- The Demographic Imagination and the Nineteenth-Century City: Paris, London, New Yorkby Nicholas Daly, and: By Accident or Design: Writing the Victorian Metropolisby Paul Fyfe
The city looms large in nineteenth-century studies, and understandably so, whether in Walter Benjamin's reflections on modernity as shock experience, Raymond Williams's analyses of industrial transformation and class struggle, Judith Walkowitz's and Elizabeth Wilson's considerations of gender and sexuality in urban space, or numerous accounts of the metropolis as center of empire and of regimes of surveillance, policing, and sanitation. Paul Fyfe's By Accident or Design: Writing the Victorian Metropolisand Nicholas Daly's The Demographic Imagination and the Nineteenth-Century City: Paris, London, New Yorkcontribute to this vast body of scholarship on urbanism. Their studies of probability and demography, respectively, also build on an emerging critical interest in the statistical modes of thought that shaped Victorian literary genres as well as social structures.
By Accident or Designapproaches the metropolis as a hub of "probability thinking" (4). Taking up lines of inquiry familiar to readers of Ian Hacking's The Taming of Chance(1990), which showed how probability gained authority when chance bested determinism, Fyfe finds "the interpretive moment of chance" in accidents (24). Defining accident as an unmotivated occurrence that demands causal explanation, he reads it as creating a standoff between—and at times a dialectical synthesis of—chance and design. In making this standoff characteristic of the city and exploring how Victorian writers imagined accident's role in urban development, Fyfe's book extends Williams's claim that the meaning of the metropolis surfaces in the conjunction of perceived randomness and underlying system. The five chapters focus on various "domains of metropolitan accident," paired with representational forms that mediated them (27). These include accident reporting in newspapers, traffic accidents in Charles Dickens's Sketches by Boz(1833–36), factory fires in industrial fiction and in insurance discourse, street literature and the ostensibly chance-driven character of the mass print market, and rail casualties in the novels of Dickens and Anthony Trollope. Fyfe proposes that the concept of accident shaped new genres attuned to urbanism's contradictions, and that it endowed those genres, paradoxically, with purpose.
The introduction's most promising claim is that accidents might reframe major Victorian forms from the newspaper to the realist novel. This lays some ground for [End Page 351]debate, especially if one recalls Georg Lukács's contention that realism thrives on chance but must at all costs eschew mere accident, or if one compares Jesse Molesworth's analysis of realism's surprisingly fraught engagement with probability in Chance and the Eighteenth-Century Novel: Realism, Probability, Magic(2010). While Fyfe mostly skirts such debate, his focus on accident holds interpretive possibility—in chapter 1, for instance, which suggests that Dickens's journalistic sketches gain what Edgar Allan Poe called their "unity of effect" by suspending causality; or in chapter 3, which shows Elizabeth Gaskell adjusting fiction to the work of risk assessment; or in the following chapter on street literature, which finds Victorian critics making the perceived randomness of the popular literary market into the only method of surveying it (97). These readings are suggestive, if a bit fixedly topical, and the chapters raise interesting questions: why does the cause of the mill fire in Mary Barton(1848) go uninvestigated? Why are train accidents so overrepresented in discussions of rail travel? Its answers reveal that representations of accident had a curious capacity to reassure and remediate.
There are places, though, where the relation between form and the instrumentalization of chance could be more clearly conceptualized. The central category of accident is not always distinguished from that of chance, nor chance, in its calculable and probabilistic sense, from the purely random. So too is there a tendency...