men to be both spectators and spectacle, but also served as a site of resistance against the surveillance and cultural hegemony of the modern disciplinary society.
As Walkowitz asserts, the Ripper murders, and the disciplinary actions that followed, destroyed this “walking space,” leaving in its place a [End Page 215] restrictive self-consciousness. Walking on the street and window-shopping were suddenly transformed from an assertion of bourgeois freedom, to socially problematic actions. Spaces, as well as experiences of everyday life, were violated by the hysteria of murder and the media-driven fear of sexual vice. Couples could no longer stroll the streets of East London, for the fear of being attacked or misidentified overwhelmed any sense of pleasure (218–219). Power and autonomy no longer rested in the hands of individuals, but rather in the knowledge-obsessed society that controlled their lives.
The Ripper murders also changed the climate of female representation and experience by increasing the tensions between...