- The Feel of the City: Experiences of Urban Transformation by Nicolas Kenny
Nicolas Kenny’s study of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Montreal and Brussels offers an intersecting history of the body, modernity, and urban spaces. The book’s title is an effective play on words: “feel of the city” refers to the book’s attention to the sensory responses of Montrealers and Bruxellois, whose everyday lives, Kenny argues, were always in tension with the environments they encountered at home, at work, and on the streets. “Feel of the city” also refers to the empathy that Kenny is cultivating among his readers: through evocative language and images, we are allowed to “see” the industrializing cityscapes of Montreal and Brussels and to imagine their cacophony of sounds, their often overwhelming stew of odours, and the textured surfaces (wood, [End Page 427] stone, brick, pavement) featured on their streets. Indeed, while sensitive to the limits of his archive—dominated by the voices and perspectives of travellers, bureaucrats, politicians, and professionals—Kenny goes to great lengths to cultivate in the reader not only a historical understanding of the emergence of liberal governmentalities in these two modern, industrializing cities but also an identification with those of the working classes whose bodies, in his words, “resisted” all the environmental, cultural, and political pressures exerted on them.
He does all this in a book of five carefully arranged, discrete but connected chapters. The first compares, in broad strokes, the urban histories of Montreal and Brussels and is careful to delineate the differences between them but also to underline their structural similarities within a global network of cities. The second chapter focuses on popular and influential cultural representations of both cities in the period, and it is here that the reader is given much insight into how cityscapes were discursively framed by contemporaries, both visually and textually. The third chapter is arguably the most affecting both historiographically and as a reading experience; it focuses on the regulatory pressures and everyday experiences of life in and around the factories and mills of Montreal and Brussels. The fourth chapter follows workers home, much as the social and moral reformers did, and offers another affecting, if historiographically more familiar study of domestic space, with a focus on bathrooms and bedrooms. The fifth chapter turns its attention to the streets and to the circulation and mobilities of everyday life in these cities, including some of the pleasures and dangers associated with them. The introduction and conclusion situate the book in the literatures associated with fin-de-siècle modernity; Kenny argues there and throughout the book that historical investigations like his can reinvigorate the theoretical and conceptual baggage currently attached to it.
This is a book that both experienced and less experienced readers will savour, for it can be read in a number of different registers. This is a reflection of Kenny’s ability to evoke a sense of time and place, and to find a nice balance between post-humanist methodological sophistication and a Clifford Geertz-like use of “thick description” in telling its stories. Yet more experienced readers will be a little frustrated, at times, by Kenny’s failure to engage more fully with scholars who have tackled similar subject matter. Canadian historians, for example, will be surprised by how little Kenny engages with Keith Walden’s Becoming Modern in Toronto: The Industrial Exhibition and the Shaping of a Late Victorian Culture or Marianna Valverde’s The Age of Light, Soap, and Water: Moral Reform in English Canada, 1885–1925. Each of these, plus associated other studies on urban modernities and the era of social reform, would have enriched chapters four (on the home) and five (on the streets), especially. There is also a burgeoning literature on the body in Canadian historiography that [End Page 428] hovers on the historiographical edges but that also might have been more fully integrated.
These criticisms are hardly a reason to ignore this effective and affecting book. It invites the reader to think with it, to become invested...