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  • "They Towns and Suburbs":The Shape of Middle-Class Life in John Claudius Loudon's The Suburban Gardener
  • Sarah Bilston (bio)

It happens, in the progress of civilisation, and the changes that society is continually undergoing, that, at a certain stage, mankind arrive at a similar point to that from which they set out, only in a more improved and refined form; and as, in a rude state, they congregated together in encampments or in villages, for mutual protection and security, so, in a refined state, they congregate together in towns and suburbs, for business and refined enjoyment.

—John Claudius Loudon, The Suburban Gardener and Villa Companion (1838), 10.1

For many Victorians, suburbia seemed a physical manifestation of middle-class values. Suburban areas were, from the first, shaped to separate housing from spaces of commerce and industry. Judith Flanders notes that in the early Birmingham suburb of Edgbaston "the leases ... were clear: no retail premises were permitted, nor was professional work to be undertaken in these houses" (xxiii).2 Over time, the physical separation of home and work life reinforced the emerging ideology of the sanctified home, so that by the end of the century, "suburban streets laid out in rows of domestic housing, whether small working-class developments or more spacious villas with gardens, were manifestations of the traditional middle-class belief in home and family" (Hapgood 8).3

Yet the first generations of suburban observers did not necessarily regard the distinctive, newly terraced streets as shaped by and catering to an ideology of family seclusion.4 John Claudius Loudon is a notable example of a writer with a very different perspective on Suburban areas. Loudon has long been viewed as yet another advocate for reserved domesticity and the sanctified home, as a writer obsessed with maintaining both class and gender hierarchies through the concrete boundaries of walls and hedges.5 Yet the 1838 edition of The Suburban Gardener, Loudon's important early articulation of suburban living, is more complex, for it situates the family home in a landscape whose shape Loudon presents as a sign of modernity and advance. Loudon argues that whereas once people "congregated together in encampments or in villages, for mutual protection and security," the defensive circle of the English [End Page 144] village is no longer necessary; protection and security can take a back seat to the modern middle-class pursuits of business and pleasure (10). The straight rows of suburbia are thus, for Loudon, a vibrant manifestation of England's move away from its rural past. Moreover, the author repeatedly argues that the suburban landscape allows residents to connect with one another and thereby benefit from the opportunities of modernity. He celebrates the public communal spaces in suburban areas, the possibilities for forming friendships with neighbours, and the vistas of an industrial landscape just beyond the suburban periphery. Above all, Loudon presents the garden as a space shaped by both the demands and opportunities of modern life: he admires the walls surrounding gardens not just because they keep out unwelcome eyes, but also because they make the space more manageable for the evening gardener returned home from work. With walls in place, a brand-new spade, and Loudon's book in hand, a suburban gardener (either male or female) may enjoy the delights of self-directed enterprise as a contrast to professional life—not to mention an older agrarian existence, where land cultivation was about food production as opposed to aesthetics. Loudon's admiration for industry and advancement seems all the more striking when the 1838 edition of the text is laid beside The Villa Gardener (1850), the posthumously released version of The Suburban Gardener. As we shall see, this later work, edited by Loudon's wife, Jane, erases expressions of admiration for the industrial landscape and celebrations of suburban community. Paying attention to this deleted material indicates how suburbia's promise was revised in the light of shifting cultural attitudes to the home, the family, and the middle class.

The Rise of Suburbia and the Decline of the Rural

Loudon's responses to the country and the cities in the 1830s are best understood in the light of broad...


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pp. 144-159
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