- Dickens, Reynolds, and Mayhew on Wellington Street. The Print Culture of a Victorian Street by Mary L. Shannon
I am of the streets, streety,” confides George Augustus Sala in “Down Whitechapel Way,” rejoicing in his journalistic rather than poetic streak; “I love to take long walks, not only down Fleet Street, but up and down all other streets, alleys, and lanes” (Household Words, November 1851, 126).1 Most successful journalists, one might surmise, are and have been urban creatures, whether strolling with Benjamin’s flâneur on the boulevards of the era of high capitalism, or making forays over the border into the slums and ghettoes of “the poor man’s country,” in Thackeray’s cosmopolitan phrasing. The metaphorical and metonymic connections between streets and the literature of the nineteenth century have been articulated with great insight and skill by critics in the years since Walter Bagehot first likened London to a newspaper, and Dickens to its special correspondent for posterity.2 But journalists need editors, and editors cannot always be patrolling the streets; editors need offices to arrive at, work and sleep in, depart from, both early and late, yet much less attention has been paid to these connections by commentators, whether such offices [End Page 71] are considered conceptually, as cultural hubs, or concretely, as historical buildings of bricks, mortar, and glass.
This oversight now stands corrected by Mary L. Shannon’s pioneering cultural history of London’s Wellington Street over the course of a particular decade (1843–53) during which, her research reveals, more than twenty newspaper and periodical editors had their offices on the three sections of this thoroughfare, which leads south from Covent Garden towards The Strand and Fleet Street. These included the offices of The Morning Post, The Examiner and The Spectator, but Shannon is particularly interested in the offices of journalists and editors of magazines and miscellanies, mainly Charles Dickens, G. W. M. Reynolds, and Henry Mayhew. Indeed the central premise – perhaps one should say, premises – of this fascinating interdisciplinary study is that “Dickens, Reynolds, and Mayhew all had offices on the same London street” (3) at roughly the same period. This has not been observed before; given the marked political and cultural differences between Dickens and Reynolds in their editorial manifestations, and the clear blue water each sought to put between their respective publications, it is a striking revelation that they were in fact rubbing shoulders on the same side of the river, and perhaps on a daily basis.
Starting here, Shannon’s exemplary research takes her on a series of errands in order to reconstruct the working practices of Wellington Street in the period under scrutiny: examining metropolitan and borough archives, city guide books, directories, advertisements, maps and playbills, as well as an admirable range of types and genres of literary production. The result could have been labyrinthine and chaotic: a welter of incidental and tangential facts with little to organize them, but instead the book is underpinned by sensibly applied theoretical insights from what, in the social sciences, might be called the emergent field of “network studies,” and is skilfully, indeed entertainingly, structured around a reconstruction of the street during a diurnal cycle: a respectful nod to Sala’s paradigmatic Twice Round the Clock; or The Hours of the Day and Night in London (1859).3
Thus, the first chapter (“Morning: ‘The Smallness of the World’ ”) tackles the built environment of Wellington Street and its morning work routines as Dickens and other editors knew them – all of whom, Shannon plausibly argues, would be “on the lookout for their next material [...] the very types of people who would be conscious of the landscape through which they moved” (30). The second chapter moves us into the post meridian, a phase of the day when – as Dickens, writing as “Boz,” had noted, all classes of citizen were abroad on the streets, “gay and shabby, rich and poor, idle and industrious” (cited p. 74) – and focuses attention on...