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  • Putting Matter in its Right Place: Dirt, Time and Regeneration in Mid-Victorian Britain
  • Tom Crook (bio)

In 1966, Mary Douglas published Purity and Danger, her classic study of rituals of pollution and cleanliness. The study, which spanned both primitive and modern societies, was underpinned by what she termed an ‘older definition’ of dirt as ‘matter out of place’.1 The universal application of this definition was thus linked to its implication of cultural relativity: namely, that dirt is whatever, within a given society, eludes or threatens order and system. Such an insight has informed a great deal of historical scholarship on the subject of dirt, including Victorian dirt. Dirt in fact is now a well-established part of Victorian historiography and has elicited an impressive body of interdisciplinary research.

Cultural historians in particular, drawing on a range of psychoanalytic, phenomenological and anthropological theories, have examined representations of Victorian dirt in parliamentary reports, social investigations and novels.2 A consistent feature of this literature is a concern to highlight the social and psychological dynamics of dirt and its profound instability as a discursive object. These dynamics have been traced along a number of lines, all of which turn upon its capacity to elicit highly divergent subjective reactions and act as an ambiguous signifier. Arguably, what emerges most strongly is the capacity of dirt to elude neat binary conceptualisations: a product of cultural system, dirt also constantly thwarts it. For example, although Victorian dirt, in accordance with codes of respectability, was regarded with disgust, it was also a protean source of fascination. The excluded object of dirt thus found its way back inside the respectable self, destabilising not only binary codings of desire and repulsion, but also the distinction between subject and object.

A recent article by Christopher Herbert on Victorian ideas of money represents the most pointed treatment of the symbolic agency of dirt.3 Here, Herbert analyses Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit (1855–57) to [End Page 200] reveal the various ways the text incorporates and plays on the symbolic equivalence, first theorised by Freud, of money and excrement. For Herbert, however, this manifests a still more unsettling equivalence: that of the sacred and the unclean, an equivalence central to primitive cultures where the two categories are brought together under the single designation of ‘taboo’. The idea that the two might be conflated was abhorrent to the Victorians, who, famously, sacralised cleanliness not dirtiness (‘Cleanliness is Next to Godliness’). Yet, as Herbert’s reading of Little Dorrit suggests, the sacred and the unclean could not be kept apart, symbolically fusing to destabilise various aspects of mid-Victorian sensibility. For instance, while puritan morality sanctioned the pursuit of money, lending it a sacred quality, money, like excrement, also functioned as a sign of all that was base, worldly and material.

The aim of this article is to contribute to this historiography by examining a range of mid-Victorian texts concerned with the governance of dirt and the attainment of a healthy social order. The heuristic thread is provided by an alternate, but complementary, problematic to that which informs existing scholarship: namely, the various temporalities and associated anxieties and aspirations which sociologists in particular associate with the onset of modernity and the making of ‘modern consciousness’. There is no space to discuss the complexities of such a large and diverse literature.4 A summary must suffice, and four aspects might be highlighted. First and foremost, there is the emergence of time as an historical force in itself. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, but greatly intensifying in the nineteenth, this involved a heightened awareness of both history and the possibilities of the future – in short, a consciousness of time as the foundational framework in which all life is embedded. The second aspect is the roughly coincident emergence of ‘clock-time’, which involved a more precise calibration of temporal units and, at the subjective level, an intensified experience of temporal regimentation.

The final two aspects comprise what might be described as the dual time consciousness of modernity. On the one hand, modernity involves a sensation of ‘disenchantment’, ‘alienation’ and ‘fragmentation’, which generates feelings of pessimism and disempowerment. The roots of this particular facet...


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pp. 200-222
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2009
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