- The Promise of the Suburbs: A Victorian History in Literature and Culture by Sarah Bilston
by Sarah Bilston; pp. 296.
Yale UP, 2019. $50.77 cloth.
As sarah Bilston points out, nineteenth-century Britain’s “story of ‘urbanization’ is in many ways one of suburbanization,” with large numbers of people moving to the suburbs and with villages and towns becoming the suburbs of nearby cities—and yet, scholarship on Victorian Britain has tended to overlook the suburb in favour of the metropolis (2). Prevailing assumptions about Victorian suburbs seem to have come primarily from the fiction of late nineteenth-century male writers such as George Gissing, Arthur Conan Doyle, and H.G. Wells; for such writers, the suburbs are dull, uniform, and stifling, places to be avoided rather than sought out. In The Promise of the Suburbs, Bilston returns to earlier nineteenth-century explorations of the suburbs and attends to the experiences of female writers. In doing so, she reveals a compelling counter-narrative in which the suburbs are “not so much dull and vulgar as socially complex, emotionally challenging, [and] aesthetically stimulating” (17). Moreover, Bilston suggests that derisive representations of suburbia speak more to an anxiety over social change and class mobility than to a lived reality. For inhabitants, suburbia was often a place of “possibility, community, agency, and choice” (13).
The book’s argument, separated into seven chapters, proceeds chronologically and varies its approach: while some chapters are dedicated to the work of a single author, others explore a larger trend across multiple authors. Similarly, while some chapters explore literary representations of the suburbs, other chapters focus on the suburbs in non-fiction. This variety results in a wide-ranging, impressive analysis of how nineteenth-century writers [End Page 290] both engaged with stereotypes about the suburbs and participated in new ways of conceptualizing this space.
In chapter 1, Bilston revises previous assumptions about John Claudius Loudon, the author of Suburban Gardener (1838); while scholars often point to his discussion of hedgerows and walls as advocating privacy and class demarcations, Bilston suggests that Loudon celebrated suburbia’s “communal recreation spaces” (28) and valued them as a “space of connectedness” (29). The suburban garden in Loudon’s text becomes, Bilston argues, a space in which citizens can “participate in and benefit from modernity” (27).
Chapter 2, which chronicles the development of suburban stereotypes and their deployment in fiction from the 1820s to 1850s, explores how the image of suburbia as architecturally dull and controlled by women coalesces in texts by Edward Bulwer-Lytton and George Augustus Sala. While the chapter effectively demonstrates that this negative view of suburbia—one that previous scholars associated with late nineteenth-century writers—had actually developed in the first half of the century, it also functions as an important background for the more nuanced and even celebratory depictions of suburbia that Bilston will introduce in later chapters.
Bilston analyzes fiction from the 1850s to 1870s in chapter 3, and it is in this chapter that one of the book’s aims—to nuance our understanding of the Victorian suburbs through a focus on women’s writing—takes shape. Novels about a male protagonist, such as Wilkie Collins’s Basil (1852), often present suburbia as a threatening and problematic space, one in which the “hero stumbles by accident, is ensnared by a woman, and must find his way out” (55). In contrast, Bilston shows how novels about female protagonists, such as Emily Eden’s The Semi-Detached House (1859) and Berth Buxton’s Great Grenfell Gardens (1879), suggest that the suburbs offer women opportunities for cross-class friendships and supportive social networks.
Chapter 4, on women’s advice manuals about interior decorating, further reinforces what women stood to gain from the suburbs. While writers such as John Ruskin decried the lack of originality in suburban architecture, female writers of domestic design manuals saw the uniformity of these homes as creating a “shared female experience” and offered women tips on how to beautify and manage the limitations of their home (85). The aesthetic principles espoused in these...