- Accident or Design: Writing the Victorian Metropolis by Paul Fyfe
"Towns," according to Dostoevsky's underground man, "can be either intentional or unintentional." The underground man speaks from St. Petersburg, which he calls "the most abstract and intentional city in the whole round world," but the question of how intention and its lack structure urban experience is also at the core of Paul Fyfe's book, which takes as its topic the Victorian metropolis, above all London but also the developing cities of the industrial north.2 Rather than intentional and unintentional, Fyfe's key terms are "accident" and "design," beginning from Henry James's 1888 statement that "on the banks of the Thames it is a tremendous chapter of accidents" (1). Fyfe adds nuance to James, drawing on Raymond Williams to propose that the Victorian city displays a "double condition" which is "the perplexing coincidence of urban randomness and design," and further that "accidents provide an explanatory framework for the paradoxes of urban modernity" (15). The analysis of urban accident, in various forms, is then the goal of the book's main chapters, each of which draws on literary and non-literary sources to explore topics such as the accident columns of Victorian newspapers, London street traffic, fire insurance and popular street literature. Dickens emerges most prominently in chapter 2, where Sketches by Boz serves as a lens to examine the chaotic early days of London's omnibuses, but also features alongside Anthony Trollope, William Aytoun and George Eliot in chapter 5, on the dangers and confusions of the railway.
The exhaustive range of Fyfe's research is evident from the Introduction, where he positions his work in relation to the substantial existing literature [End Page 271] on chance in the nineteenth century, which can be broadly understood as shifting from a "providential" (7) to a statistical or "probabilistic" (9) model, and in relation to historical and theoretical accounts of Victorian urban modernity from Georg Simmel to Lynda Nead and Miles Ogborn. What Fyfe adds to these stories is a sustained attention to the idea that "through metropolitan accident, the Victorians reimagined the formative possibilities of chance" (27), granting the city a privileged role as the mediator of new ideas about change and risk, and making it a place where accidents were by turns organized, compensated for (both financially and imaginatively), or simply wondered at.
Among the main agents of this urban mediation–and "remediation," defined as "how media transform at moments of significant technological change" (149)–are newspapers and street literature, covered in chapters 1 and 4 respectively. These chapters highlight several interesting features of the way accidents were presented to an urban public, such as the growing prevalence of the word "accident" in newspaper reporting up to the 1860s and 70s (36), and the role of the popular accident column in reformulating the newspaper as "an everyday court of enquiry" (61), where "the accidental combines the suspicion of design with the suspicion of chance" (64). Fyfe's interest in digital archives informs much of the book, and is addressed directly in chapter 4, which argues that the Victorian perception of cheap literature as an overwhelming flood, read by what Wilkie Collins and others called an "unknown public" (135), is mirrored in our own time by the internet, which enables scholars to access Victorian texts more easily and rapidly than at any time since their publication, linking us to Victorian culture "not only through what we can read but also how we encounter the materials in 'the endless reaches of the library of Babel'" (168). Fyfe has sympathy with the haphazard approach taken by many Victorians towards this unruly library, such as Collins's claim that the journals he discusses were "bought accidentally, just as they happened to catch my attention in the shop windows" (144); for Fyfe, such accidental reading is appropriate to the texts encountered. He shrewdly notes, however, that the accidental could also become a sign of inferiority, as in Margaret Oliphant's attack on the "unauthoritative...