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  • Rethinking Late-Victorian Slum Fiction: The Crowd and Imperialism at Home
  • Matthew K. McKean

By far the most compelling crowds in London’s late-Victorian streets, squares, and public parks were those that never actually materialized. As the state struggled after midcentury to maintain public order in the open spaces of the metropolis, London’s second generation of so-called slum novelists imagined a disturbing and destructive crowd in their fictional depictions of the urban terrain. Writers, such as George Gissing, Margaret Harkness, Arthur Morrison, and Walter Besant, routinely conceived of the city’s fictional East-End streets as overrun by crowds, which, like their real-life counterparts, threatened to absorb, extend into, if not swallow the rest of the city. For these writers, the crowd was a constant state and condition of the city; they conflated London’s order and spatial challenges with the condition of the fictional crowd and the extent to which it could be contained.

The crowd emerged at this time as a compelling set piece in slum fiction dramas. Examining its depiction reveals many of the submerged impulses in the novels that their critics have overlooked and that marked a transition from the prescriptive social fiction of the 1840s and 1850s—what Josephine Guy calls the “industrial” or “social-problem novels”—that took as its subject matter the large-scale problems associated with rapid industrialization. The goal was to alert readers to the conditions of the slums in hopes of kindling awareness, charity, and social reform.1 The second generation of slum novelists was similarly lauded for its realistic portrayal of slum environments. They were generally considered to have rediscovered the slums and revived the tradition of urban-pastoral writing to which London’s working classes owed a great debt of gratitude.2

The novels of the 1880s and 1890s, however, were not Dickensian homilies on degeneration or the need for social reform, though they often continue to be read this way. Rather they reflected deeper racial, [End Page 28] spatial, and aesthetic attitudes of late-nineteenth-century writers whose ambitions were artistic rather than philanthropic. Moreover, writers as politically diverse as Besant (a liberal reformer), Harkness (a socialist), Morrison and Gissing (idealists turned pessimistic determinists) resorted to the same sort of imperial tropes to describe the lives of the poor. Despite the divergent backgrounds, their thinking translated into a fictional crowd that confined and stereotyped London’s East Enders as a degraded civilization unbefitting the rights and privileges afforded the city’s affluent West Enders. Just as critics have read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as applying equally to the African interior as to the British metropolis, these novels may be read as adding to the historical, geographical, and literary understanding of the way late Victorians conceived urban space and the crowd.3

By describing urban spaces and working-class disorder through a racialized discourse of savagery, London’s second generation of slum novelists conformed to contemporary imperialist attitudes and concerns about incivility, political and spatial authority, and the self-control of the crowd. The pervasiveness of imperial ideology, in other words, produced in these otherwise socially and politically divergent writers a distaste for the poor and an inclination to sensationalize slum life in the interest not only of writing good fiction but of displacing the poor geographically and permanently. The crowd may have confounded its writers’ sensibilities, but the perspectives that infused the novels contributed, in turn, much more to the tradition of imperial thought and urban space at home and in the streets than has been previously assumed. These novelists approached writing above all as an aesthetic exercise, one that repeatedly figured the East End and its crowds through imperial tropes and that produced a spectrum of writing that has been for far too long linked to a philanthropic literary tradition.

Upon acceptance in 1880 of his first, most sensational slum novel, Workers in the Dawn, Gissing estimated that “the book is far from popular in character. Its circulation—if it attain to one—must be among the strictly intellectual classes,—such people, for instance, as read George Eliot.…”4 Although he lived in shabby lodgings on a meager income and...


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pp. 28-55
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Will Be Archived 2021
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