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  • Rethinking the Suburbs
  • Nicholas Daly
Sarah Bilston. The Promise of the Suburbs: A Victorian History in Literature and Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019. viii + 282 pp. 20 Black and White Illustrations. $40.00

HAVING LONG SHAKEN OFF their earlier reputation as places of criminal resort, over the nineteenth century the suburbs became the epitome of middle-class respectability, for whom they offered the prospect of rus in urbe on a budget. In their literary incarnations they are often seen to be deadly dull, and readers of ELT may be surprised at the idea of the suburbs as a place of promise. Familiar with the bleak visions of red-rust suburbia that unfold in the novels of E. M. Forster and H. G. Wells, or the Pooter-filled world evoked by George and Weedon Grossmith, we usually travel to the Victorian and Edwardian suburbs with low expectations. The city is a place of melodramatic contrasts, and the country may be a pastoral retreat, but what does suburbia have to offer other than homogeneity and competitive materialism? Sarah Bilston tells a different story about the land of the commuter in this engaging study. Foregrounding the work of women writers, and expanding [End Page 459] her range of sources to include, for instance, books on interior decorating and gardening, she convincingly shows that not only were there several competing Victorian visions of what the suburbs meant, but that for women in particular these semi-detached and terraced surroundings offered possibilities of self-transformation, community, and professionalism.

The Promise of the Suburbs shows that many of the negative associations of middle-class suburbia are already present in the fiction of the earlier part of the nineteenth century. In the novels of the aristocratic Bulwer-Lytton, for instance, it is place of ensnaring femininity, an image later reworked by Wilkie Collins in his proto-sensation novel, Basil (1852). But Bilston also points out that there were more sympathetic accounts available in now less familiar novels such as Emily Eden's best-selling The Semi-Detached House (1859), and Bertha Buxton's Great Grenfell Gardens (1879). In the latter novel suburbia is a land of promise for those who learn to negotiate it properly, carefully sifting its diverse inhabitants to form the right relationships. Such stories formed as much as described an imaginative community of suburbanites, offering lessons for middle-class readers who were trying to find their way in a new social landscape.

Elsewhere the author steers us away from fiction to consider the rich textual resources of handbooks of interior decoration, and gardening manuals, such works as Rhoda and Agnes Garrett's Suggestions for House Decoration in Painting, Woodwork and Furniture (1876); the prolific Jane Ellen Panton's From Kitchen to Garret: Hints for Young Householders (1887) and Suburban Residences and How to Circumvent Them (1896); and Alice Dew-Smith's Confidences of an Amateur Gardener (1897). These operated as conduct books of sorts for suburban women, as well as offering useful tips on how to render your piano invisible, or how to turn a sofa into a play area for children. More significantly, they held out possibilities not only of Ruskinian social regeneration through the home, but of professional activity rooted in women's assumed control of the domestic sphere, including the garden. Volume after volume suggest that "suburban women are the laborers who will rescue the nation, that the suburban home is the crucible of change." And they indicated that interior decoration and architecture, for example, could be female professions. Female "house decorators" appear in significant numbers by the end of the century, though the professional gatekeepers of architecture proved less welcoming. [End Page 460]

The last two chapters provide detailed studies of the complex pictures of suburban life that appear in the work of three women: the queen of the circulating library, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and two rival interpreters of late-Victorian suburbia, Jane Ellen Panton and Julia Frankau. The Soho-born Braddon, editor of the grandly titled but moderately priced Belgravia, emerges here as someone whose attitudes to suburbia are conflicted. She puts her later experience of life in Richmond and (particularly) Camberwell to use in many novels...


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pp. 459-462
Launched on MUSE
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Ceased Publication
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