- Forging an English Bohemia
Misapprehensions that the Victorian period was quaint may arise through erroneous contrasts with our own time. We think of the twenty-first century as an age of rapid global communication, yet in the 1890s a telegraph could travel from Manchester in the north of England to the west coast of Canada then back to Manchester in ninety seconds (Freeman 77–78). That may be quicker than e-mails can travel on a dial-up connection or just as speedy as a text message can be sent and returned, even when cell-phone towers are well-placed. The rapid circulation of same-day news brought an unprecedented level of cohesion within the empire by the mid-Victorian period. In 1854, the transmission of William Russell’s Crimean dispatches to the London Times transformed Britons from patriotic nationalists into anxious war skeptics, demoralized by news of battles commanded by aging, out-of-touch generals, hospitals clogged with diseased (not merely wounded) soldiers, [End Page 287] and near-starvation conditions suffered during an unanticipated frigid winter campaign. When the debacle was brought home by telegraph, the world seemed to shrink. Even Tennyson’s galloping lines “Into the valley of the shadow of death / Rode the six hundred,” published in The Examiner six weeks after the charge of the Light Brigade, memorialized the seeming immediacy of the events and ubiquity of their impact: “When can their glory fade? / O the wild charge they made! / All the world wondered.” Flows of information as well as peoples contributed to a growing sense of access, immediacy, and contact. Entertainment was integral to this effect. Whether through the visits of cricketers, the exhibition of natives from Cape province, or melodramas depicting the Victoria gold rush, the imperial periphery was brought to London, making it the quintessential contact zone. Imperialism was both economic and governmental, but it was also reinforced through the cheap daily press, genteel exhibition halls, and thriving theatres of the West End.
Jacky Bratton calls the West End “a portal on to a world of pleasure” (5), replete with the finest in shopping, especially for those in search of the luxury trades, and retreats for the most debauched sensualists and inveterate gamblers, as well as performance venues for the newly emergent middle classes. Others have chronicled the process of making the West End1—building infrastructure, developing the interdependent service industries, and gradually sharpening incipient boundaries around St. James’s plush townhouses in the west, the shopping paradise of Oxford Street in the north, journalists’ offices and law courts in the east, and the traffic-clogged Strand along the southern periphery—but Bratton takes it up anew as a topic in theatre history. The consolidation of the West End between 1840 and 1870 was commensurate with the expansion of telegraphic networks, the building and buttressing of national and metropolitan rail networks, and the emergence of a professional class of artists and managers who kept the pump primed with entertainments. This, she argues, in tandem with the serialization of realist novels, shaped Victorian expectations of the scope of British dominion over self and other, gentility and baser instincts, masculinity and femininity.
For Nicholas Freeman, the West End is where Oscar Wilde’s dramas—and trials—played out. Whereas Bratton geographically maps London, first from the perspective of a pleasure-seeking woman then as a journalist, Freeman affectively maps social preoccupations from September 1894 to December 1895, contrasting the excruciating privations of those suffering from a severe winter, influenza, and diphtheria outbreaks with the exhilarating self-destructive spree that marked Wilde’s last months...